Critically Endangered Baby Orangutan Born at Sacramento Zoo
May 10, 2023
The Sacramento Zoo is thrilled to announce that a Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan has been born at the Zoo – the first orangutan birth at the Sac Zoo since 1981.
With only 79 Sumatran orangutans in human care in the United States, and populations of wild orangutans rapidly declining, every birth is a monumental success for the species.
Indah, the Zoo’s 19-year-old Sumatran orangutan, gave birth to a healthy male infant on the evening of May 1. Both mother and infant are doing well. After the birth of the infant, care staff began around the clock observations to be certain everything was going smoothly with the pair.
While Indah’s behavior was appropriate, the first-time mother was having difficulty nursing, and the team made the decision to intervene in order to provide the infant with supplemental care. The baby is currently receiving around the clock care by animal care and veterinary staff while the team is continuously reevaluating plans to reunite the infant with Indah. The timeframe for reintroduction is unknown at this time, but that remains the ultimate goal.
The infant and mother remain healthy and well, are being cared for behind-the-scenes, and are not currently visible to members of the public. The Zoo will continue to keep our community posted on how the pair are doing. We are looking forward to sharing more about this important birth.
The Zoo has shared with us a letter from the lead primate caregiver. It offers more context and deeper information on why he is currently being assist reared. That letter is reproduced below:
A Letter from Janine Steele – Sac Zoo Animal Care Supervisor and Primate Keeper
“Dear Zoo Friends,
Saying this past week or so has been crazy busy here at the Zoo is a quite an understatement! Now that we are able to take a breath for a moment, I wanted to give you all a recap of what went on and where we are.
I’d like to start with a little back story, Indah, the Zoo’s 19-year-old Sumatran orangutan, came to the Sacramento Zoo in 2017 as a planned mate for the Zoo’s male orangutan Makan as part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP) recommendation. With only 79 Sumatran orangutans in human care in the United States, and populations of wild orangutans rapidly declining, every birth is a monumental success for the species. I have been a primate caregiver at the Sacramento Zoo for more than 20 years and, along with the zoo’s team of primate keepers, have been diligently planning for an orangutan birth for many of those years through meticulous positive reinforcement training and staff preparations. So, when it was confirmed last year that Indah was pregnant, our dedicated team began to ramp up that preparation in earnest.
It all started on a cool spring day after an unseasonable heatwave...Indah, the Zoo’s 19-year-old Sumatran orangutan, started to act a little “off”; she was not interested in eating, and was being short tempered. Indah had just entered the two-week mark before her estimated due date. Based on additional behaviors being observed by her keepers and veterinary staff, it was determined that Indah was likely in the early stages of labor. Keeper staff added extra bedding to her dens and scheduled 24-hour observations via camera. During the 5 pm - 7 pm check, one of Indah’s observers noted Indah moving out of a hammock where she had been resting throughout the day.
Head veterinarian, Jenessa Gjeltema and senior primate keepers immediately headed to the Ape Care Quarters. Camera observers witnessed the birth, and the team on site heard loud crying and observed a healthy male orangutan infant.
The team watched Indah and her baby from a distance for several hours to make sure both were doing well, and then left them alone for the evening to bond. Camera observations continued through to the next day. Indah was gentle and caring toward the infant, but nursing was not observed.
In preparation for a potential birth, Indah’s keepers worked diligently with her for several years on a variety of conditioning behaviors that would enable keeper and veterinary staff to assist with future infant rearing as necessary. These important behaviors included bringing a faux “baby” (a stuffed orangutan from Ikea!) to the mesh for bottle feeding, placing the “infant” gently in a box and moving away and presenting her nipple to the faux “baby.”
The morning after the infant’s birth keeper and veterinary staff began asking Indah to voluntarily participate in some of these behaviors, but after a sleepless night with a newborn, Indah was in no mood to hear any of it.
In an effort to further encourage Indah to feed her infant, a Zoo staff member and his wife (new parents to twin boys!) were nice enough to come to the Zoo with their twins and nurse in front of Indah with the hopes that she might replicate the behavior with her infant. Indah held her infant and observed intently but continued to have difficulty nursing her own infant. Staff continued around the clock camera observations, but still were not observing proper nursing behaviors from Indah.
The next morning the twins and their parents came back for another in person nursing lesson and Indah actually moved her baby to her chest in the correct position. But still no nursing success.
With Indah’s help, the veterinary team was able to get subcutaneous fluids and glucose to the baby, but, after careful observation by the team, it was determined to be in the infant’s best interest to intervene with supportive care for the infant.
Baby care quarters were set up in the orangutan house where Indah would have her infant in constant sight. The zoo team, equipped with a cot, plenty of towels, an incubator, various medical supplies, and food for the infant then began 24-hour care of the infant. The baby must be physically on a caregiver at all times while the caregiver wears a modified (hand-crafted) vest that simulates natural clinging to a mother. The baby must be in view of his mother and the other orangutans at all times, and while he is still unable to regulate his body temperature, the room must be kept very (uncomfortable for caregivers) warm at all times.
The baby is held, bottle fed, temperature checked, cleaned, stimulated to grip and climb, and encouraged to find the nipple round the clock. At the same time, it is important that Indah sees and smells the infant, and that her positive-reinforcement training continues with the hope that the infant will ultimately be placed back with his mother for rearing.
The staffing resources that would be necessary in the event of hand-rearing was a known challenge from the beginning. It is very difficult to predict exactly what that will entail because of all the different variables involved. The goal is to provide consistent care for the infant, to minimize the risk of zoonotic disease transmission for the infant and care staff, and to ultimately reunite mother and infant – all while not burning out the care staff. Trained staff are currently doing two overnight shifts: 4 pm to 12 am and 12 am to 8 am, in addition to full day shifts with the infant.
The goal is that this 24-hour care will only be needed for a week or so. Skilled keepers, in addition to a team of veterinarians from our partners at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, are in constant communication and have high hopes for Indah and her infant to be successfully reunited soon.
My only goal in life right now is to get that baby back with mom permanently, and we are very focused on that. For now, we have a healthy mother and a baby that is growing stronger by the day. Mother and baby will both be staying in their warm den for some time and will not be visible in their public-facing habitat any time soon. Please be patient with us as we provide the assistance necessary to this first-time mother and her infant. We will keep you all up to date as we have additional information. Thank you for your patience, thank you for your support, and thank you for caring about the animals at the zoo as we do!
- Janine Steele
Sac Zoo Animal Care Supervisor and Primate Keeper”