From Monkey Business to Baby Love

This is a cool story about love and marriage of a different sort. The story is too long to post, but here are a couple of key segments that help to explain it.

“Their courtship had an awkward start. She was aloof. He was frustrated. He lunged at her. She backed away. But even in wildlife, there are second chances. A few weeks later, she threw herself at him. He touched her gently.

In the confines of a private outdoor enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo, Minyak and Kalim became the dream couple — two pure Bornean orangutans. They were spotted one day caressing and grooming each other for hours.

“It was a pure love fest,” said animal keeper Megan Fox.

For a week last June, they mated every day.

Their coupling would produce one of the zoo’s new spring additions and offer testament to the physical prowess of the once sickly and depressed male, Min- yak, and the nurturing skills of the unproven Kalim, the female. Long before the birth, zookeepers had to play the roles of matchmaker, therapist and trainer.”

and

“After their mating last June, keepers began their vigil for signs of pregnancy, watching Kalim as obsessively as tabloid editors scrutinize photos of Demi Moore for evidence of the same. Was she or wasn’t she?

Zoo staffers tracked Kalim’s menstrual cycles. They bought home pregnancy tests and dipped the sticks in Kalim’s urine. They never got a positive result.

Then, slowly, Kalim started to show physical changes. She stopped menstruating. Still, Kalim’s handlers were nervous about making a public statement.

“We actually thought she was pregnant a long time before we actually admitted that she was,” Jennie McNary, the zoo’s curator of mammals, said with a laugh. “We didn’t want to blow it.”

An ultrasound, performed through the mesh siding of Kalim’s exhibit when she was six months along, revealed that she was carrying a live baby. But preparations for a birth were underway long before that. Zookeepers calculated a rough due date, Feb. 13.

First-time mothers, particularly those raised in captivity, are often clueless with their newborns. Deprived of role models in the wild, and sometimes hand-reared by zoo staff, they often ignore their babies, carry them upside down or injure them. Kalim, raised by zoo staff, was seen as an at-risk mother.

So after confirming the pregnancy, mammal curator McNary decided the zoo had to teach mothering to Kalim. Animal keeper Megan Fox, Kalim’s primary teacher, started by putting a furry brown stuffed orangutan from the zoo gift shop in Kalim’s enclosure.

“It’s just natural for them to pick something like that up,” Fox said.

When Kalim picked up the stuffed toy, she was rewarded with a snack. “Once she knew that the whole training thing was based on the stuffed animal, it was easy for her,” she said.

Eager to please, Kalim would try to give the toy animal to her keeper. “They like trading for stuff. I had to be careful not to reward her for trying to stuff the baby through the mesh,” Fox said.

When Kalim manhandled the toy, Fox walked away from her. “I wasn’t going to reward her for pulling an arm off.” Keepers ended up going through four stuffed toys over the course of Kalim’s training.

For a while, Kalim carried the toy upside down and Fox would say “over” until the orangutan learned to turn it right side up. “They’re so smart. You don’t have to do a lot of steps generally to help them understand behaviors,” she said.

Then Fox trained her to bring the toy to the mesh of her enclosure — with the toy’s face pointed outward. Fox wanted her to be comfortable keeping the “baby” at the mesh for a bottle of milk in case Kalim wasn’t nursing well.

Zookeepers preferred that Kalim nurse the baby, so they trained the ape to put the toy to her nipple. “That’s another big thing that first-time moms can have problems with, learning how to put an infant on their chest,” Fox said. “They may be carrying it and doing all these other wonderful things, but they’re just not nursing it.”

That took the longest. Every time Kalim moved the toy closer to her chest, Fox would reward her. It was slow going, and with the pregnancy advancing, the keepers decided on another approach.

Fox trained Kalim to put the stuffed toy wherever she pointed a stick. Once Kalim learned that behavior, Fox started moving the stick to Kalim’s nipple. Eventually, Fox would say “nurse” and Kalim would put the toy at her nipple.

The training took almost six months.”

The whole story is just very cool and very interesting.

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