December 24, 2010

"She held the baby on her head."

I stumbled upon this article on a blog and found it interesting.

I've been reading the story of last month's arrival of the new baby gorilla to gorilla mom Kiki at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo in the Boston Globe magazine. I've been learning about species survival plans and the ethics of breeding endangered animals in captivity.

This new baby is Kiki's third, and she's now a pro at nursing. But the article described what happened with her first baby, born eleven years ago:

"Eleven years ago, when Kiki was pregnant with Kira, things weren’t nearly so relaxed. One concern was that Kiki had been hand-reared at the Bronx Zoo and later the Philadelphia Zoo. This wasn’t unusual in the early ’80s, but zoos now operate on the principle that gorillas learn best from other gorillas. So the zoo staff was frantic that Kiki wouldn’t know what to do with the newborn. One zoo staffer’s wife had just given birth, and they brought her in twice a week for a month to breast-feed in front of Kiki, just to show her how it was done. Keepers camped out at night next to the gorilla holding area in case the baby came in the middle of the night.

They were right to be afraid. Kira arrived healthy, but Kiki didn’t know how to nurse. “It was painful,” Jackle says. “She was a good mom, she held it, but she didn’t know what to do with it. She’d never held a baby before, so she held it on her head, she held it everywhere she could put it, but not on her breast. And then finally 36 hours later the milk came and somehow she got the baby in the right position by accident.”

Wiessinger offered this story: A female gorilla, born and raised in the zoo, gave birth to an infant. In an attempt to nurse it, the mother held the infant incorrectly, with the back of the baby's head toward the nipple. The keepers feared for the infant's life and took the baby away. During the gorilla's next pregnancy, the keepers tried an experiment. They lined up a group of breastfeeding humans outside the cage and allowed the mother gorilla to observe. When her next infant was born, the mother gorilla, too, turned the baby toward her breast and everything went fine.

I love how this shows that feeding is a social act, learned at least in part by watching others. For more stories of how other mammals feed their babies, check out this podcast - one of my favorites.

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