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Raising Zoe

Posted by Laura Bottaro on 04/20/2012

Raising Zoe

By Laura J. Bottaro

Curator of Mammals

Zoe is a Greek word meaning “life”.  On October 14, 2008 a tiny baby was born to “Chloe,” a 14-year-old Chimpanzee. This is the story of “Zoe”, a young life with an uncertain beginning, and the challenges of the team that raised her.

A few days before Zoe was born the staff at the great ape building noticed a few drops of blood on the floor of the chimpanzee night quarters. The small spots could have been from any of the nine chimps that formed the troop at the Oklahoma City Zoo. There was a little concern because the group included 14-year-old Chloe, who was in the last days of her first pregnancy. At morning check there was no external sign of blood coming from any of the animals, not even a small wound. The veterinary staff was notified and the group was monitored throughout the day during routine interactions and enrichment. Everyone seemed fine.

The next morning a slightly larger volume of blood was found in the same spot. Again there was no sign of trouble from any of the chimps. It was another normal day. That evening the staff set up a camera hoping to capture the animal that was producing the spots. The next day, October 14th, a large volume of blood on the floor caused the staff serious concern. The camera had not captured the problem animal but there was enough blood to suspect that it could be coming from the pregnant female. The animal staff, veterinary staff and veterinary consultant for the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP) all conferred and agreed that Chloe should undergo a cesarean.

A partnering Oklahoma City OBGYN group participated in Chloe’s exam. Nothing out of the ordinary was apparent. The medical team was having some difficulty in intubating Chloe, so the initial plan to take the baby by caesarean section was foregone.  Chloe was taken back to Great EscApe to recover in one of the suites and to hopefully give birth on her own in a few days.  As Chloe started to recover from the procedure she went into full cardiac arrest, and despite the efforts of the veterinary and animal teams she could not be revived.

The OBGYN team had left the zoo once Chloe had left the animal hospital. The zoo staff immediately put out a call for them to return. Before the OBGYN team arrived the infant had been delivered from her mother.  She wasn’t breathing at first but quickly responded to efforts to resuscitate her. The infant was tiny but appeared healthy.

The emotions of the staff were in turmoil. They had spent weeks writing protocols including the potential for hand rearing a chimp which are part of the SSP recommendations. Due to her social history and behavior, the team was confident in Chloe’s ability as a mother but planned for potential obstacles. They never anticipated they would lose her.  Within hours the infant’s name had been chosen.  At first naming the baby after her mother was discussed.  Someone on the team asked, “What about “Zoe?”  It means “life.”  So Zoe it was in honor of her mother’s life.

Next  steps and protocols  were immediately put in place.  It literally took a zoo to raise Zoe:  from her primary keepers, other ape-knowledgeable keepers, veterinary staff, volunteers (trained)  and a long -time employee who dedicated most of her nights to Zoe; to the other teams outside the great ape area that put some of their own goals on hold to help support the hand rearing team.

SSP guidelines for hand-rearing chimps were followed. Zoe’s caretakers never left her alone for more than six months. She spent much of her time in the presence of the chimp group from the time she was 3 days old. The zoo’s visitor service staff designed several shirts that would make clinging to her caretakers easier for Zoe. After 3 or 4 trial designs, the one that worked the best looked like a black mop.  It was a t-shirt covered with ½” x 2” pieces of felt. Every staff member that sat with Zoe was required to wear it 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. It worked great! Eventually when she was around 4 months old, the shirt was modified so that Zoe could ride on the backs of her keepers. The staff kept extensive records to track Zoe’s development and nutritional intake.  Former supervisor Jennifer Davis, the team’s leader, spent many hours researching and consulting with staff from other facilities that had successfully introduced hand reared infants back to a troop and formed a plan.

The zoo’s chimp troop did not include any proven surrogates. Training started immediately upon Zoe’s birth to condition Cindy, a 40-year-old animal that had spent the first 13 years of her life living in a human household, to take care of Zoe.  Cindy happily cooperated with daily sessions where she was familiarized to the infant, learned the proper carrying techniques by carrying a small infant sized stuffed chimp and proper positioning at the mesh so that Zoe could continue to receive formula from her keepers.

The day came and on the morning of April 30, 2009 the team decided to turn Zoe’s care over to the chimps. Zoe was beside herself, her cries stressful, but the team held steadfast. Keepers stayed beside Zoe and Cindy’s enclosure for the next six days around the clock. Eventually Zoe calmed down and started to take interest in Cindy. Cindy was a great playmate, but did not exhibit any maternal instinct. She refused to carry Zoe and displayed at her when either she or Zoe became upset.  The team was determined not to back track. On May 9th, Abby, a 27-year-old female. was physically introduced to Zoe.  All the chimps had known Zoe through a barrier since she was a few days old. Abby immediately picked Zoe up and since that day has been a doting and protective surrogate mother.  Zoe’s family includes another maternally instinctive female named Kito, her Auntie Cindy, still a great playmate, and her gentle father, Mwami.  Zoe continues to have a good relationship with her keepers in protected contact. Her first birthday was celebrated in the company of her keepers, chimp troop and the people of Oklahoma City.  

Losing Chloe was a terrible loss and raising Zoe was a unique challenge.  The Zoo staff learned many valuable lessons from both events. Additionally the team did a great job researching surrogacy and approximating a plan that ultimately worked to introduce Zoe to her troop. She’s doing great and shows little effects of the first six and a half months of her life with humans, she is a chimp.

Today, Zoe is a big sister to another special chimpanzee with unusual circumstances. Her name is Siri and she arrived at the Zoo on April 20, 2011. Siri’s story to be shared soon.

Click here to visit the chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP) Web site. 

Zoe with her surrogate mom, Abby, and "hanging out" in her habitat.

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