Orphaned baby orangutan makes debut at Utah zoo

SALT LAKE CITY — Fleece jackets, piles of hay, a fuzzy stuffed animal sloth and a lot of fruit were on Bobbi Gordon’s shopping list when she became a surrogate mother to a big-eyed, spikey-haired little boy.

A handful of animal keepers at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo found themselves with a tiny red-headed charge when Eve, a Bornean orangutan, died a few weeks after giving birth.

Now 5 months old, the 14-inch, 11-pound Tuah is starting to crawl. Tuah was revealed to the public on Saturday, with visitors — some of whom wore “I met Tuah” buttons — lining up around the ape building to catch their first glimpse.

About 9,000 people visited the zoo Saturday, said Erica Hansen, the zoo’s community relations coordinator. “It was such a larger day (for attendance) than we usually have in April,” she said.

Gordon is one of several primate handlers who provided round-the-clock care for the infant, improvising along the way.

“We lived like an orangutan,” Gordon said. “It was exhausting.”

Orangutans spend most of their time in trees. A baby orangutan instinctively clings to his mother’s fur while she builds nests and scavenges for food. So Tuah couldn’t be swaddled and put in a crib like a human baby; he needed to hang onto someone, even while sleeping.

A zoo employee used specialized sewing machines and old fleece jackets to make a vest with strips that simulate an orangutan’s fur. The animal keepers took turns wearing the vest and crawling in hay, while Tuah held tight to their chests, developing his muscle strength.

But Tuah can’t cling to humans forever. That’s where his sister, Acara, comes in.

After Tuah’s birth, zookeepers began training Acara on maternal duties. Acara will turn 10 next month and is an eager-to-please orangutan that enjoys learning, Gordon said.

“Gorillas are a whole other different story, but orangutans are very easy,” said Gordon with a laugh. She called the species “insanely intelligent.”

The first step was to teach Acara to be gentle with the infant.

“She was young and spunky, so that was our biggest worry, that she wouldn’t know what was too rough,” said Gordon.

They plied Acara with rewards. The more complicated the task, the higher-value the treat: from the everyday fruit to her favorite grapes and pomegranates to the foods she only gets on special occasions, like jello, granola, graham crackers, applesauce and peanuts.

When Acara had mastered being gentle, zookeepers gave her a stuffed animal to teach her how to pick the baby up, hold it and flip it over. The two were introduced when Tuah was 3 months old, and for the last month, they have lived together full time, Gordon said.

Acara has adjusted to child-rearing and will retrieve Tuah for animal keepers and carry him between exhibits. She also helps Tuah navigate the ropes and stops him from tripping on toys.

On Saturday, Tuah spent a lot of time holding onto the ropes and occasionally wandered up to the glass, giving visitors outside the enclosure an up close glance.

“He stayed awake and fought off his nap until about 3:30,” Hansen said.

Tuah’s father was Eli, an orangutan who became famous for correctly predicting the Super Bowl winner seven years in a row. Eli died of cancer in September, but officials hope Tuah inherited his ability.

“Tuah’s going to try it next year,” Gordon said.

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