The 19th of January 2019 was a very special day for Wingham Wildlife Park, as it marked the day Elizabeth, our baby chimpanzee, celebrated her first birthday. To commemorate the occasion, I’ve put together this blog to share with you what happens during the first year of a baby chimpanzee’s life, and all the milestones we’ve celebrated so far.
Back to the Start
January 19th, 2018
Whilst Elizabeth’s arrival was initially unplanned and unexpected (with mum Tara being on birth control at the time!), that certainly doesn’t mean that this day came around without some intense pre-planning. Although we weren’t expecting a pregnancy in the group, it didn’t take too long for the keepers to realise that Tara may have proven to be an exception to the rule. After confirming our suspicions with a simple pregnancy test (one benefit to the chimpanzee’s close relation to ourselves), preparations began to ensure that this day went as smoothly as it could. With all primates, and indeed with the majority of the animal kingdom, first births are always touch and go, and with this being Tara’s first ever baby it was a very real possibility that the outcome may not be what we would hope for. Additionally, this would be the first baby born into our group of chimpanzees at WWP so we couldn’t be sure how the other chimpanzee’s in the group would respond. The decision was made to separate Tara from the group in the lead up to the birth to give her the space she needed, and then all we could do was wait.
On the morning of the 19th, I was working in the chimpanzee enclosure when I noticed Tara was showing signs of going into labour, we all got prepared, and around 2pm that afternoon, myself and some of the other staff were fortunate enough to witness Elizabeth’s birth right in front of our eyes – definitely a moment I’ll never forget and to everyone’s relief, everything was perfect.
The First Few Weeks
Feeding from mum? Check
After a successful birth, the next major concern is will baby feed okay from mum. The keepers watched, and waited for hours, desperate to see what you’re seeing in the photo above, at first to no avail. Anxiety growing, we wondered would it happen at all? Turns out we were probably all just looking away at the wrong moments, as by day 2 all our fears had been settled as we watched baby (she didn’t have her name at this point, it’s a good story so we’ll get to that in a while) feed perfectly throughout the day.
Accepted by the group? Check
The last hurdle to face in those crucial first few weeks was integrating Tara and her new baby back into the group with the rest of the chimpanzees and I’m not going to lie, this was the part that got to my nerves the most – I still haven’t forgotten the sleepless nights leading up to this!
With a well thought out plan, one chimpanzee at a time, the reintroduction process began, and over the course of a week, we slowly put the group back together. As you can see, my sleepless nights were completely unwarranted as everything worked out perfectly, the other chimpanzees took to baby immediately, showering her with affection – something which she has become very accustomed to ever since.
Learning to pose? Definitely check.
Weeks Become Months
With the first few weeks of her life well underway, and with mum Tara doing everything right, it was time for us keepers to relax, take a step back and just appreciate the experience of watching baby grow. The infancy period of a chimpanzee is extremely long relative to the vast majority of the animal kingdom. In fact, with the nursing stage lasting for approximately 5 years, chimpanzee infants are even more dependent on their mothers than their human counterparts. With this in mind, it’s safe to say the road was just beginning for Tara and her baby at this point, but they were making their way along it together well.
One month old
Three months now
Five months old and cabbage is looking good now.
6 Months Old and No Name?
So we’re approaching the 6 month marker now and our baby chimpanzee is still just “baby”…but why? Well of course, it wasn’t just as simple as pick a name for her and that will be the end of it. With a lifespan of over 50 years in captivity, naming a chimpanzee is kind of a big deal as they’re going to have it for a long time!
For a start, who would get to pick; Would the public pick? Would the keepers pick? Would management pick? Naturally, we all would have liked to be the one to choose and that’s where our curator hatched a clever plan, one where everyone could work together to give this little one her name. The best part of this plan was that the final decision would lie with the one who should really make it – Tara herself.
This might sound impossible, but with our clever group of chimpanzees it wasn’t. Positive reinforcement training for health reasons is an important part of the chimpanzee’s daily care at WWP, and one of the behaviours our chimpanzee’s are trained for is to give items back from their enclosure, and conveniently Tara is better at this than any of her fellow group members.
So how would Elizabeth get her name?
- The public would suggest names for her.
- The staff at WWP would choose their 10 favourites from this list.
- The chimpanzees would choose one of ten blankets to give back to us from inside their enclosure with these ten names written on.
And the result…
Growing So Fast…But Maybe Not Fast Enough?
Unfortunately, it was also around the 6 month mark that keepers began to grow concerned at the rate Elizabeth was developing. Whilst Tara seemed to be doing everything right, and Elizabeth was otherwise in good health, we noticed she wasn’t hitting some of her developmental milestones in the timescale that she should be. She was small for her age and not showing the level of mobility that she should have been at this point. Since it was clear Tara was not neglectful in her care for Elizabeth, we had to consider the possibility that she may be struggling physically to produce the amount of nutritious milk that Elizabeth needed. An important part of being a zookeeper is not only being able to judge when to take a step back, but also when you need to step in and this was one of those occasions.
We decided we needed to start giving Elizabeth supplemental milk feeds between what she was receiving from Tara but we were determined to do this in the least invasive way possible so as not to disrupt the bond between Tara and Elizabeth. This wasn’t an easy feat but with a few weeks of hard work and a large helping of patience, we reached a point where Elizabeth would take milk from us and Tara would allow her to do so without ever having to separate the two of them from each other, or the rest of the group which was a huge success!
The Right Decision
Within a few days it was clear to us all that we’d made the right decision, the extra milk Elizabeth was receiving from us made an almost unbelievable difference and within weeks we had a totally different chimpanzee baby on our hands. From this point on, her progress has been unstoppable, quickly learning to walk independently, climb and really explore the world around her…alongside building a humongous appetite for such a little ape!
2 months on…walking, climbing and growing by the day.
11 months old and not so little anymore
Big Girl Now
And on the topic of milestones, in the last few weeks, Elizabeth has even graduated from the syringe, mastering how to drink her extra milk from a grown up bottle just like all the other chimpanzees in the group. Each of the adult chimpanzees have their own bottle from which they get their morning juice and this week I had to drink an extra bottle of Lucozade (a terrible hardship I know), to make sure there was an extra one for Elizabeth. I guess this may not seem like the most exciting thing in the world, but when you’re as heavily invested in the lives of the animals you care for as I am, moments like this really make you smile.
It’s also much easier for us to give her milk now, rather than having to refill the syringe after every 10ml she gets through but of course that’s not the main point here…
Back to the Big Birthday
And so with all that said, it brings us back to January 19th, 2019. The day Elizabeth turned 1 year old, and a chimpanzee birthday at WWP means only one thing…a chimpanzee birthday party.
Whenever one of our chimpanzees celebrates a birthday, we throw them a huge party to celebrate with all their favourite treats and lots of presents to unwrap and of course Elizabeth would be no exception to this tradition. In fact I’m sure the chimpanzees will be over the moon that they just got upgraded from 7 parties a year to 8!
The theme for Elizabeth’s party this year was pink, and I think it’s safe to say she approved of the proceedings.