Ruben the chimpanzee's first months in this world have been anything but easy.
His mother, Rukiya, died of a heart condition shortly after his birth at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. His biological father was deemed too intense for him. And another female chimp at Busch Gardens in Florida also was too much for the pint-size primate.
“Our two females liked him but none of them picked him up, neither of them were that interested,” Lowry Park curator Lee Ann Rottman said. “His father wanted to play all the time and Ruben just wasn't ready for that.”
Rottman said one of the saddest aspects of the early part of Ruben's life was that his mother had already been a surrogate to another baby chimp.
“We had very high hopes for her as a mom,” Rottman said.
But the now 8-month-old chimp looks to have found a home at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Ruben arrived along with three handlers in July on a private jet donated by a supporter of the Lowry Park Zoo.
Ruben has found a surrogate mother in Kito, who has never had any offspring of her own. Ruben was introduced to Kito and Zoe and the rest of their troop after three days of monitoring by zoo staff.
Kito was chosen for the role as surrogate mom because of her success playing the role of surrogate to Siri, another chimpanzee at the zoo. Siri was brought to the Oklahoma City Zoo after her mother's breast milk was found to be nutritionally deficient and could not meet the growing chimp's needs.
“We chose Kito because she has the patience of a saint,” Oklahoma City Zoo curator Laura Bottaro said. “We knew this from how she handled Siri.”
Kito and Ruben were a natural fit, Bottaro said. But Ruben had to be cared for around the clock after his arrival. Baby chimps need to be held at all times, Bottaro said. Staffers at the zoo wore special shirts designed to mimic the hair of chimpanzees.
“The transition from humans can be uncomfortable for the infant because they're not sure they fit in,” Bottaro said. “Once they fit in, they're in.”
Curator Robin Newby said the hierarchies of chimpanzee troops can be complex. And even though Kito had been a successful surrogate before, there was no guarantee it would work again.
“It is very strict and complex,” Newby said. “They feel the need to keep individuals in check at all times. There's a lot of demonstrations either vocally or physically to accomplish that.”