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When An Orangutan Mom Struggled to Nurse, Her Zookeeper Taught Her How

An orangutan named Zoe in a Virginia zoo named has been taking lessons in mothering from the human zookeepers who care for her. Zoe wasn’t able to nurse her first child, so, when her youngest baby was born recently, staff came up with an idea: Why not have a zookeeper who also happened to be nursing her own son, give Zoe a demonstration?

Zoe, who was orphaned as a baby, doesn’t have natural mothering instincts because she was never able to develop a connection with her own mother. She also never had the opportunity to watch other orangutans raise their offspring. She lives at the Metro Richmond Zoo, which hand-raised her son Taavi when he was born in 2021.

Shortly after Zoe gave birth, zookeeper Whitlee Turner arrived with her son, Caleb, and demonstrated how to breastfeed. “I just had my breastfeeding bra on, and I was able to show [Zoe] everything with zero modesty,” Turner said in a press release from the Richmond Metro Zoo. “I wanted to be able to show her the whole process because orangutans don’t wear shirts.” She showed Zoe how she normally holds her baby and how the latching process works.

The whole time, Zoe watched with curiosity. Within 24 hours, the orangutan had figured out how to breastfeed her own baby successfully for the first time.

Before the birth, staffers also tried to prepare Zoe for the process by showing her videos of other orangutans giving birth and nursing their babies. Another zookeeper, Jessica Tring, also carried a baby orangutan stuffed toy wrapped around her chest to show Zoe how to carry and care for her baby. This may have worked, but it was Turner’s quick thinking and kind demonstration that really helped Zoe figure it out.  

Zoe’s new baby hasn’t been named yet, but both he and she are doing well. If you happen to be in the area, you can spot them from the zoo’s safari ride.

Looking for more heartwarming baby animal news? There’s a baby gorilla on the way at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Watch this space for more news on the baby’s birth.

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