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Going Ape Over Zoo Babies

Sure, their younger residents are oh-socute, and people love to see animals. But zoos now play another, more vital role: PRESERVATION and propagation of endangered species.

photos by jameson weston/courtesy of hogle zoo


s I watched them play, it was hard to imagine that Eve had ever rejected her firstborn, Acara, now a handsome young girl of two. When Eve scooped her up outside the door of their home and gave her a piggyback ride to the top of the hill, it looked as though mother and daughter had never been apart. But it was not always so. Eve was in her prime when she met Eli, recently arrived in Salt Lake City from Topeka, Kansas. They got on well, and, as things happen, Eve found herself pregnant for the first time. But her labor did not go well, and the doctors delivered the baby by Caesarean section in May 2005. The newborn was called Acara, which means “Event” in Malay, the language of Indonesia and Malaysia—her parents’ original homeland, and that of all orangutans. The birth, however, was apparently not such a special event for Eve. When caretakers from the Great Apes pavilion at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo brought the newborn to meet her recuperating mother the next morning, Eve would have nothing to do with her. Over the next few days, the situation did not improve. Soon, a corps of more than 30 volunteers—keepers, docents, even administrative staff—began caring for the baby 24 hours a day. It was a challenging undertaking. The zookeepers decided that Acara was to be raised like an orangutan, not a human, which meant she’d live in the orangutan environment, hear the chatter of her parents and smell their smells. Not only would her surrogate mothers

By Roger Toll have to care for her all day and night in the confines of the enclosure, but they’d have to resist the urge to cradle her or coo endearments. And they’d have to wear a long vest of stringy orang-like hair for Acara to hold onto as she slept, just as she would have clung to her mother’s hair. After nine months of faithful, constant, often onerous attention to Acara, caregivers witnessed the critical moment when an increasingly watchful Eve finally approached her offspring on her own and touched her with an open hand. Over the next few weeks, Eve began playing more with Acara, carrying her about, sleeping with her and sharing her food. The two became inseparable. “Mother apes will sometimes reject a newborn, but it’s either for just a few days or forever,” says Kimberly Davidson, curator of the Hogle Zoo ( “The fact that Eve accepted the baby back after nine months of mainly disinterest and rejection represents a milestone in orangutan behavior. Now they’re together all the time.” Surrogate parenting by humans and selective breeding, as with Eve and Eli, are just two of the many ways that zoos are acting as “lifeboats ” for the preservation of fragile species. “While conservationists are struggling mightily to preserve the natural, wild habitat of threatened species, zoos are . . . ensuring the long-term surviv-

Surrogate parenting by humans and selective breeding are just two of the many ways that zoos are acting as “lifeboats” for the preservation of fragile species.

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: companions ability of these populations,” says Craig Dinsmore, executive director of the Hogle Zoo and a board member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “If zoos don’t protect them through highly controlled breeding programs, no one else will.” From a list of approximately 40,000 threatened species, one in four mammals now faces extinction, as well as one-third of amphibians and one in eight birds. What to do? Species Survival Plans—more commonly known as SSPs—lie at the heart of a strategy to maintain and breed endangered species in captivity throughout the United States in hopes of staving off extinction. With guidance from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, SSP committees composed of representatives from member zoos meet yearly to determine ideal population numbers and breeding strategies. Among Hogle Zoo’s approximately 200 species, more than 30 fall under Species Survival Plans, including Amur tigers, African elephants, Siamese crocodiles, golden lion tamarins, Madagascar radiated tortoises and lowland gorillas. When any of them are ready to breed, the SSP committee searches a database of all possible mates and selects one whose genetic map best complements the animal’s. Eli was sent to the Hogle Zoo from the Topeka Zoo when the orangutan SSP committee recommended him as a breeding partner for Eve. Eli will remain at Hogle Zoo until the SSP determines where he might go next to do the most good. Exiled from much of their native rainforest territory in Sumatra and Borneo due to logging and land clearance, orangutans are among the most endangered primates, with a population numbering less than 50,000 in the wild,

down from 100,000 in 1998. Yet zoos have jumped in to foster a genetically stable and healthy captive orangutan population—as they have with more than 100 other threatened species—in the face of destruction of natural habitat around the globe. In the United States, 18 orangutans have been born in captivity during the last five years—their parents meticulously selected, often from distant zoos, as Eli was, to ensure healthy genetic diversity—bringing the total U.S. captive population to 80. “It is not a simple task,” says Kimberly Davidson, who’s on the SSP steering committee for gorillas. “The most

That means zoos have to be flexible about lending out animals that may be star attractions. “An animal may belong to Hogle Zoo, but if the SSP says it has to go on loan to Omaha for a while, we abide by that recommendation even though our guests may love that animal,” Dinsmore says. “Zoos don’t place much value on the monetary aspects of animal exchange these days. Now we are more focused on the conservation and the long-term value of the animals as a whole.” Years ago, this was not the case. Baby animals have always been big draws at the box office, so zoos were motivated to breed animals without much thought to overbreeding or inbreeding. But all that began changing in the early ’70s. “There was a transformation in zoo management,” Dinsmore says. “Our concern became directed more to the social and mental health of animals, not just their physical well-being. We began providing more spacious enclosures that better replicated the animals’ natural habitat.” Breeding decisions were based on the goal of long-term resurgence of species rather than on immediate financial benefit. That fact is reflected today in the focus on “enrichment” programs that, while stimulating the animals’ mental abilities and natural instincts, are also intended to simulate conditions in the wild—a Sumatran rainforest or African plains. At some zoos, keepers shovel zebra dung into the lions’ enclosure, which acts like catnip on the lions. At the Bronx Zoo in New York, they went so far as to place the African lions next to gazelles to keep them more alert and interested in their surroundings. Hogle Zoo’s keepers hide food so that animals have to search for it. They constructed a lure on a cable in the cheetah enclosure so that the cats will run after it, triggering their hunting response. After discovering that elephants love to play in dirt, keepers now provide piles of it in their pens. Another new frontier in the protec-

Zoos have jumped in to foster a genetically stable and healthy captive orangutan population— as they have with more than 100 other threatened species. important factor is their genetic compatibility.” Add natural attrition through death, and factor in whether zoos can accommodate the animals in suitable and safe enclosures, and the zoo baby equation becomes even more complex. “Finally, after all this planning, the animals don’t always cooperate,” Davidson says. “An SSP may decide that 10 babies are needed over the next 12 months, so the committee recommends 20 pairings in hopes of getting 10 offspring. A worst-case scenario is that you get none, or you get 40. So each year we re-evaluate. We’re always juggling figures.”

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companions tion and survival of species is artificial insemination, which has been hugely successful in the breeding of giant pandas in China. The procedure is still too expensive for most zoos. But given the difficulty of bringing together candidates separated by considerable distances, and at just the right moment for breeding, it appears that artificial insemination is the secret to species survival in the future. “Are zoos going to repopulate the world with endangered species?” asks Dinsmore, the Hogle Zoo’s executive director. His answer: not exactly. Introducing animals into the wild is not, at least for now, a foolproof solution.

Among Hogle Zoo’s approximately 200 species, more than 30 fall under Species Survival Plans.

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“Diseases can be carried into natural habitat, the animals need enormous training to adapt, and the process is prohibitively expensive,” he says. “Besides, with so much loss of wilderness, there’s no point.” Maybe 200 years from now there will be a way to restock the forests and wetlands. “So you might argue, if you’re an optimist, that we are maintaining a healthy population of species for that golden moment,” Dinsmore says. “For now, we’re just doing what we can. And reuniting a mother and daughter orangutan is a pretty good example of that.” Sky Contributing Editor Roger Toll discovered the fascinating saga of Acara and her dedicated caretakers one day while visiting the Salt Lake City zoo, a half-hour from his home in Park City, Utah.


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Going Ape Over Zoo Babies  

by Roger Toll for Delta SKY magazine