Visitors might want to pack a few blue and pink ribbons for their next trip to the National Zoo, where something of a baby boom is happening. Animals typically make babies in the spring, but spring of 2012 has been, well, more prolific. Between the zoo’s Connecticut Avenue location and its Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, babies have been born or hatched among almost 20 species, with more on the way. They include everything from insects and anemones to a monkey and two cheetahs. There’s also a flamingo, turtles, and poison frogs.
Most of the new arrivals are not on public display, but the zoo invited The Washingtonian to come behind the scenes to observe, admire, and photograph the babies. The experience was a positive example of the benefits of animals in captivity, especially those bred in the zoo environment. What’s more, many, if not most, of the Washington newborns get distributed to other zoos across the country for breeding or to enhance existing populations.
Senior curator Ed Bronikowski said many of the births were the result of planned breeding—“all part of our program on sustainable collections”—though he did give some credit to the romantic possibilities of a “mild winter and a nice warm spring.” He cited in particular the heron population, which are wild but return to the zoo year after year. “There are more than 300 this year,” he said. “Last year there were about 125.”
With the exception of a baby howler monkey and three gray rhea chicks, most of the new arrivals are kept in private and tended to by zookeepers. The cheetah cubs in particular have received a lot of attention, and deservedly so, because their births were harrowing and their survival remarkable. According to the zoo, the mortality rate for cheetah cubs born under normal circumstances in human care is 20 percent.
The first cub, a male, was born April 23 at the Front Royal facility. Veterinarians performed a C-section to deliver three additional cubs, only one of which, a female, survived after receiving three hours of intense treatment, including CPR, medications, and massage, and then time in intensive care. The mother abandoned them, which senior curator Brandie Smith said is not entirely unusual for a first-time mother under human care. In mid-May the two cubs were moved to the National Zoo, where they now receive three feedings a day but limited human handling. If they are independent of human touch they will adapt better to captivity. In time the male is expected to be shipped to another zoo, while the National Zoo may keep the female for breeding. Cheetahs are a “vulnerable” species; reportedly no more than 10,000 live in the wild.
The public will be able to see these two babies later in the summer, though no specific date has yet been set. “In a few weeks they will get their vaccinations,” said Smith, adding that “while things can still happen, now that they are eating solid food I sleep better at night.” She said this is when they would be in the most danger in the wild. “It’s safer for them in the zoo.”
The baby howler monkey is on public view, clinging to his mother’s neck or back, sharing food with her, as she scrambles from branch to branch in their large two-room glass-enclosed cage. Not only is the baby on view, but the public has been invited to participate in choosing his name via Facebook. There are four choices—Sumaq, Orejas, Nando, and Loki—and the voting ends Friday.
The rheas are a little more than two months old. While hatched by their mother, it is the father who takes care of them, according to their zookeeper, Sara Hallager. They are flightless, similar to the ostrich, and native to South America; the National Zoo is one of the few zoos in the US that reliably breeds these birds, said Hallager as she stood among the already tall birds and fed them pieces of shredded kale. They were friendly, not in the least intimidated by visitors or a clicking camera. They came right up to us and looked us in the eye. Hallager guided us into the back rooms of the Bird House to meet two babies who are not on public view, two-week-old kori bustard chicks. These adorable birds like to nuzzle with a feather duster when they aren’t scooting around at Hallager’s feet.
All her “charges” have a doting zookeeper in Hallager, but it’s clear (and understandable) that she has special affection for the baby flamingo, hatched only a week ago, and which she cradled in the palms of her hands after it received food from a feeding tube. “Touch it,” she urged, and when I lightly petted it with my finger the baby feathers felt like dense, soft cotton. She set the bird down on a towel and it attempted a few wobbly steps. “Come on, baby, you can do it,” she said to the little ball of fluff while it stood for about five seconds and then flopped down on its long legs. “It will start to get color in two months,” she said, “but it won’t be fully pink for two years.” The zoo’s flamingo population, interestingly, is not having its own baby boom—just the opposite. Usually there are about 20 eggs laid, but this year only the one. “It is known to happen in flamingo flocks,” said Bronikowski. “They just stop for one year. We don’t know why.”
While most of this year’s babies were planned, the baby snakehead turtles were a “happy accident,” said Bronikowski. They were born June 5 in a large aquatic exhibit where conditions “trigger them to breed.” Still, he said, when biologists noticed babies in the exhibit’s pool of water “it was kind of a surprise,” and they were removed to a private growing area where they can get strong and prepared to cope in the aquatic population. The spiny stick insects are three months old and barely an inch long. For the moment they live in a jar with branches, where they blend in. They will grow to be four or five inches long as adults, but their life span is not much more than a year. They are native to Australia and survive on a vegetarian diet.
In the category of small baby animals, the green and black poison dart froglets may take the prize. It’s been only two weeks since they emerged from the tadpole stage, and they are dwarfed by a normal-size human hand. While poisonous in the wild due to the bug diet they eat, they are not poisonous in captivity because they are fed fat (and nontoxic) pinhead crickets and fruit flies. As we photographed them, the babies jumped about, full of energy and stunningly colorful.
The zoo takes great pride in its baby animal population, not only because everyone loves baby animals, but also because the institution has an active program to ship young animals to other zoos for breeding; the more babies born means more opportunity to share, breed, and grow.
Every baby we saw and photographed will grow to many times its infant size and in some instances, such as with the flamingo and the kori bustard chicks, will look substantially different in markings and features. The flamingo’s beak will turn down, the kori’s head will become plumed and exotic, and the males will grow to weigh as much as 35 pounds. It’s difficult to imagine while looking at a squeaky little featherball that today is lighter than air and only wants to play with its sibling and a feather duster. And consider the baby cheetahs. We looked at them over the low gate of a stable-like pen, where zoo staff joined them to put out bowls of food, and to give them a ball and a paper bag to play with. They will grow from their current 7 pounds to up to 77 pounds, and be able to leap and climb with agility.
We will keep you posted on new births at the zoo and the dates when the babies in our slideshow here will go on public view.