Many San Diego Zoo visitors, especially our beloved members, are familiar with the building once known as the Children’s Zoo Nursery. Since its construction in 1981, the nursery was often full of a variety of baby animals being raised by caretakers called nursery attendants. Some of the babies stayed in the nursery well past weaning age before returning to their family group. As a consequence, those impressionable youngsters missed out on important life lessons they should have been learning from their own kind.
Over the past 20 years, the focus of neonatal care has evolved. Recently, the nursery staff adopted a new name to reflect the evolution of our hand-rearing practices and protocols: the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU.) The NACU is staffed by five dedicated keepers who collectively hold over 110 years of hand-rearing experience, and we have learned to expect the unexpected. Last-minute changes to daily schedules or work load are not unusual. We may be required to help administer intense medical care at a moment’s notice or work around the clock to care for a sick baby. Our goal is to assist in the care and rearing of baby animals that would otherwise not survive without human intervention.
As a subdivision of the Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department, we work closely with the veterinarians and the nutritionists to provide necessary medical and nutritional support. We then depend on the baby’s own natal group to impart behavioral and social skills. Getting this done takes a lot of planning, foresight, patience, flexibility, and, most importantly, teamwork. Together we hope to raise a physically, mentally, and socially sound individual.
A lot of work goes into assisted care. It all starts when a neonate is found sick, injured, or abandoned. The keepers transport the animal to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for an exam by a veterinarian. The baby may be treated for a variety of conditions including dehydration, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, and/or infection. It may take several hours before the struggling baby is deemed stable enough to eat. After that, the NACU keepers are called upon to offer the first bottle of formula.
Our expert nutritionists choose formula ingredients that match the mother’s milk as closely as possible. The variety of formulas is impressive. Each one is designed to meet an animal’s individual nutritional needs. Once the correct formula is mixed, the appropriate bottle and nipple must be selected. Even with a suitable formula and nipple, encouraging animal babies to nurse from a bottle is not always easy. These babies are often stressed, uncomfortable, and obviously in an unnatural setting. We have to be gentle and patient, sometimes working with a baby for hours or even days before it is willing to nurse. As soon as an animal is nursing reliably and is medically stable, we begin taking important steps toward returning it to its family.
Typically, the first step of an introduction is allowing visual access between the baby and the adults through a screen or fence. The point at which we move on to the next step depends largely on the family’s response to the baby. Several factors can hinder the process: an adult animal may be aggressive, the baby might get sick, or the weather may prompt a sudden housing change. We may have to delay or modify a plan numerous times before moving on to the next step. Each introduction is a learning process, and flexibility is extremely important. Regardless of any temporary setbacks, the baby still has the opportunity to assimilate species-specific information from its family such as odors, vocalizations, behavior, and food manipulation.
While caring for the babies living with their families, the NACU keepers make multiple trips around the Zoo. On any given day, you may see our NACU golf cart driving up and down the canyons packed with bottles labeled “Speke’s Gazelle,” Steenbok,” or “Gorilla.” In addition to delivering meals on wheels, we monitor growth rates, design weaning schedules, and adjust bottle amounts as needed. Once a baby is weaned from milk, our involvement comes to an end. It is up to the youngster’s family to continue the social and behavioral education, and the area keeper maintains a watchful eye on the little one’s progress.
Early introductions encourage the development of relationships that bolster a baby’s confidence. A confident, well-adjusted baby has a better chance to lead a happy, productive life. Adult animals involved in successful introductions play a key role. We rely on them to teach the valuable social lessons we cannot teach. Sometimes social lessons are gentle and gradual, while others might involve a quick chase around an exhibit to teach a kid the social order of things. Eventually, the dust settles and family life returns to normal.
Every neonate needing assistance is special, and it is a privilege to work with them. Some cases leave us energy-depleted, but the joy of working in the NACU is seeing a neonate reunited with its family and thriving. Our greatest reward is having played a small part in making this happen.
Becky Kier and Kim Weibel are senior keepers at the San Diego Zoo. Read Becky’s previous post, Motherhood: What If…? Read Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Boris Steps Out.