Breastfeeding zookeeper teaches struggling orangutan mom how to breastfeed

Being a mother didn’t come naturally to Zoe the orangutan, who was orphaned when she was just nine months old.

Their first baby, Taavi, had to be hand-reared by staff at the Metro Richmond Zoo, Virginia’s largest zoo.

So when Zoe gave birth to her second baby on December 12, 2022, the zoo’s vet devised a plan to reactivate the ape’s maternal instincts: She asked zookeeper and new mom Whitlee Turner to demonstrate how she breastfeeds her baby. his son Caleb in front of the orangutan.

Turner was happy to try to help, saying that Zoe was “looking at me curiously” the whole time.

“I had just put on my nursing bra and was able to show [Zoe] all with zero shame. He 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 poking around and looking for him and the latch,” Turner explained.

Richmond Metropolitan Zoo

“With the bra down, I really exaggerated when I put it on so that [Zoe] I could see 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 hooked, he was showing it to him, making sure he saw the important part.”

“The whole time, she kept watching me curiously. She didn’t nurse her baby right away, but she was definitely watching me the whole time,” Whitlee said, adding: “I think it was really special to be able to share this with [Zoe] and help her on her way. Whether it’s an orangutan or a human being, I just want to be able to help any new mom.”

Less than 24 hours after Turner’s demo, Zoe began breastfeeding her new baby for the first time.

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It’s a continuous learning curve for the orangutan, who was taught how to hold a baby using a stuffed toy. The zoo’s head keeper, Jessica Gring, helped Zoe practice with the toy almost daily in the months leading up to the primate’s due date.

“I’d like [the stuffed animal] so it was going around my waist and around my neck like a baby was clinging to it. [Zoe’s] side,” Gring explained.

Richmond Metropolitan Zoo

In the months before Zoe gave birth, they also showed her 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 unidentified baby are healthy and bonding well.