Against All Odds

One thing all keepers understand: when working with animals, expect the unexpected. Yet, we were astonished when Eloise (affectionately called Ellie), a siamang, gave  birth last November.

After the animal staff got over our initial shock, it was determined fairly quickly that our surprise siamang infant was premature.  Fortunately, Ellie is an experienced female having raised five previous offspring.

For the first couple of weeks, it was necessary for Ellie to assist the infant more than what we typically see.  She would hold onto the infant any time she moved, and positioned the infant for nursing. As the infant gained strength Ellie would allow the infant to hold on unassisted and find the nursing spot, only helping when it was necessary.

After her rough start in life we wanted to give the infant a strong name in the language of the people in the species’ native range—Malaysia and Indonesia.  We decided to name her Selamat.  The most common meaning in Malay is ‘congratulations’ (because we were all so excited about this unexpected birth) but a lesser used definition is ‘survivor’ (because power of positive thinking).  We call her Sela for short.

With the infant at nearly two months of age, we are slowly exhaling. The little girl is growing and increasing her strength. Ellie continues to be a very attentive mom. Already we are seeing Sela checking out her surroundings and watching everything her mom does. Her father, Unkie, does not have much to do with Sela yet—but as she gets older his role in her development will increase.

When you come visit the Zoo or check Ape Cam, you may or may not see the infant siamang on exhibit.  Sela still does not have much hair yet. This will come with time, but until then the siamangs will have limited access to the exhibit. They can go on exhibit most days, but it needs to be sunny and at least 60° Fahrenheit in the exhibit for them to be outside. Anytime they have access to the exhibit, they also have the option to go back inside where it is nice and warm.

What do their habitat-mates think of the newest addition? The orangutans have all respectfully checked out the infant. Indah and Aisha have shown the most interest; both have gently touched Sela. Ellie allows this interaction for a short while before she moves away. If you come to the Zoo or watch Ape Cam and don’t see our siamangs, remember that it’s because we are doing everything to ensure the best possible outcome for Sela.

Tanya Howard is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Aisha Turns 3!