Baby Siri had a rough start to life; malnourished and missing one arm. She is now thriving. I was fortunate to photograph Siri on the last day of her hand-raising. This article is republished, with permission, from ZooSounds, Winter 2011. ~Amy
Siri the Survivor
By Amy Dee Stephens
The scene at Sunset Zoo went something like this:
“Congratulations, she’s a healthy.”
“Whew,” responded the primate staff.
“Whew” because they only realized that the mother chimpanzee was pregnant about 6-weeks before delivery. This was not a faulty oversight…it was shock! No one dreamed the 56-year-old female was still of child-bearing age.
The mother was very attentive, protective and nursed regularly. But seven months later, it was clear that something was wrong. Siri was still tiny. Testing revealed that the mother’s milk lacked the nutrients of a younger female, and Siri was starving.
After diet modifications failed, Sunset Zoo asked the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan for help. Oklahoma City Zoo was selected as the facility equipped to accommodate Siri’s needs. Just two years ago, the Great EscApe team successfully hand-raised and introduced baby Zoe to their troop.
“We are building our reputation as a surrogate facility,” said Robin Newby, Great Escape keeper. “Chimp dynamics can be difficult, but our troop already proved that they can accept a baby.”
When Siri arrived inOklahoma City, she was 8-months-old and just 3 ½ pounds. Genetic tests, donated by Harvard, revealed the surprising news that other than malnutrition and lack of muscle mass, her organs were working fine and she had no mental disabilities.
For the next four months, Siri had 24-hour care. Staff and volunteers initially had one focus—feed that baby!
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Siri had no interest in food; staff described it as an aversion to eating. A feeding tube helped her get calories, but the challenge was to teach Siri how to feed herself.
“She didn’t know why she had no interest in food,” said Newby. “We made ‘happy food vocals.’ It’s like a high-pitched hoot that chimps make when they’re eating. We did that and ate lots of fruit in front of her, trying to get her excited about food. That’s how she finally learned what ‘hungry’ meant.”
To complicate matters more, a troop member unintentionally injured Siri. Siri reached toward a chimp through a 2-inch gap in the mesh that separated her from the adult chimps. A female grabbed Siri’s arm and it detached at the elbow.
“Siri had no muscle mass,” said Newby. “A normal infant wouldn’t have been seriously injured, but this baby was too malnourished. Siri’s a fighter. She survived the injury and just got stronger.”
As Siri’s strength improved, the staff began physical therapy to help her overcome her missing forearm. Climbing on a jungle gym made of PVC pipe and ropes helped Siri build muscles, balance, and learn to rely more on her feet.
Teaching Siri independence proved to be the hardest feat for staff, however.
“In the wild, baby chimps are never put on the ground or left alone, but a surrogate mother would not hold her all the time. Siri needed to be okay with being on own her own sometimes,” said Newby. “We started walking away from her some during our daily routine; and she didn’t appreciate it. We had to use tough love, because it was hard to hear her whimpering for us, but we knew this was what she needed to become the best chimp she could be.”
When it was time for Siri to meet her new chimp family, staff again had to practice tough love. Introducing chimps is risky in a regular situation, but trusting tiny Siri with an adult was nerve-racking for the staff. Fortunately, they knew the troop well enough to have several backup plans.
Chimp introductions begin with one member at a time. If all goes well, the two chimps spend time together to build up trust, and then another chimp is added into the mix.
The primate staff had three female chimps in mind who might make a good surrogate mother for Siri. Introductions to Cindy and Abby went fine, but neither seemed to show interest in nurturing an infant. The third female, Kito, went right over to comfort Siri. Newby said she had “the baby instinct.” Ironically, Kito was the very female who injured Siri’s arm in an effort to reach her through the window.
Since then, other troop members, including Mwami, the dominant male, have met Siri. Despite some of the usual “family politics,” the introductions have gone well and eventually all eight chimps will be on exhibit together.
Zoe and Siri play so actively together that most people don’t even notice Siri’s missing limb. Three times each day, Siri drinks a bottle of infant formula through a customized mesh hole at the building. She is never expected to be large chimp because of her early nutritional delay, but staff are proud to say that she is independent, playful and acting like a normal chimp.
“Working with animals is a lot about psychology,” said Newby. “We have to be very in tune with our animals, and anticipate what their reactions might be to a situation. We felt confident that Siri would blend well with our troop and that the chimps would help her adjust.”