Baby orangutan gets help from his sister
Fleece jackets, piles of hay, a fuzzy stuffed animal sloth and a lot of fruit were on Bobbi Gordon's shopping list. She had become a surrogate mother to a big-eyed, spikey-haired little boy.
A handful of animal keepers at Salt Lake City's Hogle Zoo found themselves with a tiny red-headed charge when Eve, a Bornean orangutan, died a few weeks after giving birth.
Now 5 months old, the 14-inch, 11-pound Tuah is starting to crawl. Tuah was recently revealed to the public. Some wore "I met Tuah" buttons. They lined up around the ape building. They wanted to catch their first glimpse.
Gordon is one of several primate handlers. Together the handlers provided round-the-clock care for the infant. They were forced to improvise along the way.
"We lived like an orangutan," Gordon said. "It was exhausting."
Orangutans spend most of their time in trees. A baby orangutan instinctively clings to his mother's fur. This happens while the mother builds nests and scavenges for food. Tuah couldn't be swaddled and put in a crib like a human baby. He needed to hang onto someone. That even included when he slept.
A zoo employee used specialized sewing machines and old fleece jackets to make a vest. It had strips that simulate an orangutan's fur. The animal keepers took turns wearing the vest. They crawled in the hay. Meanwhile, Tuah held tight to their chests. He was developing his muscle strength.
However, Tuah can't cling to humans forever. That's where his sister, Acara, comes in.
After Tuah's birth, zookeepers began training Acara on maternal duties. Acara will turn 10 next month. She is an eager-to-please orangutan. She enjoys learning, Gordon said.
"Gorillas are a whole other different story. But orangutans are very easy," Gordon said with a laugh. She called the species "insanely intelligent."
The first step was to teach Acara to be gentle with the infant.
"She was young and spunky. So that was our biggest worry, that she wouldn't know what was too rough," said Gordon.
They plied Acara with rewards. The more complicated the task, the higher-value the treat. Those included everyday fruit to her favorite grapes and pomegranates to the foods she only gets on special occasions. She loves jello, granola, graham crackers, applesauce and peanuts.
When Acara had mastered being gentle, zookeepers gave her a stuffed animal. The idea was to teach her how to pick the baby up, hold it and flip it over. The two were introduced when Tuah was 3 months old. For the last month, they have lived together full time, Gordon said.
Acara has adjusted to child-rearing. Now she will retrieve Tuah for animal keepers and carry him between exhibits. She also helps Tuah navigate the ropes. She even stops him from tripping on toys.
At his first public session, Tuah spent a lot of time holding onto the ropes. He occasionally wandered up to the glass, giving visitors outside the enclosure an up close glance.
He stayed awake and fought off his nap until about 3:30.
Tuah's father was Eli, an orangutan who became famous for correctly predicting the Super Bowl winner seven years in a row. Eli died of cancer in September. Officials hope Tuah inherited his ability.
"Tuah's going to try it next year," Gordon said.
Critical thinking challenge: Why were animal keepers forced to improvise Tuah's care?