Orangutan learns to breastfeed by watching zookeeper breastfeed her infant son

The orangutan, named Zoe, relied on humans to learn maternal instincts.

March 31, 2023, 1:21 PM

An orangutan at a Virginia zoo relied on a fellow mother, a human, to teach her how to breastfeed.

The orangutan, named Zoe, did not have natural maternal instincts because she was orphaned at 9 months old when her mother died unexpectedly, according to Jessica Gring, a lead zookeeper at the Metro Richmond Zoo, where Zoe was born and raised.

Zoe failed to nurse her first baby, a boy named Taavi, properly, and zookeepers had to step in and hand-raise the now 2-year-old orangutan.

When Zoe became pregnant a second time last year, Gring said she and her colleagues worked creatively over Zoe's nearly nine months of pregnancy to make sure she was prepared to raise her baby on her own.

"The second time around, we did a lot of different things to try to make sure she was ready," Gring told "Good Morning America." "We found some even more specific ways to help her learn how to take care of her baby."

Gring, for her part, demonstrated how to hold a baby by carrying a stuffed animal orangutan around her neck and waist for months during Zoe's pregnancy.

PHOTO: Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Courtesy of Metro Richmond Zoo

She also used the stuffed animal to show Zoe how to check her baby's health and how to eat while holding the baby.

Zoekeepers also set up a television inside Zoe's area so she could watch videos of orangutans giving birth and caring for their babies.

After Zoe gave birth to a son on Dec. 12, 2022, Gring recruited another zookeeper, Whitlee Turner, to come and help.

In two sessions, Turner breastfed her then-3-month-old son Caleb in front of Zoe so the orangutan could watch a live demonstration.

PHOTO: Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Courtesy of Metro Richmond Zoo

"The whole time I was talking to her and pointing at her, pointing at the baby, pointing at her breasts," Turner said in a statement shared by the zoo. "And when Caleb was latched I was showing it to her, making sure that she saw the important part."

Less than 24 hours after first watching Turner, Zoe breastfed her own son, who has not yet been named by the zoo, according to Gring.

"She was really engaged with it," Gring said of Zoe's reaction to the breastfeeding demonstrations. "We decided to do that because [orangutans] are very visual animals, and they're very, very intelligent and essentially share 97% of human's DNA."

PHOTO: Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Courtesy of Metro Richmond Zoo

Zoe has continued to be able to care for her son on her own in the months since, according to Gring. She said the baby is healthy and continues to gain weight and hit his milestones.

Gring also explained the importance of breastfeeding, noting that orangutans breastfeed their young for as long as eight years, far longer than humans and other animal species.

"They'll stay with them for about eight years, because they're very slow to develop," Gring said. "So they will continue to nurse upwards of eight years and then they'll continue to visit back with mom until they're about 14."

She added, "Toward the end, it's not as much for the nutritional aspect but it's kind of a comforting thing. So it's a really good bonding experience to maintain the relationship with mom and baby."

PHOTO: Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo, had to be taught by zookeepers how to breastfeed her baby boy.
Courtesy of Metro Richmond Zoo

Both Zoe and her infant son are on display to the public at the zoo.

Gring said she hopes people become aware of the orangutan family and the importance of the species. Orangutans are considered a critically endangered species, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"It's just really important that we are able to educate people and make them understand the importance of the species," Gring said. "We're hoping to bring back a number of these species so they can thrive in the wild, ideally."

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