Training for Motherhood

In case you haven’t heard, one of the Virginia Zoo’s orangutans, Dara, is pregnant! With such big, exciting news also comes extra work and preparation to make way for baby!

Once Keepers confirmed Dara’s pregnancy, they reached out to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for additional guidance. The AZA has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) in place for orangutans and the Asia Keepers are in regular contact with the Orangutan SSP Coordinator. To prepare both Dara and staff for the pregnancy and birth, Keepers have created a “birth management plan” to follow and plan for any possible issues that could arise.

So why are Zoo Keepers training Dara for motherhood? Even though she already has maternal instincts and has observed her mother raise her two siblings, Dara — just like any new mother — may need a little extra help. This training is to ensure that Dara is as prepared as possible for the new baby.

Dara has already began making nests, and Keepers are preparing to give her more bedding materials to make bigger, more elaborate nests as her due date draws near. Keepers have also started the additional baby training to help Dara care for her baby.

Training sessions with the orangutans occur daily (at the orangutans’ choosing), and Keepers have gradually begun training Dara on how to hold her infant properly, desensitize her to the infant nursing, and present the infant to animal care staff for observation or if supplemental feedings are necessary.

Training session with Pepper and Schnitz

Training for properly holding the baby involves the use of a “fake” baby, which is essentially a block of wood. Using the block, Keepers show Dara how to hold the baby, and how to present the baby to staff for observation. Dara is being trained on how to gently place the block (baby) into a rubber bucket and then how to retrieve the baby once Keepers have made their assessments.

The wooden block
Dara places the block “baby in the rubber tub.

Dara is also training for voluntary ultrasounds. Keepers use target training and encourage Dara to show her belly to Keepers through the den mesh, where they initially used a plastic probe to mimic an ultrasound probe. Dara has since graduated to allowing an actual ultrasound machine to be used, although we haven’t yet seen a good image of the baby (which isn’t unusual with orangutans).

Zoo Keeper Martha uses a plastic probe to imitate an ultrasound on Dara

Food rewards are typically used as positive reinforcement to encourage new behaviors, and Keepers say Dara is very eager to participate in training sessions and quick to pick up on new behaviors. Keepers also say she appears to enjoy the extra attention and food.

Dara’s training has been going well, however, Keepers have organized a back-up plan in case Dara is unable or unwilling to care for the new baby. It is very beneficial for infants to be raised by an orangutan so they learn species-appropriate behaviors. Because of this, Animal Care staff are also training Pepper, the Zoo’s other female orangutan, on infant feedings and care if fostering is needed.

Pepper is also being trained as a foster.

Dara will continue training daily (as long as she wants to participate) and following her usual routine up until her due date. It is important for her to maintain her normal routine to decrease stress and anticipation as a first-time mother. The Zoo is excited the training is going well and we look forward to sharing more of the progress with Zoo fans. Check back next week for more updates!