There’s just something about baby animals. Those wide, wondering eyes, wobbly legs, and the little one stuck like glue to mom can fill your heart with joy. We can’t introduce you to every adorable newbie on the block, but we’ll highlight a few here.
BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn and Tammy Spratt
While primates are clever, social animals, they do not all raise their young using the same strategy. The little one’s coloration can reveal something about its family life. For instance, in many types of leaf-eating monkeys, newborns look markedly different from adults, whether they’re bright orange or snowy white; the babies have a natal coat that contrasts with grown monkeys.
The San Diego Zoo has a robust troop of 12 colobus monkeys, which are lanky, midsized, agile creatures sporting sleek, black fur with white trim around the face, a pale tail tuft, and a dramatic white cape across the shoulders. At birth, the one-pound babies are bright white, morphing into adult coloration in about six months. “Babies that are uniquely colored support alloparenting,” explained Mike Bates, senior keeper at the Zoo, meaning other unrelated monkeys can take care of the youngster. “It fosters maternal care among the troop and gives the lactating mom a chance to forage for young leaves on branch tips, without the extra weight of her baby.” There was a bit of high drama with the latest colobus infant born last July to Loga, as Lulu, a founder female and expert mother, died right before Moshi was born. The lack of collective maternal expertise (despite Loga’s experience) within the group may have led to some of the “helpful” alloparents accidentally dropping the little one. “Fortunately, the babies are pretty pliable and he wasn’t injured, but we still spread straw bedding throughout the exhibit, just in case,” Mike added. Visitors will enjoy the raucous troop’s colorful acrobatics and family dynamics.
And Baby Makes 20
A troop of Hamadryas baboons will be a high energy, rowdy part of Africa Rocks. Chatty (ranging from low murmurs to ear-splitting shrieks), highly social, and delightfully rambunctious, these primates are all about relationships. Grooming is a major solidifier—sometimes there’s a chain gang of baboons sitting in a row picking through the lustrous fur of another. Nineteen baboons arrived from the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany. Hamadryas baboons live in “one male unit” (OMU) social groups, with a male attracting a harem of females and their offspring. One of our three OMUs welcomed a new addition: a two-pound, pink-skinned, black haired infant who was later named Christina, in honor of the veterinarian in Germany who worked so hard to get the baboons here. The mother, Kurzbein, is lactating and doting, and her little one is strong and curious, a winning combination for a young primate. Other baboons nestle in to groom the mother to casually get closer to her infant. But if they get too close, mom shoos them away—baboons are not keen on alloparenting.
Primate keeper Sandy Distatte is enthralled with her charges. “These baboons are great! They have such an interesting social structure, and it is fascinating to see the dynamics among individuals and the different harems forming. They are teaching me a lot.” she said. These boisterous, bantering baboons are a bonanza for monkey fans exploring Africa Rocks. Lead keeper Sue Averill, who has worked at the Zoo for 21 years, is excited about all the different primates featured in Africa Rocks. “It’s so rewarding to watch the animals in habitats that were designed especially for them,” she said. “It’s great to see their natural behaviors and social systems play out. As a zoo, we are always striving to do a better job.” And Africa Rocks shows it.
When Mum weighs about 750 pounds, her 40-pound, pint-sized calf looks miniature next to her. Both sport rich, mahogany-colored waterproof fur with a pale face and white zebra-like stripes on the rump and legs. But these hoofed, Central African forest dwellers are more closely related to the giraffe, as their gait, 14-inch-long dark tongue, and ossicone-toting males show. Last July, the San Diego Zoo’s nine-year-old okapi female Mbaya gave birth to a bewitching little calf named Mosi—which is Swahili for “first born”—and Mosi is blossoming. John Michel, a 34-year veteran San Diego Zoo keeper, was excited to report that the little fellow gained 120 pounds in 9 weeks.
“We couldn’t be happier with how he’s developing,” he said. Mbaya has a calm and easygoing demeanor, which she has passed on to her calf. “I can lift his feet up to look at them,” as well as other health checks. When Mosi was first born, he had bent “tulip ears,” typical of the species. But in a few short months, “Mosi went from a weak, floppy-eared thing to this sturdy, strong man about town,” added John, with a proud grin. The okapis share their exhibit with a pair of black duikers named Luke and Peep, and they all “get along famously,” said John. Okapis are the largest species keepers have free contact with, so there is no barrier between human and animal. We stood in the spacious exhibit, in the shade of rustling trees, gazing at Mosi, bathed in magical morning light. “This is a good part of my day,” said John, “better than dragging 50-pound sacks of feed around!” The young, gangly okapi gazed at us, eyes wide, ears twitching. “This is a forever memory.” I had to agree.
Eat, Play, Sleep, Repeat
Not all animal additions are joyous occasions, although we are always glad to help other agencies and rescue animals in peril. Late last August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers confiscated an illegally trafficked Bengal tiger cub from a man attempting to smuggle it into San Diego on the floor of his vehicle. Allegedly purchased for $300 on the streets of Tijuana, the cub was rescued and placed in a crate until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrived on the scene and brought the six-pound cat to the Paul Harter Veterinary Hospital at the Safari Park for a health evaluation. Jim Oosterhuis, DVM, proclaimed the male cub “in good health, overall” and was optimistic the cub would thrive, since he took a bottle so eagerly. It was estimated the cub was between five and six weeks old, and on the cusp of teething.
The tiny tiger was moved to the Ione and Paul Harter Animal Care Center nursery at the Safari Park, where the committed staff provided round-the-clock care for the new special-care baby. Initially, the teeny tiger cried a lot and sucked on his paw, much like a human infant might fuss and suck its thumb. “We had to let him cry it out sometimes, and he had to learn to self soothe,” said Lissa McCaffree, lead mammal keeper at the Safari Park. Keepers diligently cared for him, providing bottles and affection frequently, and he would eventually nod off. “We love sleeping tigers here,” Lissa said, chuckling.
The winds of fate and staff effort continued blowing in the little cat’s favor, and soon he had a four-pawed playmate. A nine-week-old Sumatran tiger cub arrived from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo after his mother wasn’t able to care for him. Animal care teams at both zoos decided the best solution for the well-being of the cub was to transfer him to the Safari Park and introduce him to the rescued Bengal cub. It could not have gone better. “They became immediate friends,” said Lissa. “From the first friendly ‘chuff’ through the crate, they have not stopped playing since! It’s so important for them to learn ‘tiger’ from each other.”
Now they each weigh 20-something pounds and continue their rambunctious wrestling and roughhousing. “It has been exciting for staff to raise this cub and be a part of his rescue,” added Lissa. She said keepers work with the cats daily to teach them husbandry behaviors and desensitize them to future medical procedures by manipulating their tails and even touching a paper clip to it to simulate a blood draw needle. They are learning to sit, lie down, and present paws, so when they eventually move into Tiger Trail, they will be ready. “We’re making their time here at the nursery positive to their future.” For rescued tiger cubs, that’s as good as it gets!