Dr. Lily Parkinson was the first red panda cub born at the Milwaukee County Zoo. She was named after the veterinary resident who spotted her on the ultrasound.
Babies. Whether they’re human or animal, just about everyone can agree they’re the most adorable things on the planet. They’re also, as any new mother can tell you, a lot of work. Keepers at the Milwaukee County Zoo have taken on quite a bit of that work lately – not that they’re complaining! The list of mammal births in recent years is long and includes some firsts, such as the first harbor seals and the first red panda born at the Zoo. One characteristic of mammals is that they’re born live, as opposed to hatched from eggs. But just as there is a huge variety in types of mammals, there are lots of differences in the ways mammals give birth and raise babies.
The first step is determining if an animal is pregnant. Keepers carefully observe animals for changes not only in their bodies but also in their behavior. “We can tell a lot by watching (male giraffe) Baha’s reaction to the females,” says Joan Stasica, Zoo pachyderms supervisor. “Baha reacts in specific ways when a female giraffe goes into heat. When his reactions cease, it’s a sign that the female is most likely pregnant.” Some animals start to show as the pregnancy progresses, but others, such as the Moholi bushbaby, gain very little weight. In that case, the only way to prepare for a pregnancy is to track when the animals breed and assume the female could be pregnant, says Rhonda Crenshaw, small mammals supervisor.
Some of the Zoo’s animals, such as the harbor seals, red pandas and many apes, are trained to undergo ultrasounds. The Zoo was able to confirm that Dr. Erin Curry, the red panda, was pregnant through an ultrasound May 10 before she gave birth June 6. The ultrasound allowed veterinary resident Dr. Lily Parkinson to estimate Dr. Erin’s due date within a couple of days. Like her mother, the cub was named for the resident who spotted her on the ultrasound.
Giraffe calf Tafari was born Sept. 16, 2015, about six weeks after zookeepers expected him. Giraffe mothers are pregnant for 14 to 15 months.
With giraffes, an ultrasound is not feasible. Instead, veterinary staff confirms a pregnancy by testing fecal samples for certain hormones. But this method doesn’t provide a due date. In fact, keepers waited six weeks past the expected due date for Ziggy to deliver her first calf, Tafari, in fall 2015. Giraffes are pregnant for 14 to 15 months, one of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom.
Keepers create a birth plan for each pregnancy, but their goal is to stay out of the way as much as possible. Keepers often aren’t present for births, which typically take place at night. When possible, the keepers set up a camera to watch the birth remotely. “It will stress them out completely if we’re just sitting there watching,” Crenshaw says. Veterinarians only get involved if the mother is having trouble delivering, in which case they might sedate the mother and try to assist with the birth or attempt a C-section, says Dr. Vickie Clyde, senior staff veterinarian.
Continuing the hands-off trend, keepers typically don’t handle the baby at first. Instead, they watch for signs that the baby is healthy. For example, a giraffe calf should be standing and a harbor seal should be swimming within about an hour of birth. Healthy mammal babies nurse often and start gaining weight quickly.
Sydney nuzzles her pup Milo, her fourth baby with mate Ringo. Mother harbor seals touch noses with their pups often.
Keepers also observe the mother to make sure she’s adjusting to her new role. “A harbor seal mom should be attentive to the pup, touching noses often and responding when the pup vocalizes,” says Dawn Fleuchaus, North America supervisor. “Sydney (the female harbor seal) is a good mom.” Keepers watch carefully to make sure mothers don’t neglect or even harm their babies, especially if it’s their first one. If that happens, or if the baby doesn’t thrive, the keepers and veterinary staff might decide to hand-raise the baby.
The keepers try to give mom and baby plenty of privacy during those critical first days and weeks, even if that means delaying their introduction to the public. For example, the Zoo waited four months before announcing the birth of Lily the red panda and allowing her into the public exhibit. The delay might make Zoo fans impatient, but rest assured, there will be plenty of smiles and “aww”s when a baby finally makes its debut.
By Stacy Vogel Davis
This article appeared in the winter 2019 issue of Alive magazine.