A zookeeper and new mom taught this orangutan how to nurse by breastfeeding her own baby: 'A very proud moment for me'

New mom and zookeeper Whitlee Turner breastfed her own baby to help teach orangutan Zoe how to nurse her young. (Photo: Metro Richmond Zoo)
New mom and zookeeper Whitlee Turner breastfed her own baby to help teach orangutan Zoe how to nurse her young. (Photo: Metro Richmond Zoo)

Breastfeeding doesn’t always come easily to a new parent, human or otherwise. Fortunately, support can sometimes arrive from some unexpected places. And when employees at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Moseley, Va., realized their orangutan Zoe would need help in this department, they asked one of their zookeepers to do something incredible for the struggling new mama.

The zookeeper-turned-hero is Whitlee Turner, a new mother herself who has been at Metro Richmond for three years. The ask was simple, albeit a bit unusual: to help Zoe learn how to nurse by modeling the same behavior, breastfeeding her own baby in front of the great ape.

“I’ve done some animal training before but never modeled a behavior like this for an animal to learn,” Turner tells Yahoo Life.

While some new parents might feel uncomfortable, Turner immediately agreed to help.

“I felt honored to be asked and to be able to share my knowledge and model this behavior for her,” she says.

So, how exactly did Zoe learn to nurse? One of the lead zookeepers, Jessica Gring, had already been working with Zoe daily for months to try and show her how to nurse. On the zoo’s website, Gring shared that she had used a stuffed animal orangutan to show Zoe the proper way to hold and nurse her baby, as well as modeling other behaviors between mother and child. Zoe’s caretakers also repeatedly played videos of orangutans giving birth and taking care of their babies.

While Zoe did mirror some of these behaviors once the baby was born, she was still struggling to breastfeed. That’s when the zoo’s veterinarian called Turner, who was on maternity leave herself, to make the creative request.

Turner brought her own baby, Caleb, to the orangutan indoor house, and quickly began breastfeeding him right in front of Zoe. She made sure everything was visible so Zoe could learn where to put her own baby, and how to get him to latch. Turner says the orangutan watched her the entire time and, less than a day later, successfully nursed her own baby.

“I was really excited when I heard she had successfully breastfed her baby, and to see her continue to breastfeed him and take such good care of him was a very proud moment for me as well,” Turner tells Yahoo.

Lead zookeeper Gring tells Yahoo Life that "it's always ideal that an infant receives the milk and care from its mother for many reasons." Chief among them are the nutrients and antibodies that are found in the mother’s milk. Additionally, Gring says that nursing provides strong bonding time between the mother and infant, which also helps the baby learn crucial survival skills from their mother.

“Bottle feeding can provide many benefits as well,” she adds, especially as it provides nourishment to infants who would otherwise die if their mother were unable to raise them. “While we will bottle-rear an animal entirely if needed, we will always try to reunite an animal with its mom if at all possible.”

When the baby is still cared for by its mother, but not breastfed, zookeepers will simply bring them bottles or occasionally place the baby with a surrogate mother, depending on the circumstances.

Whether or not an animal in their care is able to breastfeed "really just depends on the individual mothers and their level of maternal instincts," says Gring. She tells Yahoo Life that in addition to the methods zookeepers used to help Zoe, they also occasionally put the new mothers with other nursing animals if available, depending on the species. This was the first time they asked a zookeeper, however.

“I do believe she would have struggled more without the live demonstration since the zoo staff tried a lot of the same options with her first baby,” Turner says. “She still did not successfully feed him even after those efforts, so the big difference between the first and second baby was the live demonstration.”

Turner — who says she also initially struggled initially with breastfeeding — would "absolutely" offer her services again.

"I would be happy to help any new mom, animal or human, in their breastfeeding journeys if given the opportunity," she says.

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