One of our orangutans, 10 year old “Solaris”, recently moved from the Houston Zoo to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Virginia. This move took a lot of coordination between our two institutions, as well as cooperation between our Keeper staff and the orangutans.
Orangutans have the longest period of dependency on their mother of any primate, staying with mom for 8-9 years or longer. This bond is a naturally strong one, but when it is time for the kid to move out and away from mama, she lets them know in a firm way. In nature, she might gradually encourage independence of her offspring, or she might start throwing sticks at him to make him leave to go and find his own territory. Here, Solaris nursed until he was 7 years old, which is perfectly normal, but we found that Solaris was sleeping in a separate night nest from mom Kelly by the time he reached 8 years. By 9 years, he had moved his night nest into the adjoining room from her, as if instinctively knowing that it was getting to be time to move on.
We used those cues to begin doing both separation training and crate training. There is a ton of preparation that goes on prior to a move of any of our animals, but most particularly with the great apes. Keepers began closing the door in between Kelly and Solaris’ rooms for a quick second to start out with and then moved to longer intervals, rewarding both of them for allowing the door to be shut. The crate training began just as slowly and gradually: once the crate was attached to the door, Solaris had free access to it and it became a place for him to play. Over a 2 year period, we very slowly closed one of the doors so that he became used to being inside with a small gap to go in and out of. And, we made the crate a fun place by adding substrates, ropes to swing on, and of course he got treats when he went inside it.
Many guests ask the question: why do we send out our animal’s offspring when they grow up? The answer has to do with genetics. We do not want our animals to inbreed – they have very good systems of avoiding inbreeding in the wild, but here we have to help them. Matches that are genetically appropriate are made by the Species Survival Plan (SSP) and zoos all over the world carry them out by moving animals around. The orangutan SSP also looks at the behavior and personality of animals when they do their matchmaking, in addition to those all-important DNA traits.
A keeper and a veterinarian from the Virginia Zoo came to the Houston Zoo three days prior to the shipment, so that they could get to know Solaris prior to his move. This is one of the important steps that most zoos like to take now to make sure that their animals don’t get too many surprises when they go off to a new home. Solaris was delighted by their company.
On May 1st, Solaris was calmly loaded into his crate, and we set off in a van to go to the airport. His main keeper Tammy went with him, and sat next to him in the truck as we headed off to the terminal. She was there nearby throughout the flight and then in the next van that drove him to the Virginia Zoo. She fed him various produce items, gave him drinks of water and juice, and handed him fabric that he would wrap around himself and play with during the trip. He always knew that someone familiar and friendly was with him during his travels.
When they arrived at his new facility, he was easily released from the crate and he began to explore his new digs. The Virginia keepers had set up a nice bedroom with places for him to swing, climb and rest. He could immediately see his new female friend “Dara” and within 3 days was introduced to her. They have bonded nicely and after passing their quarantine period are now going outside into a beautiful new outdoor enclosure which features tall sway-poles, hammocks and platforms, an expansive grassy area and a stream.
Mom Kelly, in the meantime, is now acting more relaxed and playful than keepers have seen her in years, telling us that it really was time to “cut the cord” on this relationship. And, she has been reintroduced to adult male Rudi, whom she hasn’t visited with in twelve years. They have rekindled an old friendship which they’ve shared ever since the two of them were kids, and it was lovely to see them back together again. Come to the Wortham World of Primates to see this pair enjoying one another’s company once more!