nursery keeper


Wallaby Baby Catches Up

Tinka peeks out of her larger pouch.

Be sure to read Janet’s previous post, Wallaby Baby: New Coat, New Adventures.

We knew that Tinka, a parma wallaby, was small for her age since her arrival in the San Diego Zoo’s Neonatal Assisted Care Unit. All along, one of our main focuses was to encourage her to eat and gain weight. We surmised that since her mom had been so ill, either the quantity or quality (or both) of Mom’s milk wasn’t enough for the baby to attain a normal size. We weighed Tinka every morning before her first bottle, and we found that she gained weight nearly every day. Though her weight climbed, it was never enough to compensate, and she remained 30 to 50 percent of normal size range. The statistics we had on normal baby parma growth ended at around 200 days. Now we were in uncharted territory, unable to determine exactly how Tinka was doing.

We noticed that Tinka’s muscular tail and legs were looking more substantial. She developed an endearing little pad of fat under her chin, characteristic of the species. We decided to check with some other zoos to see if there was any weight data available on joeys Tinka’s age. Cooperation between zoos in sharing information like this is vital. There aren’t many zoos that have an organized hand-rearing program. Fewer have experience with marsupials, and even fewer still have had experience with parma wallabies. We were lucky to find that the Cleveland Zoo had raised a parma wallaby recently, had kept excellent records, and were willing to share them with us.

Tinka and Janet enjoy some play time in the nursery.

When we compared Tinka’s weight to the animal from Cleveland, we were surprised with what we found: our little girl was now 80 percent normal size! Tinka had been experiencing what is known as compensatory growth, which occurs when a small animal “catches up” to normal weight. We were delighted with this finding.

By now, Tinka was consuming solids well, jumping out of her pouch as soon as a fresh food pan was placed in her enclosure. Her favorite food was freshly chopped greens. She had become so wide (especially across the backside) that she was having trouble wiggling into her small pouch. Her fore end made it through the opening easily, but the back end was a struggle! We provided her with a larger, roomier model made from the same design. Tinka, our once-fragile neonate was now a healthy parma youngster. It was time for her to graduate from the nursery.

Tinka hops out of her nursery bedroom.

One of the most common questions I am asked as a nursery keeper is, “Don’t you miss them when they are gone? Aren’t you sad when they leave the nursery?” My answer is always the same. When an animal is ready to move on, it means that we have fulfilled our role. The aim from the start was not to make the animal into our pet, and the focus was never about the relationship between the animal and the keeper. Instead, the focus is on graduating a healthy, well-adjusted animal that will go on to lead a productive life. It is impossible not to look back on rearing an animal without some sense of letting go. But that was the plan all along, and now it was Tinka’s time.

The koala keepers prepared a nice temporary space for Tinka in an off-exhibit area. We outfitted it with some logs and hay and hung a heater above one of her pouches. Though she was used to visiting with the adults and spending time in a pen by herself every day, she returned to the nursery for overnight stays. On December 26, Tinka left the nursery for the last time. That evening, nursery keepers went out to visit Tinka in the early evening to check on her, and she seemed fine. Tinka was settled and stress free the following morning, having spent a comfortable night tucked in her heated pouch.
Tinka continues her socialization. A gentle adult female was selected to serve as a companion, and Tinka spends her days in a warm and sunny pen behind the Zoo’s parma wallaby enclosure. Soon, Tinka will be introduced to all the “girls” in the group. We have decreased her feedings to just one abbreviated bottle in the morning, and her weight continues to climb.

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


Spotted Bundle of Fur

Well, you’ve probably seen him by now, our newest, fuzziest addition to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Animal Care Center! Say hello to Kiburi, our 19-day-old cheetah cub. His mother, Makena, who was hand raised herself, gave birth to two cubs in the late afternoon on November 14, 2010. (Read about Makena’s ultrasound procedure in New View of Cheetah Conservation). Unfortunately, one cub died a few hours after birth, and keepers had to intervene when Makena began showing signs of abandoning her remaining cub. He was brought to the Animal Care Center, where he immediately nursed a warm bottle for nursery keepers; soon after this, he began to purr. His weight at birth was less than a pound at 451 grams!

Kiburi, whose name means “proud” in Swahili, was named after longtime Senior Nursery Keeper Marcia Diehl (Marcia is Latin for “proud, warlike, or martial”). His current feeding schedule is every 2½ hrs (this schedule will change as he gets older). Park guests can view him inside of his temperature-controlled incubator; he sleeps between 16 and 20 hours a day! As he gets older, he will start to sleep less and become more and more playful. While his activity level increases, guests can look forward to seeing him in a larger play area!

Long-term plans for Kiburi are uncertain at this time, but he is most likely destined to become an ambassador to educate people about cheetahs and other endangered species. During this holiday season, make sure to bring friends and family to the Safari Park to catch a glimpse of our cute little bundle of fur!

Be sure to click on Kiburi’s images to view them in a larger size.

Sandy Craig is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gerenuk, Steenbok, and Sable Antelope Babies.

See video of Sandy feeding Kiburi.


Boris Learns Reindeer Games

See Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Baby Boris Grows Up.

The next big step in Boris’ social introduction was encouraging him to live in the main exhibit with the herd. To help make his move successful, we set up a “creep” for Boris. A creep is a small, safe pen, similar to a “howdy pen,” where a young animal can go to escape the herd and also meet his keepers for bottles.

To train young animals like Boris to come to their caretakers for bottle feedings, we use a method called clicker training. Once a young animal is nursing reliably, we begin using a clicker, clicking it once before offering the bottle and once again while the animal is actively nursing from it. By repeating this at each feeding, the animal learns to associate the sound of the clicker with bottle feedings/food. Training a young animal to respond to the clicker allows him to live with his own kind, where he learns important social skills and herd etiquette while still receiving bottle feedings from his keepers.

Boris enjoys a meal in his creep.

Boris quickly learned that clicker equals dinner and bounded across the exhibit to meet his keeper at the creep. After draining his bottle, and bumping his keeper for more, he’d saunter out of the creep, back onto the exhibit, looking back a few times just to make sure he hadn’t missed any milk.

Just like his wild cousins, one of the things Boris learned about reindeer life was the importance of moving with the herd. On the wild tundra, the large number of herd members help keep a baby safe from predators. At the San Diego Zoo, Boris learned about life with the reindeer herd in his new home.
Part of a keeper’s day includes servicing the exhibit. In order to clean and distribute fresh food, water, and enrichment items, the reindeer keeper moves the herd into holding pens at the top of the exhibit.

Bath time for Boris.

Boris learned to move into the reindeer barns with the herd when his keeper calls and charges out ahead of them when released. He does this with great enthusiasm, proving that he is an official experienced member of the group. Boris joins in the reindeer game of “What’s new out here today?”, bounding about exploring the hillsides looking for browse treats. Boris is especially fond of water and can be seen splashing around in the pond making a muddy mess out of both the pond and himself.

Kim Weibel is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Listen to Boris as he calls to his keeper.


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.