On the evening of December 7, keepers at the Smithsonian National Zoo could see on the internal web cam that Giant Anteater Maripi (who gave birth in March of '09) seemed at long last to be in labor. At about 7:30 she gave birth to her pup, and within half an hour the baby had climbed up on its mother’s back, and all seemed to be proceeding normally. Maripi is an experienced mom, so when she curled up in her crate with the pup a little while later and stayed there, zoo officials all felt that she had the situation in hand. As with most animals Giant Anteaters prefer to give birth in solitude since that equals safety in the wild. Unless they saw that Maripi was in distress or wasn’t caring for the baby, their plan was to leave the two of them alone. They called it a night at 10 p.m. and looked forward to meeting their newest anteater in the morning...
When keepers arrived in the morning, the baby was laying on the floor and cold to the touch! Go below the fold for many more [PHOTOS] and to finish the story of Maripi's pup's birth as told by keeper Marie Magnuson!
...the next day the keepers arrived at 6:30 a.m. and immediately looked at the web cam to check on the anteaters. We could see Maripi still sleeping in her crate, but the baby was outside the crate on the floor and did not appear to be moving. Kristen and Rebecca (two other keepers) and I hurried straight over to the barn while calling our curator so that he could contact the vets.
Cold to the Touch
When we entered the stall with the baby, it moved just the tiniest bit, but it was cold to the touch. We grabbed a clean towel and gently wrapped up the baby and the placenta to which it was still attached. One of the keepers ran to get a heating pad. In the meantime, we used body heat to begin to rewarm the baby. We checked on Maripi, speaking to her and gently touching her. She raised her head to acknowledge us but then curled back up with her head under her tail.
The heating pad arrived and we could then sandwich the baby, swaddled in the towel, between a nice warm keeper and a nice warm heating pad. The barn is heated by two large electric heaters, one in Maripi’s stall and one in Dante’s. The heaters are quite powerful—each one is capable of heating the barn on its own—so the temperature in the barn was in the 70s. The baby was cold because it was a neonate and was not big and strong enough yet to regulate its body temperature alone. It needed its mother’s body heat and the stimulation it would get from her cleaning it.
Soon our curator arrived, and we took stock of the situation while we waited for the vets to arrive. We knew we would be taking Maripi to the hospital, but she was in a half crate and Dante was sleeping in the other half. Poor Dante was unceremoniously evicted from his bed and the two halves of the crate were assembled around Maripi, who allowed all this activity without protest.
Off to the Hospital
The vets arrived and assessed the condition of Maripi and her baby. While it had shown some improvement in that it was showing small voluntary movements and had some control over its body, the pup was still way too cold. It was decided that we would take the baby to the hospital immediately while another vehicle was secured to bring Maripi up. Tracey, a keeper, had come up from the Andean bears—she would hold down the fort and keep an eye on the other animals in the unit. We're so grateful to Stephen, a keeper from the Small Mammal House, who came over to help lift Maripi into a transport vehicle and to all the other keepers who were ready and willing to help but stayed away when asked. We wanted it to be as calm and quiet as possible around the barn when Maripi was brought outside to the vehicle.
Once up at the hospital the pup, which we now knew to be a boy, received a quick exam before being placed in the incubator and his body temperature was carefully brought back to a normal level. Then attention was turned to Maripi to make sure that she was all right, that she had expelled all of the afterbirth, that she was in good health and strong enough to take care of her baby.
Time to Bond
We were anxious to reunite Maripi and her son as quickly as possible. The longer they were separated the less likely she would be to accept him back. By the time her exam was over, there was an enclosure at the hospital all ready for them. It was quiet, not too brightly lit, had Maripi’s freshly cleaned crate, and was heated to around 80 degrees. This would not only help the pup stay warm, but would also help keep Maripi sleepy. We really wanted her to curl up with her baby for a nice long nap. This would help her recover, help her bond with the baby, and, since anteater babies nurse when their mothers are lying on their side, it should give the baby a chance to eat. Then we held our breath. For several days.
The plan was to weigh the baby twice a day at the beginning. It is common for neonate mammals to lose a little weight in the first few days of life, and our little guy did just that. But then he gained a few grams, and we were very encouraged. Then he lost weight two weighings in a row so we decided to try a little supplemental feeding with a formula made for baby animals. It was a struggle at first and we did not get that much into him, but we saw that he knew how to nurse.
Feeding the Baby
Nursing is a skill that in most mammals can be taken for granted but think about what an anteater looks like and just how long that tongue is. Where does it go while the baby is nursing? Where do you put the hole in the nipple on the baby bottle so that the tongue doesn’t block it? (Answer: you make lots of holes.) Ideally, the baby sticks his tongue all the way out and kind of over to the side. When the baby sucks the milk into its mouth swallowing requires some movement of the tongue. What you end up with looks like fairly normal nursing except that there appears to be a small dark snake flailing around in the middle of it all.
Anyway we only needed to do two supplemental feedings in the two weeks he stayed at the hospital. We tried a third but he was having none of it and he even took a swing at me! He’s a tough little guy. That’s probably why he pulled through in spite of such a rocky start.
And speaking of that rocky start: What happened? We don’t know. It turns out that while we had visual access through the web cam, the computer that was supposed to be recording everything wasn’t, so we will never know for sure. We do know that if something frightens a new anteater mother she may abandon the baby. In the wild, it wouldn't make sense for the mother to risk her life for her baby since the baby cannot survive without her. Fortune may favor the brave, but Nature does not. So something may have startled Maripi during the night. The fact that the placenta was still attached to the baby may be significant.
Could the baby have been on Maripi’s back and been dragged off by the weight of the placenta? We don’t know. We have noticed that this pup very rarely gives an alarm call when he is off Maripi’s back. It is this loud distinctive call that triggers the anteater mother’s instinct to protect her baby, and anteaters operate mostly on instinct. We love Maripi, but even we have to admit that there is not a lot of thinking going on there. If, for whatever reason, the baby ended up off Maripi’s back and did not call, it might not even register with her that he was missing, especially in the darkness of the barn at night.
Whatever happened that night, the important thing is that both Maripi and her pup are back at the barn and are doing well now. He is growing and weighs about the same as Cyrano and Aurora (Maripi’s previous offspring) did at his age. Let’s hope that the unusually cold December we had will be followed by some nice mild weather and Maripi and son can go out on exhibit soon.