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Denver Zoo Rescues Ailing Baby Orangutan

On Jun 19th, Denver Zoo welcomed a new baby Sumatran Orangutan to mother Mias. Eleven days after the birth, zoo staff noticed the infant looked weak. After sedating Mias so they could examine the infant, named Hesty, they realized the baby was severely dehydrated and had not been nursing properly. Despite veterinarians best efforts to encourage proper nursing, they had to intervene again when the baby appeared unresponsive July 1st. Due to the exceptional care provided by Denver Zoo staff, the baby is now healthy and has been reunited with mother Hesty. Throughout the process, keepers and vets cared for the baby in view of mom, who watched attentively throughout the process.

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Baby orangutan denver zoo 5Photo credits: Dave Parsons / Denver Zoo

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Zookeepers & Vets Take Every Precaution to Ensure Infant is Healthy & Raised by Her Mother

Denver, CO (July 28, 2010) – A Denver Zoo Sumatran orangutan infant is back with her mother after a rocky start. Hesty (Hess-tee), a female and the first of her species born at the zoo in 25 years, is doing fine with her mother thanks to the dedicated efforts of the zoo’s primate care team. Zookeepers and veterinary staff needed to place the infant in an incubator 11 days after birth. After receiving critical care, she’s now doing well with mom.

“It’s important for young orangutans to bond with their mothers and learn the skills to raise their own offspring in the future. In our planning, we brainstormed solutions for every possible scenario we could come up with that would ensure the infant’s wellbeing and keep her with her mother,” says Area Supervisor Ronda Schwetz.

Hesty was born to mother, Nias (Nee-us), and father, Mias (Mee-us), on June 19. She is only the fourth birth of this species at the zoo and the first since 1985. Orangutans are tiny at birth, weighing three to four pounds and are completely dependent upon their mothers.

Although initially Hesty seemed to be doing fine, staff could not tell for sure if she was nursing regularly and on June 22, the infant appeared weak. Denver Zoo veterinarians sedated Nias to exam her and Hesty. During the examination veterinarians discovered Hesty was significantly dehydrated and placed her in the proper nursing position. Hesty ingested about 70 milliliters of breast milk and weighed 3.67 pounds at the end of her feeding.

“After the exam, we tried to help Hesty locate mom’s nipple through operant conditioning training. Nias also let us feed the infant formula through the mesh in her enclosure. We planned to assist Nias and Hesty in this manner until she could nurse on her own. However unfortunately she took a turn for the worse,” Schwetz said.

On the morning of July 1, staff found Hesty nearly unresponsive.  Veterinary staff examined her immediately, finding she was dehydrated and unable to maintain her body temperature.

“We moved her into an incubator next to her mother’s quarters and bottle fed her. We made sure Hesty and Nias could see each other the entire time. Nias remained interested in the infant while we provided critical care,” Senior Veterinarian Dr. Felicia Knightly said.

Over the next 18 days, Hesty nearly doubled her body weight from 2.86 pounds to 4.4 pounds under the care of veterinarians and zookeepers. Nias responded well when staff was able to reunite the two on July 19. However, Hesty still didn’t immediately know how to nurse. Staff sedated Nias on July 23 to teach her how to find Nias’s breast and ensure she could nurse on her own. Fortunately this time, the training appears to be successful as Hesty has begun nursing on her own. 

Staff continues to be ready to assist Nias by providing supplemental formula to Hesty if necessary.

“Hesty is so important to us and her species. We will continue to do everything possible to ensure her wellbeing. We’re watching her very closely and taking it day by day, but we’re pleased with her progress so far,” says Schwetz.

Planning for this infant began months ago with consistent monitoring of the pregnancy, consultations with neonatologists and regular ultrasounds of the fetus.  Zoo staff worked with Nias to train her to present her abdomen for inspection and to receive ultrasounds through a hole in the mesh of her enclosure. An exceptionally intelligent animal, staff was able to monitor Nias’s successful progress.

“We prepared extensively for this birth. Nias is an amazing animal, and is so intelligent. However, with this being her first infant, we weren’t sure she would know exactly what to do,” Schwetz said.

Training with Nias was extensive and focused on ways to help her know how to properly hold her infant and to allow zookeepers to closely examine the infant and provide supplemental feedings through the mesh of the maternity enclosure, if necessary.

Mias, Hesty’s father, was born in 1983 at Toronto Zoo and arrived at Denver Zoo in 1997. Nias was born in 1988 at San Diego Zoo and came to Denver Zoo from El Paso Zoo on a breeding loan in 2005. The two were paired together under recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP®) which ensures healthy populations and genetic diversity among zoo animals. Fortunately, the couple has proved to be an excellent match.

Orangutan means “person of the forest” in Malay and the species is among the closest relatives to humans. Physically they are known for their stout bodies, long arms and shaggy, red hair. The orangutans at Denver Zoo can often be seen showing off their arboreal talents, swinging from ropes and trees in their expansive habitats.

Sumatran orangutans are only found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. In the wild, they are critically endangered due to habitat loss stemming from logging, mining and forest fires. Also, the practice of killing a mother to secure an infant or juvenile for the live animal trade is a common practice. Currently there only about 6,000 left in the wild.

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