Raising Acara: Docents & Keepers Working Together
Coleen Hackwell, Utah’s Hogle Zoo
Utah’s Hogle Zoo is located in Salt Lake City. The Zoo has been at its current location since August 1, 1931. The Zoo is on about 42 acres and contains around 900 animals.
In 2004 we acquired Eli, a Bornean Orangutan, who is now 17 years old. We brought Eli from the Topeka Zoo to see if he and our female, Eve, would be compatible. The SSP looked at the numbers (their genetic numbers) and determined that they would be a good genetic match. This allowed us to begin trying to have Eve become pregnant. The match was a success, and on May 7, 2005 our baby orangutan, Acara, came into being. Acara means “special event” in Indonesian. Acara definitely is a special event.
This was Eve’s first pregnancy. Eve is a small orangutan, and Eli is a big boy! Unfortunately, when Eve went into labor, her birth canal was not large enough for the baby to come through. After many long hours Eve’s contractions stopped. When it became apparent that Eve was going to require surgery to help deliver the baby, our staff called on medical staff from the University of Utah. Three very prominent surgeons jumped at the chance, and performed a cesarean section on Eve. The operation was a great success except for one thing.
Coming out of the anesthesia, Eve did not recognize that the screaming little ball of orange was her baby. The keepers were ready to step up to the plate.
Having to begin to raise Acara by hand was a very daunting task. The Zoo did not want the baby to become imprinted on humans, and wanted to get Eve to accept the baby as her own. The first step was to get Acara through her first months.
Acara had to be taken care of 24/7. The keepers set up a schedule that would make sure to take care of Acara’s needs. We had a very stylish vest prepared out of fake plush animal fur that was worn whenever you were with Acara. Baby orangutans cling to their mother for the first few years of their life. Acara was no different. After the first few weeks, the keepers found out that taking care of a baby orangutan, and keeping our other five great apes happy, healthy and clean was more than the 20 out of our 33 keepers could handle alone. They asked if a group of docents would be able to help during the day. ARE YOU KIDDING!!! We all wanted to help. The Zoo administration selected the docents. This is where volunteer history and track record became really important. The administration based their choices on several known factors, most importantly were reliability and ability to follow instructions. Other criteria was, the administration looked for docents who would be able to come in consistently, ones that didn’t have small children (trying to keep contagious diseases at bay), and those who could make a commitment for at least a year. The docents would have to work eight hour shifts either weekly or every other week. 12 docents were selected to help.
We had a short training meeting to begin with. We needed to be very strict with following protocols. Following instructions, always washing our hands as we came in the building, keeping the mask and gloves on at all times, and wearing our vest was just the beginning.
We documented every little thing that happened during our shift. We started out with having Acara cling to us from the moment we came in (even when she slept). We noted the time she was awake, the times she urinated, the time she defecated (and the consistency), how much she ate and when.
On May 18, Acara (and her surrogate “mothers”) were put on display. Acara held court in our large orangutan enclosure. What a big success! She was on display for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.
Our enclosure is fairly soundproof, but we had signs up trying to keep the noise down. We had two to four Interpreters outside of the enclosure telling people about Acara. The surrogate docents tried our best to make sure that people had good photo opportunities, and at the same time, trying to do our best with Acara.
All the while this was going on, Acara was being introduced to Eve daily. The daily introductions started with Acara being placed for brief periods of time in Eve’s enclosure with food around her while she was asleep. Eve was very agitated when Acara was awake and screaming (it scared Eve). The introductions progressed with the keepers working very hard with Eve, having her touch Acara, and being rewarded when she did it nicely. The keepers would even spread peanut butter on the wall above Acara so that Eve would come closer. Eve would have to lean over Acara to get to one of her favorite snacks. During the day, we would sit outside of Eve’s enclosure with Acara where she could see Eve. The keepers would give Eve blankets with Acara’s scent on them so that she could get used to that smell.
After about four or five months, our Primate Supervisor determined that Eve was not going to be able to raise Acara. From that point on, the training had to become more focused on Acara being a companion for Eve.
Acara learned how to crawl much quicker that a baby orangutan would normally. She also learned to climb and swing earlier. Over the next several months we worked with Acara on getting her used to climbing on a jungle gym. The more her strength increased, the more time she would spend climbing and swinging. As her time on the jungle gym increased, her time with mom increased also.
At about six months, we were trying to get Acara to stay by herself at night in an enclosure just for her. We were supposed to make as little eye contact with her as possible. We wanted her to look for Eve. We needed to start being a little more “rough” with Acara. We would pick her up and throw her over our back, or let her hang on our back upside down. We would toss her into deep straw and make her climb back to us. This was VERY hard on some of us docents! I think we were much more upset than Acara was. This was also getting her used to walking, climbing, and trying to separate her from us. We taught her to take her bottles through the barriers, and increased her diet to fruits and vegetables. Acara LOVED her grapes!
The keepers were in contact with a lot of other zoos, asking for opinions and getting lots of tips for trying to get Acara and Eve to bond. The Brookfield Zoo and the Orangutan SSP Behavior Advisor were very helpful to our keepers. The keepers would put Acara and Eve together in a “bedroom” enclosure, fixed up with climbing ropes and play things for longer periods at a time. We would watch them from farther back in the area to make sure that Eve was being “gentle” with Acara.
At nine months, Acara and Eve were spending most of their days together. They were learning to shift, taking naps, and generally getting along really well. The keepers were able to handle their daily work and the “Acara Watch” much easier. The docents were not needed to assist them any longer, and our journey with Acara had come to an end.
On February 14, 2006 (Valentines Day wouldn’t you know), Acara spent her first night with Eve.
The keepers were watching out of sight and checked on them all night. Both mother and daughter slept through the night together. They have been together ever since.
This has given Eve an opportunity to care for her baby, and is giving her a better chance of successfully having and raising a baby in the future. By living with her mom, Acara is learning from Eve how to behave like an orangutan and has a better chance of living with other orangutans. Maybe sometime in the future Acara will be able to have her own baby. This spring Eve has been carrying Acara on her back (just as they do in the wild) and they have been going into the outside enclosure together.
It has been an incredible experience for the docents to be able to help the keepers with Acara. We have been so grateful for this opportunity. It just shows how we can work together to achieve something so positive and worthwhile. It has also given the docents an opportunity to get to know some of the keepers at the Zoo (the keepers have really enjoyed getting to know the docents as well). Even though we don’t have the same backgrounds or knowledge, we can achieve great and wonderful things together.
I want to thank all of the keepers and administration at the Zoo for giving the docents this great opportunity, and I hope that we can help the next time something like this comes up.
I hope that by sharing my experiences with you, it will give you and your zoos an incentive to tap into the great “volunteer pool” of docents.