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Raising Babies By Hand

Sometimes, animal parents aren't up to the job. Then a hand-rearing team steps in.

By Kerry Gildea Beck

Newborns at the Zoo may look cute and cuddly, but many have razor-sharp claws, fierce fangs, and tricky temperaments. And some of the moms may neglect or even kill their babies rather than nurse or care for them. That’s when Zoo experts with some real hands-on experience step in.

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Keeper Jillian Fazio tends to a red panda cub (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Some of the Zoo’s infants must be “pulled,” or taken away from their mother after birth, to survive. A new mother may not always harm a newborn, but often she simply cannot provide what it needs. The specialized staff who care for the Zoo’s babies have paved the way in raising exotic birds from Africa and New Zealand, clouded leopards and red pandas from Asia, and even one prickly little South American porcupine.

Hand-rearing an animal infant is akin to the initial weeks of caring for a human baby. Some days are joyful; others are filled with fear and worry. Feeding routines can be erratic. There are too many sleepless nights to count.

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A prehensile-tailed porcupine snacks on a bit of fruit. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Porcupine Problems

Dell Guglielmo, a keeper from the Small Mammal House, knows the drill well. In August 2009, time was running out for a tiny newborn prehensile-tailed porcupine named Clark. Just days after his birth, he seemed weak. Two weeks later, the little guy still refused to eat, and prospects for his survival were bleak. Guglielmo says she and Stacey Tabellario, a keeper now at Asia Trail, worked tirelessly with the Zoo’s Department of Animal Health, but weren’t seeing any improvement from the little ball of rust colored hair just starting to form quills.

Soon after Clark was born, Guglielmo had realized something wasn’t right. These nocturnal animals nurse for very short periods, making it next to impossible to monitor nighttime nursing. But Clark wasn’t gaining weight and was growing weaker every day. He was medicated for an intestinal problem, and his keepers needed to get him to eat somehow—and fast. From the start, they knew handling a porcupine was not going to be easy.

“Normally in hand-rearing you’d hold the baby animal in a blanket or cradle it like a mother would hold a human baby, but that’s a real challenge when you’re dealing with a porcupine,” Guglielmo says. “That’s not how they nurse and it’s not natural for them.”

When porcupines nurse, the mother and the baby stand up, facing each other. It almost looks like they’re playing patty-cake before the baby moves underneath to get at the milk. Trying to replicate this routine, Guglielmo brought in a wooden perch that she used to show off porcupines for Zoo visitors. She hoped Clark would sit on the perch so she could feed him formula with a syringe. The perch worked well enough, but he still wasn’t interested in eating. Then a little bit of banana saved the day.

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Keeper Dell Guglielmo tends a young porcupine. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Adult porcupines love banana, and Clark did too. When Guglielmo and the Zoo nutrition staff added some banana to his formula, Clark finally turned the corner. To accommodate his growing teeth, they also designed an extra thick nipple for his bottle. Guglielmo’s life went on hold for almost two months, but she says she’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

“I had no idea how labor-intensive it could be taking care of this guy,” Guglielmo says, feeding Clark, now a healthy two-year-old, a slice of his favorite yellow fruit. “The effort to help him survive involved curators, keepers, veterinary staff, nutritionists, and even the Zoo police who opened the gates for us in the middle of the night. “Today he’s doing great, and he still loves his bananas.”

Caring for Cats

In the porcupine’s case, the Zoo staff stepped in to save an individual animal that was sick and needed special care, but hand-rearing also is a component of larger efforts to save endangered species around the world. For example, today all of the clouded leopards born in North America are hand-reared.

Clouded leopard mothers often either ignore or hurt their cubs, and in either case cubs can die, explains Kenneth Lang, senior mammal keeper at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) headquarters in Front Royal. Lang is an expert at hand-rearing. Through it, he says, the Zoo can maintain a captive population of these endangered animals who “become ambassadors for their parts of the world where conservation is very badly needed.” Clouded leopard infants have a 47 percent survival rate, which soars to 99 percent if the cats are hand-reared. Over the past 30 years, SCBI has been responsible for more than 70 clouded leopard cubs.

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A veterinarian examines a clouded leopard cub. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Clouded leopards are also shy and very easily stressed. But through the handrearing process, barriers come down, and keepers have an easier time managing and breeding the cats. “We can actually sit in
the enclosure like a piece of furniture when they interact with each other,” Lang says. “That allows us to head off aggression and at the same time not distract the cubs from interacting with each other.”

Strict protocols are in place to ensure an animal does not become too “imprinted” on a human and then is not able to relate to its own species or breed later on. “We feed them, burp them, and put them back
to sleep,” Lang says. “We don’t try to make them pets. We’ve done generations of hand-rearing, and we’ve never had a breeding problem with the clouded leopards.”

Acknowledging there is a high “cute factor” in handling baby animals, keepers stress they never handle the cubs for the sake of handling them. “We’re not doing this because we want to or because they’re cute,” says former keeper Jilian Fazio, who has hand-reared a number of clouded leopards, red pandas, and leopard cats. “This is what the species needs to maintain a sustainable captive population. Every animal is so important, and much of what we learn from them is critical to their survival and management in the wild.”

Aside from a sniff or two around the enclosure or nest boxes, animal moms rarely notice the babies are removed. The human handlers tend to show more of a reaction and aren’t shy about bragging about the new kids. “When the cubs are first born, every time we pull them it’s emotional,” says Jessica Kordell, a member of the clouded leopard team. “Each time it’s a different experience, and their personalities are so different. We learn what’s special about each one. It’s amazing how quickly they learn.”

The cubs are very particular about who’s taking care of them, and they don’t like change. The more experienced members of the staff start the process, and newer members rotate in during the weeks that follow so the animals follow the same routine over a six-to-nine-month period.

Bird Breeding

In some parts of the Zoo, hand-rearing starts long before the baby arrives. “Handrearing starts the day we bring the egg downstairs to the incubator,” says Sara Hallager, who has hand-reared about 50 kori bustard chicks at the Bird House since the first one hatched here in 1997. “We treat that egg like it’s the new chick.”

Kori bustards are the world’s heaviest flying birds, with males weighing up to 18 kilograms. They are native to the grasslands of eastern and southern Africa. There are 25 species of bustard, most of which are in decline.

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A keeper hand-feeds a kori bustard chick. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Hallager and other keepers monitor a kori bustard egg for 21 days, controlling heat and humidity because large fluctuations can be lethal. Around day 23, the egg starts rocking, and a chick, no bigger than 100 grams, breaks out—wet and exhausted. Next the chick is moved to a brooder box, where a feather duster temporarily replicates a mom. Twelve hours later, it’s time for a first feeding of crickets along with watermelon for good hydration.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has honored the Zoo’s work raising koris. Hallager hopes the lessons learned from the koris can be applied to other varieties of large bustards—such as the great Indian bustard, estimated to have a mere 300 remaining in the wild.

“Koris are an indicator species of what’s happening in the savanna ecosystem,” she says. “The world’s largest flying birds can tell a great story of Africa, where illegal hunting and habitat loss are a threat to all species.”

In New Zealand, kiwi parents bring new meaning to the term “empty nester.” They have nothing at all to do with their chicks. “Kiwi parents don’t rear their young,” explains keeper Kathy Brader, who handrears kiwis. “Leaving the young with the parents can be quite dangerous because the parents can kill them in about three or four days. In the wild they tend to live in family groups, but the babies move to a different territory from their parents early on. And they’re really helpless when they hatch.”

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A freshly hatched kiwi rests after the effort of breaking its shell. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Typically an enormous kiwi egg is pulled from beneath the father, who sits on the egg instead of the mother. After the chick hatches, it’s placed in a special isolette box padded with soft towels. The little chick snuggles there until it’s able to stand and walk, about six days later. Next the kiwi is moved to a brooder box. Getting the right food mix can involve a lot of trial and error, says Brader, noting that one chick she cared for ate much better when a bit of canned dog food with gravy was added to the menu.

New Zealand’s Operation Nest Egg program is one of the most successful efforts in the world to save a species, Brader notes, adding that she hopes people learn the kiwi’s story from the work being done here. Even many New Zealanders, she says, tune in to the Zoo’s kiwi cam to get a peek at the funky-looking bird.

“Kiwis have been on the planet for 65 million years, around the time the dinosaurs died out,” she remarks. “There aren’t many animals we can say that about. I think we have an obligation as stewards of this planet to preserve as much as we can. I hope people think not only about the kiwi, but what they can do in their own backyards to preserve the birds they have at home.”

When asked how she handles the work and the worry involved in raising these one-of-a-kind birds, Brader sounds a lot like a mom. “I have a connection to them,” she says with a chuckle. “Why do we love the people we love? Why do some people love dogs and others love cats? I love working with all my kiwis. It’s just a real privilege. They’re in my heart and soul.”

 

Freelance writer KERRY GILDEA BECK is a volunteeer interpreter at the Amazonia exhibit.

 

More: Got Milk?

 

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(4) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.