Breastfeeding Zookeeper Teaches Struggling Orangutan Mom How to Nurse

"The whole time, she just kept watching me curiously," Whitlee Turner, a zookeeper with the Metro Richmond Zoo, said

Metro Richmond Zoo
Metro Richmond Zoo

Being a mom didn't come naturally for Zoe the orangutan, orphaned when she was only nine months old.

Her first baby, Taavi, had to be hand raised by the staff at the Metro Richmond Zoo, Virginia's largest zoological park.

So when Zoe delivered her second baby on December 12, 2022, the zoo's veterinarian came up with a plan to kickstart the ape's maternal instincts — asking zookeeper and new mom Whitlee Turner to demonstrate how she breastfeeds her son Caleb in front of the orangutan.

Turner was happy to try and help and said Zoe was "watching me curiously" the whole time.

"I just had my breastfeeding bra on, and I was able to show [Zoe] everything with zero modesty. 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," Turner explained.

Metro Richmond Zoo
Metro Richmond Zoo

Related:Crafty L.A. Zoo Orangutan Makes a Tool to Pick Up Baby Bottle Dropped Near Its Enclosure

"With my bra down, I was very exaggerated when I put him on so that [Zoe] 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."

"The whole time, she just kept watching me curiously. She didn't immediately breastfeed her baby, but she was definitely watching the whole time," Whitlee said, adding: "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."

Less than 24 hours after Turner's demonstration, Zoe started nursing her new baby for the first time.

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It's an ongoing learning curve for the orangutan, who was taught how to hold a baby using a stuffed toy. Lead zookeeper Jessica Gring helped Zoe practice with the toy almost daily in the months leading up to the primate's due date.

"I would have [the stuffed animal] so it was going around my waist and around my neck just like a baby would be clinging on to [Zoe's] side," Gring explained.

Metro Richmond Zoo
Metro Richmond Zoo

Related:Zoo Captures Incredible Moment Critically Endangered Orangutan Gives Birth to Healthy Baby

In the months leading up to Zoe giving birth, she was also shown videos of orangutan mothers caring for their young to help the primate understand what to do with a new baby.

The zoo said Zoe and her unnamed baby boy are healthy and bonding well.

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