Breastfeeding zookeeper teaches orangutan mom to nurse, video shows. ‘Really special’

When Zoe the orangutan had her first baby, her maternal instincts never kicked in.

While zookeepers at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia tried showing Zoe how to nurse and bond with her son, Taavi, by using a doll, they eventually had to bottle-feed her baby. That was in March 2021.

“It’s likely Zoe never learned how to be a mom since she was orphaned at nine months old when her own mother died unexpectedly,” the zookeepers said.

Zoe gave birth to her second baby — another son who has not yet been named — on Dec. 12, 2022, according to a March 30 news release from the Metro Richmond Zoo.

This time, “staff were determined to teach Zoe how to nurse successfully.”

Zookeeper and new mom Whitlee Turner was asked to give Zoe “an extraordinary favor” — lessons in breastfeeding.

She and her infant, Caleb, showed up at the Metro Richmond Zoo orangutan’s indoor house soon after Zoe delivered her baby, video shows.

“I just had my breastfeeding bra on, and I was able to show (Zoe) everything with zero modesty,” Turner said in the release. “I wanted her to be able to see the whole process because orangutans don’t wear shirts. I wanted her to be able to see my breasts and see Caleb and be able to see him rooting and looking for it and the latch.”

While her bra was down, she said she exaggerated her movements to show Zoe where her baby should go.

“The whole time I was talking to her and pointing at her, pointing at the baby, pointing at her breasts,” Turner continued. “And when Caleb was latched I was showing it to her, making sure that she saw the important part.”

Meanwhile, Zoe was seen watching Turner and Caleb while holding her own son.

“The whole time she just kept watching me curiously,” Turner said. “She didn’t immediately breastfeed her baby, but she was definitely watching the whole time.”

Zoe began breastfeeding her own baby less than 24 hours after the demonstration, according to the zoo.

“I had a really hard time in the beginning as a new mom with my breastfeeding journey,” Turner said in the release. “I required a lot of guidance and help before we really figured it out. I think it was really special being able to share this with (Zoe) and help her in her journey. Whether it was an orangutan or a human, I just want to be able to help any new mom.”

Metro Richmond Zoo said Turner wasn’t the only zookeeper who “worked with (Zoe) tirelessly to kickstart her maternal instincts.”

Zookeeper Jessica Gring also worked with Zoe for months before the baby boy was born, teaching her how to hold and nurse a stuffed orangutan toy, according to the release.

Zoe and her baby are doing well, the zoo said.

Orangutans are critically endangered, according to the Orangutan Species Survival Plan.

“The remaining wild populations are seriously threatened by logging (legal as well as illegal), wholesale conversion of forest for oil palm plantations, widespread fires, and habitat fragmentation by road construction,” the volunteer organization said. “Orangutans are also illegally captured for the pet trade and killed as agricultural pests when they raid fruit crops abutting forests.”

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