When the Metro Richmond zoo keepers noticed that one of their 14-year-old orangutans, Zoe, was having trouble nursing her young, they asked new human mom and zookeeper, Whitlee Turner, to help demonstrate how to breastfeed for the primate.
The zoo — located in Moseley, Virginia — said Zoe had trouble nursing her first baby, Taavi, which resulted in the animal being hand-raised by humans and with a bottle. When she delivered her second baby in December, the zoo asked Turner for help.
Turner and her four-month-old baby boy, Caleb, visited Zoe and her newborn at their indoor enclosure where the two new moms hung out while separated by Zoe’s cage.
“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.”
“With my bra down, I was very exaggerated when I put him on so that she could see that the baby goes here. The whole time I was talking to her and pointing at her, pointing at the baby, pointing at her breasts. And when Caleb was latched I was showing it to her, making sure that she saw the important part,” Whitlee continued. “The whole time she just kept watching me curiously.”
“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.”
Turner concluded that Zoe zoning in on the process and watching so closely could be due to her fascination with Caleb.
“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.”
After Zoe intently watched Turner breastfeed her baby, she successfully breastfed less than 24 hours later, the zoo said in a press release.
Before asking Turner to step in, the zoo knew that Zoe may have a hard time breastfeeding her second child based on her first experience. Before the baby was born, they put a TV inside her indoor habitat so she could watch videos of other orangutan mothers giving birth and caring for their young.
Every day, Jessica Gring — a lead keeper at the Richmond zoo — stood near Zoe’s enclosure, holding a stuffed animal and pretended to nurse it. She then took the stuffed animal’s feet and hooked them around her waist or neck — just like a baby orangutan would do to its own mother.
They also theorized that Zoe may not have learned how to raise young since she was orphaned at nine months old when her mother died unexpectedly from heart failure. Breastfeeding just didn’t come naturally to Zoe.
Most moms can relate to Zoe’s plight. Breastfeeding is not an easy road. That’s why there are nursing pillows, lactation consultants, teas that are supposed to a postpartum mom’s milk supply and basically an entire industry dedicated to trying to help moms nurse because it really is that complicated of a journey.
A complicated journey Turner knew all too well.
“I had a really hard time in the beginning as a new mom with my breastfeeding journey. I required a lot of guidance and help before we really figured it out,” she said. “Whether it was an orangutan or a human, I just want to be able to help any new mom.”
Today, Zoe and baby are getting on just fine. “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.”
It truly does take a village to raise a baby, even if that baby is from another species entirely.