Nothing more could be done to save the chimpanzee Chloe, so veterinarians looked to rescue the baby inside her. The fragile, trembling baby was weak and groggy, but she was alive. Her arrival marks the first chimpanzee born at the Oklahoma City Zoo in nearly 60 years. She was named Zoe, in honor of her mother. The joy of her birth was tinged by the sorrow of her mother’s death. And a difficult path lay ahead for the 3 1/2 -pound chimp. She had no mother to feed or teach her. But she’s done well, zoo officials say, and she’s expected to achieve her next big milestone within days. After nearly a year off exhibit, Zoe is expected to make her public debut.
A normal pregnancyAdult chimps Chloe and Mwami were brought to Oklahoma City in 2006 to breed. Their mating was part of a national plan to guarantee genetic diversity. Only about 270 chimps live in accredited zoos nationwide. Neither Chloe nor Mwami had any offspring. Any babies they could produce would be a boost for the captive chimp gene pool, said Dwight Scott, executive director of the Oklahoma City Zoo and vice-chairman of the Ape Taxon Advisory Group, the organization that oversees the captive ape population. Keepers discovered Chloe was expecting from a human pregnancy test in March 2008, said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services. Chloe’s pregnancy was healthy, D’Agostino said. She ate well, moved normally and protected her body by sneaking away from the group whenever conflict arose. Keepers gave her prenatal vitamins. Her belly grew. But closely monitoring her development was tough, D’Agostino said. Chloe was afraid of ultrasounds, so keepers were left with observation and weight tracking.
An abnormal birthZookeepers discovered pools of blood in Chloe’s area the morning of Oct. 14, 2008. Veterinary staff decided to anesthetize the chimp and examine her, D’Agostino said. Using anesthesia on a pregnant chimp can be risky to the mother and the baby, she said, but the bleeding was a bigger concern. "If we did nothing,” she said, "we could have lost them both.” Veterinarian staff contacted experts at OU Medical Center. A medical team went to the zoo to interpret the ultrasound images of the unconscious chimp. Because chimps and humans are so genetically close, they share similar pregnancy risks and complications, said Dr. Elisa Crouse, a doctor at OU Physicians Women’s Health who attended Chloe. Crouse and other experts looked at the ultrasound images. Everything appeared normal. The baby was moving normally, and her heartbeat was regular. Chloe wasn’t in labor. Everyone decided Chloe could continue with her pregnancy. She was taken from the zoo hospital back to her home at the Great EscApe exhibit. She came to and went into respiratory and cardiac arrest, D’Agostino said. Vet staff performed CPR, but the chimp couldn’t be revived. "We knew there was nothing we could do for Chloe at that point,” she said. Focus turned to the baby. The team performed an emergency cesarean section. The baby chimp — a girl — was rescued. Vet staff performed CPR. She woke up and looked groggily at her surroundings. She was given an IV and antibiotics. She was fine. She was fully developed, breathing on her own and had no noticeable abnormalities, D’Agostino said. "It was pretty devastating at the time,” she said. "You get attached to those animals. … On one hand, (we) were so happy to have Zoe, but at what cost?” Within four hours, the chimp troop had lost one of its most powerful members and gained the most fragile.
Leaving a voidChloe died of multiple complications from pregnancy, D’Agostino said. Staff performed a necropsy, an autopsy for animals, and discovered several problems, namely cellular abnormality in the placenta and microscopic blood clots. She also vomited while under anesthesia, causing aspiration pneumonia. "I think what happened with Chloe was just one of those fluke accidents,” D’Agostino said. But Zoe still needed a mother. Zoo staff filled in. They held her 24 hours a day for months. They mimicked chimp noises and facial expressions. Specially textured shirts that mimicked her mother’s torso allowed Zoe to cling to them, like she would with her real mother. "Some people try to equate it to raising a baby,” said Jennifer Davis, supervisor of the Great EscApe exhibit. "But we could never put her down.”
Meeting a new motherFor her first six months, Zoe was kept in a special area and was allowed outside only in the off-exhibit areas. Even though Zoe was segregated, she wasn’t isolated. She lived near the adult chimps. They could smell, hear and see each other. Keepers began allowing them to meet through mesh barriers when Zoe was 3 days old. The baby and the adults would sit along the barrier and touch and play. Zoe would need an adoptive mother who wasn’t human, Davis said. Keepers coached the adult females how to care for a baby using a stuffed monkey. After Zoe turned 6 months old, she was introduced to Cindy, the most nurturing female. Cindy and Zoe bonded, but it wasn’t enough, Davis said. "They were great playmates,” she said, "but Cindy never really developed that maternal sort of care. We tried Abby next, and Abby was just a pro. She was holding her within half an hour. It just sort of takes care of itself.” From that day, Zoe’s human contact ended.
Finding a familyAt first, Zoe would stay next to the mesh, where she could see her people. "Initially there was separation anxiety for us and her,” Davis said. Though she has a special bond with keepers, she is growing away from her human family and toward her chimpanzee one. Davis and the others are spending less time with her to encourage the transition. "We help that along by not trying to bond with her,” she said. "It’s hard. We’d love to stand there and be with her all day, but that’s selfish.” The chimp troop is still figuring out its dynamics after the death of Chloe and Zoe’s birth. The six remaining adults were subdued waiting for Chloe’s return, Davis said. When they realized she wasn’t coming back, the males and the females had to restructure their hierarchy. Chloe was a high-ranking female, Davis said, and her partner, Mwami, was the dominant male. The slow introduction of Zoe has also affected their dynamics. Abby’s adoption of Zoe has given her more weight, Davis said. A year later, the structure still hasn’t been sorted out. The biggest change keepers have seen is in Mwami, Zoe’s father. At first, he didn’t care much about the baby. But as she has matured, so has Mwami. He has grown from a playmate to a comforter to a protector. If she’s scared, he will run to her and reassure her with hugs. He is careful to protect her from harm. He lets her sit on his lap. It’s a sign that Zoe has overcome the loss of her mother, Davis said. She has grown from a fragile, helpless baby into an integrated, confident chimp. "She acts just like a little chimp, which is just the most rewarding thing,” Davis said. "She’s very sassy and already has a little attitude, which is very chimp-like of her.”
• Habitat: The rainforests of equatorial Africa.
• Population: About 100,000 in the wild.
• Diet: Everything from fruit and leaves to bugs and animals.
• Life span: Up to 50 or 60 years.
• Height: About 4 feet tall when standing upright.
• Weight: 90 to 130 pounds for adult males.
• Movement: Known as "knuckle walkers” but can also walk upright. SOURCE: ASSOCIATION OF ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS