Como Zoo is having a bit of a baby boom.
Kemala, a Sumatran orangutan born in January, clings like Velcro to her rope-swinging mama Markisawhile casting adorable glances at rapt humans through the glass. Skye the “little” giraffe, born at 145 pounds and 6 feet tall to the towering Clover, grows 4 to 6 inches a month. Like any toddler fascinated with a parent’s cellphone, she sticks her strong, long tongue through the bars in an attempt to snatch the walkie-talkie off her keeper’s belt.
Aptly named zebra foals Ruckus and Melee prance and stamp as their mothers, Thelma and Minnie, trot protective circles around them. Four tiny African hedgehogs, noses quivering, celebrate their transition to solid food — a delicious breakfast of mashed mealworms, cottage cheese and crickets. Hidden from view, February-born baby gorilla Arlene — sure to be a major attraction this summer at the free St. Paul zoo — prepares in a private day room with mom Dara and some “aunties” for her coming-out party.
Many a study has been conducted on why people go all melty at the sight of helpless, saucer-eyed infants, some suggesting that evolution has hard-wired us that way to ensure continuation of the species. The young of other species have similar drawing power, as demonstrated by the several thousand daily visitors to the Minnesota Zoo’s annual “Farm Babies” exhibit each April, and the packed primate and big-cat houses at Como every time a little furball joins the family.
“We could have a brand-new big animal and the babies will still get more visitor interaction and online photos,” said zookeeper Bree Barney, who looks not at all regretful that she gave up a corporate career to hang out with exotic creatures all day. “You never see babies in the wild because they’re hidden from predators, so glimpses of them are much more rare, even in wildlife magazines.”
Some of the smaller baby animals at Como are used only for youth education, like the hedgehogs. Others, like the endangered pancake tortoise native to Kenya and Tanzania, are never on view because they’re being bred for species protection only. Barney slips on a pair of medical gloves to handle a days-old tortoise about the size of a Tater Tot, so none of her skin oil will transfer to its delicate, still-forming shell.
“It’s the first one born here, and one of the first in the country,” she said, placing the flat little rarity back into its carrying case, a repurposed cottage-cheese tub. “We recycle a lot of lunch containers around here,” she said.
While zoos do capitalize on baby cuteness to attract bigger crowds and more donations, the primary goal with breeding endangered species like orangs and gorillas is “preservation, as well as conservation of the entire natural world,” Barney said.
Such breeding doesn’t come without risks. In the tamarin play area, a little patch of hair rides his mother’s back like a dowager’s hump as she leaps through branches. It’s lucky that the males do most of the child care with this species, because there’s only a 50/50 chance the first-time mother will know what to do.
Heartbreak is also always a possibility. Last fall, a new gorilla at Como — the first in 55 years there — weakened and died not long after being born, despite efforts to save it.
Baby gorilla Arlene is faring much better, Barney said. She is scheduled to make her highly anticipated public debut in May. By August, Skye the young giraffe will be the main attraction at a new feeding station where visitors can wave leaves of romaine lettuce her way.