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Little Guenon, Big Step

Installment #5
Read Installment #4: Little Guenon, Big Sister

Gigi snuggles with Mimi.Things continued to go well for Gigi. The relationship between Gigi and her sister, Mimi, was consistently positive, as was her relationship with brother Dru. Most of the time, mom Fifi was patient with and even affectionate toward Gigi. However, we occasionally saw Fifi separate the two girls when they played with each other or sat together, encouraging Mimi to nurse from her briefly. Sometimes, Fifi would carry Mimi away from Gigi. It seemed as if Fifi was unsure about this new relationship that took up so much of her older daughter’s time. Even though we didn’t always understand the dynamics of what was going on with the new family, the Wolf’s guenons did and were working things out among themselves.

Our next step was to prepare Gigi for spending the nights with her family. The guenons often sleep in a cozy hammock suspended from the ceiling. The hammock is made of clean, soft burlap and is large enough for several guenons to sleep together. To encourage Gigi to sleep in a hammock, we strung one up for her in her nursery in the Children’s Zoo and moved all her favorite items into it. Gigi got the “hang” of the hammock and began to use it every night.

Gigi’s first sleepover with the guenons occurred on February 13, 2009. This was Gigi’s last big step. Instead of returning Gigi to the nursery in the late afternoon, nursery keepers fed Gigi her last bottle of the day in the guenons’ bedroom area. We were happy to see that, after drinking her warm bottle that night, Gigi climbed into the hammock to sleep with her sister. The next morning, Gigi appeared rested and had even gained some weight. Our Gigi was a full-fledged member of the guenon family!

These days we have new challenges with Gigi, which are the kind of challenges you really want to have. Sometimes Mimi is holding on to Gigi with such loyalty and devotion that it is difficult to separate the two for weigh-ins or feedings. Gigi has a few more lessons to perfect, like how to forage for food quickly. Until she does, she is briefly separated from the family so she can get enough of the choice food items before a savvy member of the guenon family snatches them up.

As we drop Gigi’s last few bottle feedings, we reflect upon her success. Gigi lives her days surrounded by her cohesive and intelligent family. She continues to gain weight and confidence as she grows. We are proud of Gigi and wish her well.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Little Guenon, Big Sister

Installment #4
Read Installment #3: Little Guenon, Big Exhibit

Gigi was adjusting well to her daily visits to the San Diego Zoo’s Monkey Trails habitat, so we began to increase the time she spent with her family. Her day was now challenging and full. Following a morning weigh-in, Gigi received the first of four bottle feedings at 6 a.m. Then she was packed up and taken to Monkey Trails by 6:30 a.m, not to return to the Children’s Zoo nursery until late afternoon. Her family was anxiously awaiting her arrival and gathered to welcome her. Gigi spent each day in the company of guenons; even her bottle feedings were accomplished remotely without handling. Gigi nursed from her bottle, which was fed through the wire mesh, then went happily about her other activities. Many improvements to her relationships began to surface.

The Wolf’s guenon family was given free access to the exhibit during Gigi’s visits. They had free choice to hang out with Gigi in the bedroom area or to go into the exhibit at any time. They overwhelming chose to stay inside with Gigi. Her dad was tolerant but dignified, surveying his growing family calmly. Brother Dru was a model big brother. He played often and roughly with his sister Mimi. Their play consisted of well-planned attacks against each other, often times from precarious heights punctuated by retreats and tumbles executed throughout the day. However, when Dru played with Gigi, he checked his own behavior and enthusiasm appropriately. When Gigi reached out for Dru, he responded with great care and restraint.

Mom Fifi was constantly in touch, not carrying Gigi as we had hoped, but paying nearly constant attention to her youngest daughter and her activities. Big sister Mimi was the guenon that we were most concerned about. From the beginning, Mimi had shown some rough behavior toward her little sister. Looking back on the time that Mimi displaced Gigi at birth, we were concerned that Mimi would continue to view Gigi as a threat. We could only hope that over time, Mimi would mellow as she realized that Gigi would not replace her or dilute her relationship with her mother.

Gigi was becoming increasingly brave. She left her “safe” place more often and for longer and longer periods of time. Gigi began to hop, play, and climb inside the bedrooms, gathering food items and reaching out to her family. She could reliably be seen sitting on top of Dru’s tail, or suspended above her mother’s head practicing an occasional surprise overhead drop. Eventually, Gigi became brave enough to leave the bedroom and enter the exhibit all by herself. Leticia Plasencia, a senior mammal keeper, was on hand the first time this happened and was able to observe the outcome. Gigi enjoyed the exhibit for some time, playing and exploring. Eventually Gigi decided she had enough and wanted back inside the bedrooms for a rest. Faced with the daunting task of making her way back inside alone, Gigi cried for help. Wisely, keeper Leticia decided to wait and be patient rather than rush in to help Gigi too quickly. Leticia realized that Gigi had the skills and experience to solve the problem on her own. Eventually, Gigi settled down, found her way back into the bedroom by herself, and was calm. She had now mastered the important skill of coming and going on her own as she pleased.

Wild animals are famous for making us feel foolish by doing exactly the opposite of what we expect them to do. We expected that an experienced mom like Fifi would take care of Gigi eventually, but the guenons had a different plan. On one of Leticia’s frequent trips to check on the introduction, she witnessed an unexpected turn of events. Surprisingly, it was Mimi who was carrying her little sister Gigi! The two were instantly and inexplicably inseparable. Later that same day, Mimi carried her new buddy into the exhibit with the family. Mimi took her to several places in the exhibit, including the top of the highest rock area. All was calm, and Gigi enjoyed a long play session in the sunshine. From that day forward, the relationship between the two girls shifted. Mimi stepped into a new role as mentor and began to show consistent support for her sister, Gigi.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Little Guenon, Big Exhibit

Installment #3
Read Installment #2: Little Guenon Gets Acquainted

The exhibit that houses the Wolf’s guenons in Monkey Trails at the San Diego Zoo is beautiful. It is lushly planted and embellished with various leafy vegetation, climbing structures, pools, and grassy areas for rest and play. The exhibit is also very tall and hilly, offering our guests two-story viewing. These exciting exhibit elements are enriching for the guenon family and our guests, to be sure, but can be problematic for a youngster who does not yet “know the ropes.”

To prepare Gigi for her new life, we first turned her nursery cage into a training ground. Gigi was given the largest of our temporary enclosures. We added many elements to help her negotiate and hone her skills of balance, climbing, and jumping. Vines, perches, hammocks, and shelves elevated from the enclosure floor were added. We placed fresh leafy branches in her enclosure and started her on some solid foods. Soon Gigi had mastered balancing and swinging from the perches close to the floor, so we elevated them. Each time Gigi learned a new skill, we added a new challenge or made each one a bit more difficult.

Our next step was to introduce Gigi to the Zoo’s Wolf’s guenon exhibit. On January 13, 2009, we took Gigi for her first outing. We weren’t sure how she would like it, since it was so large and unfamiliar to her. Our plan was to show her around and make her aware of the various areas and alert her to the obstacles. It would have been understandable if she were overwhelmed by the sheer size and novelty of the space. Instead of being nervous, Gigi took an immediate liking to the exhibit. After just a few brief minutes of sitting on my lap, she elected to get down to check things out. As we made our way to the sand, grass, rock, and wood, she stood erect but relaxed. When she encountered a new object she vocalized, signaling either her excitement or indifference at each new experience. Gigi had an opinion on every subject and was not shy about sharing them with us!

Senior mammal keeper Leticia Plasencia took Gigi into the exhibit on successive days. The new routine consisted of a mid morning exhibit visit, including a bottle feeding outside in the sunshine. This was followed by several hours in the bedrooms with Gigi’s family. We began abbreviating and finally eliminating Gigi’s stuffed surrogate to encourage her to become more independent and social. In place of the surrogate, we offered more enrichment (preferred food items, toys, boxes, climbing ropes, and balls) to keep things positive for all. As Gigi’s weight and confidence climbed, we increased the time she spent with the other guenons. From this process, we began to see a somewhat surprising new alliance form. This new development surely was not what we might have expected.

Check back soon for my next blog, where I’ll talk about Gigi’s surprising relationship.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Little Guenon Gets Acquainted

Janet puts Gig's heat disk in a soft blanket.Installment #2
Read Installment #1: Little Guenon Gigi

When Gigi was two weeks old, we had essentially eliminated all the obstacles of her socialization. Gigi was eating and gaining weight well, was bottle adapted, and could hold her body temperature outside of the incubator environment. She still relied upon a heat disk to keep her toasty when outside or in a cool room.

Gigi is gently placed in her transfer crate.On December 4, 2008, Gigi made her debut. She was bundled up and placed into a transfer crate in the nursery. Her heat disk was added to keep her snug in the nursery cart that we use for transporting neonates around San Diego Zoo grounds. When Gigi arrived at the Wolf’s guenon exhibit, her family showed up right away at the gate; they were alert and curious. I sat by the wire mesh of the gate leading to the exhibit, removed Gigi from the crate, and placed her on my lap with the heat source close by.

For her part, Gigi was quiet and a bit unsure, holding on to her favorite stuffed animal and looking around. Immediately the family jockeyed for position, shoulder to shoulder so each could get the best view. Soon they began to reach through the wire mesh, pulling on the blankets and probing for Gigi. Mom Fifi was the most eager, gently touching Gigi’s head, lifting her tail, and inspecting her fur carefully. The reception, which lasted 45 minutes, was resoundingly positive. Mom never left my side while I sat with Gigi. This introduction continued for several successive days. As we observed the progressive positive interactions, we began to formulate a plan. Fifi was showing maternal interest in Gigi, and since Fifi was still nursing Gigi’s sister, Mimi, she still had milk. We decided to try a full reintroduction to the guenon group to see if Fifi would begin to carry and feed her youngest daughter.

On December 9, a full tactile introduction was attempted. Since the group was so attentive and gentle through the gate, we felt comfortable taking the reintroduction to the next step. So, instead of sitting by the gate as usual, guenon senior keeper Leticia Plasencia placed little Gigi in one of the animal bedrooms alone. We set Gigi up with a “safe home base.” She had her favorite stuffed surrogate tied to the wire mesh so the family couldn’t take it away. Gigi also had her nice, cozy heat source wrapped in a familiar blanket to provide warmth during the introduction. Leticia opened the door, allowing the whole group inside for full access. We were hoping that Fifi would pick up and carry her baby.

We were on hand when the family was allowed accesss into the bedroom area. That day the family never left Gigi and chose to hang out with her in the bedroom, but Fifi never did really pick her up. There were a few motions that looked like she may have tried, but the two never quite accomplished it. Instead, there were more of the same enthusiastic investigations by all members of the guenon family. Big sister Mimi was a guenon of interest at first. We were a bit worried that Mimi’s earlier behavior with her little sister would carry over, especially if Fifi decided to pay more attention to this new baby. Although Fifi did make a few rough grabs, she was largely only curious about the new arrival.

As it turned out, we didn’t get everything we were hoping for that day. When we removed Gigi to return her to the nursery, we had not witnessed a major event, but we had launched a new and important process. Now that we knew Gigi was safe with the family, we could make our visits much more significant by letting Gigi spend part of every day outside the care of humans, surrounded by her guenon family. Gigi’s introduction made giant leap forward.

Check back soon for my next blog, where I’ll talk about the Gigi’s introduction into the exhibit.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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Little Guenon Gigi

Installment #1
Wolf’s guenon babies are new to the primate nursery at the San Diego Zoo. We have had brief and memorable experiences with two other guenon species: spot-nosed and swamp guenon or swamp monkey (see blog, Good Things Come in Small Packages). However, when a female Wolf’s guenon named Gigi arrived in the nursery on November 18, 2008, we were suddenly novices. The tiny female weighed 11.5 ounces (327 grams) and was a bit more lanky and elegant in comparison with other newborn guenons we had cared for. This tiny beauty was also more vocal, exhibiting an early flair for the dramatic.

Our inexperience with this species is largely due to the fact that guenons make awesome mothers. Gigi’s mom, Fifi, has been a consistently tender caretaker for her offspring in the past. Her firstborn, a male named Dru, and her secondborn, a female named Mimi, were tenderly reared and received constant maternal attention and devotion. However, when Gigi was born, little Mimi was just over one year old. Mimi continually pulled Gigi’s tail and attempted to displace her from Fifi. This behavior would indicate that the interval between siblings was too short. Fifi was nursing her newborn and doing the best she could to pacify both girls. That first night, however, keepers discovered the newborn on the ground. Gigi was placed back with her mom, only to be ignored. After several hours, it was apparent that Mimi would win the battle for her mom’s devotion, as Fifi consistently refused to hold or carry her newborn. If the birth interval between these two babies had been longer, as it had with Dru and Mimi, there is no doubt that Fifi would have welcomed another baby.

In the wild, Wolf’s guenons (their name has nothing to do with their appearance; they are named for the first person to describe them for science) are very social. They stay together in closely knit family groups and even hang out with other primates. These elegant monkeys are elaborately decorated with all manner of grays, browns, reds, and whites, and are crowned with wonderful long ear tufts. Their vocalizations are varied and expressive. If you visit their exhibit in the lushly planted Monkey Trails habitat at the Zoo, you will notice how unbelievably graceful and athletic they are. When you watch their interactions you can see their intelligent social nature as they remain constantly alert and aware of the world around them.

Watching Gigi’s family reminded us that without them to guide her, Gigi would miss out on so much. We knew that her social reintroduction would have to begin promptly and be a top priority in her rearing. Our goal with Gigi was to keep her consistently acquainted with her family.

Before we could start acquainting Gigi with her family, there were some hurdles to tackle. First, Gigi had to regulate her own body temperature. If Gigi was being reared by her mother, she would be reliant on her mother’s body heat for warmth. Very young guenons (like people) are ectothermic, which means that they are unable to maintain their internal body temperature on their own. Because of her age and also because Gigi was so long, thin, and sparsely furred, she needed to be housed in an incubator inside the nursery for the first two weeks. We also had to find a nipple and milk formula that she would accept. We began the transition to formula feedings, offering Gigi bottles every three hours around the clock.

Gigi was a fussy eater and difficult to settle at first. She required patience and persistence to finish her formula feedings. After four days, though, Gigi was reliably gaining weight and was getting the hang of nursing and finishing her bottles. The amount of formula we fed Gigi was determined by her body weight, which was closely monitored each day using a special, sensitive, and very accurate gram scale.

Check back soon for my next blog, where I’ll talk about the family’s reaction to seeing Gigi again.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.