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Chimp overcomes odds to thrive at Oklahoma City Zoo

A geriatric chimp in a Kansas zoo unexpectedly gave birth, and officials asked the Oklahoma City Zoo to save the underweight, struggling baby. Siri lost her arm in an accident and died twice during the amputation surgery. But now she's recovering, eating and fitting in.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: August 22, 2011

Siri had already died twice and nobody would have blamed the malnourished chimp for giving up the fight, but she's good at surprising people.

Siri keeps going, said Jennifer Davis, the zoo's ape supervisor.

“We didn't know if she would recover. We didn't know if she would make it,” she said. “She has such a good little fight in her.”

Unlikely beginning

Siri was born a year ago this week to a 56-year-old chimp named Susie who really wasn't supposed to be pregnant in the first place.

Susie had been on birth control for years; like all chimps in accredited zoos, she was put on birth control for life at age 40. But they took her off it because veterinarians worried that at her old age, her long-term birth control use might put her at a higher risk for heart attack or stroke, said Scott Shoemaker, director of the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan.

Surely, everyone thought, a chimp that old wouldn't get pregnant.

“Obviously, she got pregnant,” Shoemaker said. “She was not post-reproductive.”

But Susie and her pregnancy were healthy. She gave birth among the other chimpanzees at the zoo, and she cared for and nursed her baby, Siri.

But as the months went by, Siri wasn't growing, Shoemaker said. Zookeepers were worried. They asked other chimp experts for advice.

In April, Siri and Susie were given a battery of tests. It turns out, Susie wasn't producing enough milk, and the milk she was offering Siri didn't have the nutrients that the baby chimp needed.

The first choice would be to leave Siri with her mother, said Steve Ross, chairman of the chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, a nationwide breeding strategy designed to keep the chimp population healthy and genetically diverse.

But Susie couldn't care for Siri, even though she was trying. In human terms, Susie would be about 100 years old, he said.

Siri would need a surrogate mother, a move that happens only once every few years, Ross said.

Three zoos nationwide had chimps that could fill the surrogate role, including Oklahoma City, Ross said. After much discussion and debate, the decision was made to move Siri.

“Oklahoma City really took a big leap forward by saying they would be able to take on this role,” Ross said.

Growing into herself

Siri weighed 3½ pounds when she arrived at the Oklahoma City Zoo on April 20. At 8 months old, Siri weighed as much as a newborn.

“It was really shocking how small she was,” Veterinary Director Jennifer D'Agostino said.

Her wrinkly skin hung on her frame. Her head and eyes looked too big. Her ears stuck out. Her hair was dull and her skin looked ashen. She had deep ridges on her skull.

“There was severe malnutrition,” D'Agostino said. “The brain suffers from that.”

She slept a lot. She couldn't walk or climb or do other things a chimp her age would do.

Seven staff members rotated 8-hour shifts, watching Siri 24 hours a day for weeks on end. A few other zoo workers volunteered for some of the shifts to help out.

Veterinary staff suspected some type of genetic disorder that blood work and X-rays couldn't show. D'Agostino got in touch with a Harvard researcher who could compare Siri's genome to the genetic maps of other, normal chimps.

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