This post written by Lynn Killam
Zenobia grooming infant “Julius”
Our new baby sifaka, born January 28th, is gaining weight nicely. How do we know this? Well, in this species, we implement management techniques that we practice with no other primate: we weigh the infant regularly. When most primate babies are born, we have a very strict hands-off policy, unless there is a problem of some sort. Thankfully, most parents take excellent care of their babies and we have very few medical issues in most cases. And, if we EVER tried to remove a primate baby from its mother, we would be in serious jeopardy of losing a finger, or worse! Most mama prosimians, monkeys and apes are fierce protectors of their infants and would not tolerate anyone trying to take their baby away for a weight or any other reason.
However, in Coquerel’s sifaka, we have a different strategy, learned directly from the Duke University Lemur Center/DULC where most sifaka are bred outside of Madagascar. In fact, a zoo cannot receive sifaka unless they send staff to DULC to study how to manage them in the way that they recommend. The Houston Zoo has sent three primate staff members to DULC to do just that, and we came away with a newfound admiration for all the technicians there who do this on a much more frequent basis than we have to, as they have a large collection of sifaka. While there, we learned that preventing infant mortality in sifaka is directly correlated with monitoring weights. Baby sifaka are quite tiny at birth, from 85-115 grams (3 to 4 ounces) and cling tenaciously to their mother’s belly for warmth and easy access to nutrition. They can, however, lose weight easily and lose grip on mother’s fur as they lose strength. To prevent this, we know how to intervene if even a few grams are lost in the first days of life: veterinarians are standing by to give needed fluids if a weight loss is discovered. In a quick and simple process, a decline is reversed and the baby goes right back to mom.
Baby sifaka being weighed.
The part of all this that remains the most challenging is the removal of the infant from the mother, and that is done with lightning speed by the keepers. Staff has worked with Zenobia using positive reinforcement throughout her pregnancy to help her be more comfortable with this process, but it is still a daunting task. We have a team of trained sifaka-snatchers who, like Ninja warriors, go in and grab the baby safely, seemingly even before mama “Zenobia” realizes that it has been spirited away. The infant is placed on a small stuffed surrogate so that it immediately has something similar to mom to cling to, and then is weighed on a gram scale. Keepers wear masks and gloves so that no danger of cross-contamination is present, and once a weight is obtained the baby is given right back to mom. If veterinary intervention is required, it happens with delicacy and speed, and before the mom gets too impatient the baby is safely back on her belly.
All of this is done with great respect for the impressive set of teeth in the lemur’s mouth: she has sharp canines as well as needle-like grooming teeth. Safety of the keepers as well as the sifaka is always paramount in the minds of zoo staff, who are acutely aware that a primate bite can be serious. We are very grateful that Zenobia seems to accept us removing her infant and getting it back to her quickly for these all-important weigh-ins. She has allowed it after the birth of all of her three sons, and she has been a terrific mother to all of them. After the infant is returned, she sniffs and grooms her baby vigorously as if to reassure him that all is well.
As with all zoo animals, sometimes extraordinary lengths are taken to ensure the health and welfare of our collection, and the husbandry of the sifaka kids is certainly one of those examples. And, as you can see from this photo, our new family is flourishing!
Zenobia with infant Julius and papa Gaius in the background.