An Orangutan Struggled to Nurse Her Baby. A Human New Mom Taught Her How.

Metro Richmond Zoo photo
Zoe, a 14-year-old orangutan, breastfeeds her newborn son at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia.

Mothers sometimes struggle to breastfeed, and Zoe, a 14-year-old orangutan, was no exception.

She had been orphaned at nine months old at the Metro Richmond Zoo, when her own mother had died unexpectedly from heart failure, and had never seen another orangutan mother raise a baby. Zoe had troubles breastfeeding and nurturing her first baby, Taavi, when he was born two years ago, leading keepers to hand-raise him.

So, when Zoe gave birth in December 2022 to her second baby, the zoo’s veterinarian had an idea: ask a zookeeper who was a new mom to breastfeed her own baby in front of Zoe, as a live demonstration.

Whitlee Turner eagerly agreed to help.

Turner, a zookeeper at the facility for the past three years, had difficulty at first with nursing her son and had received help from several doctors and lactation consultants. She brought her son Caleb – then four months old – to Zoe’s enclosure shortly after the mama orangutan had given birth. Sitting on a folded blanket in just her nursing bra and pants, Turner held up Caleb. She laid him across her lap, lifted her bra, let him root for her nipple and latch.

“I showed Zoe everything, with zero modesty,” Turner said. “I wanted her to be able to see the whole process, because orangutans don’t wear shirts.”

As she nursed Caleb, she talked to Zoe. She pointed to Caleb, then back to Zoe. Then she pointed to Zoe’s newborn hanging off her chest and to her own breasts and to Zoe’s.

“I told her, ‘This is my baby,'” Turner said, as she touched Caleb. “‘That’s your baby.'” When she put Caleb on her breast, she pointed to Zoe’s breasts, saying, “Put your baby here.”

Nursing Caleb in front of an orangutan enclosure was one of the more unusual spots in which she’s fed her child, Turner said. But Caleb seemed unfazed and enjoyed looking at the lights around him.

Zoe, meanwhile, watched Turner closely.

“She doesn’t see tiny humans up close much, so I think she was curious to see Caleb,” Turner said. “She was so observant, and [orangutans] are so humanlike. She was looking me in the eye as I was talking and looking at Caleb and just holding her baby next to her.”

It’s not uncommon for orangutans to be trained to mimic human behavior, experts said. They’re considered among the most intelligent species of great apes and have “a lot of similarities with humans,” said Jessica Gring, a lead keeper at the Richmond zoo. “They’re able to understand and learn.”

Zoe didn’t immediately breastfed her baby when Turner was there. But less than 24 hours later, Zoe nursed her newborn for the first time. Officials at the zoo released a video Thursday showing Turner breastfeeding her baby in front of Zoe. They said they waited several months to show it publicly, until they were confident Zoe and her baby, who does not yet have a name, were doing well.

“They’re doing great,” Gring said. “The baby is hitting all his milestones. He’s nursing well and he’s nice and chubby, so he’s gaining weight.”

The curious little orangutan picks up bits of Zoe’s food but is not yet eating solids. Zoe is attentive and engaged with her son, Gring said. Sometimes when he’s nursing he gets in an uncomfortable spot, so he’ll make little grunts to get his mom’s attention to reposition him. Zoe hears him, keepers said, and quickly checks on him and adjusts.

“She’s figured it out,” Gring said of motherhood. “She’s a committed mom.”

Native to the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans – a name that means “man of the woods” in Malay – are the second largest of all primates, with adult males weighing up to 350 pounds, experts at the Richmond zoo said. They are a critically endangered species, facing population declines because of habitat loss and poaching.

In the wild, baby orangutans have a strong bond with their mothers. Typically, offspring stay with their mom and nurse until they’re 8 years old. Young orangutans go out on their own when they’re about 14 but still come to visit mama often.

Zoe had Taavi, her first son and the first baby orangutan born at the Richmond zoo in six years, in March 2021 with a male orangutan named Farley. She wouldn’t nurse the baby and held him in her palm, far away from her, instead of cradling him closer to her body. Keepers tried to show Zoe, using a stuffed animal, how to care for Taavi, but she was indifferent.

At one point, experts sedated Zoe and let Taavi nurse while she was sedated. But when Zoe woke up, she still wasn’t interested in him, keepers said. “She went back to carrying him like he was a soda can,” said Jim Andelin, the zoo’s director.

Keepers pulled Taavi and have since raised him themselves. He’s doing well, keepers said, and enjoys playing with tire swings and balls and eating blueberries and bananas.

But zookeepers tried to kick-start Zoe’s maternal instinct.

They set up a 40-inch TV outside of her enclosure and often played YouTube videos showing mama orangutans giving birth and caring for their babies. Zoe watched the videos with interest, and when caretakers switched the TV to something else and then put the birthing videos back on, Zoe came over and watched again.

Every day for months, Gring stood near Zoe’s enclosure, holding a stuffed animal. She pretended to nurse it and took its feet, spread them out and hooked them around her waist or neck – just like a baby orangutan hangs from its mama. She crawled on the ground with the stuffed-animal orangutan tied to her chest and grabbed biscuits, pretending to eat them while holding the toy.

“We tried to show Zoe how a baby hangs and clings around a mother’s neck or side, so she’d get the idea of what it looked like to have a baby to hold on to her and care for,” Gring said.

In April 2022, after breeding again with Farley, a 16-year-old male orangutan, Zoe became pregnant for the second time, with her current baby.

Not long after she gave birth in mid-December, Zoe brought her newborn to the edge of her enclosure. She showed Gring her baby, and what she had learned. She carefully spread his feet and body.

It was “the exact mirror image of what we had shown her,” Gring said.