Como Zoo orangutan gives birth via Caesarean section

The new orangutan was only the ninth one in captivity to be born via Caesarean section.

A Como Zoo orangutan recently had a very interesting trip to the doctor.

On Dec. 13, an orangutan named Markisa gave birth to a baby via Caesarean section at the University’s Veterinary Medical Center.

Not only were Como Zoo zookeepers and University veterinarians involved in the rare procedure, but medical personnel from the University Children’s Hospital Fairview also took part.

Of the 1,658 documented births by orangutans in captivity, this was only the ninth by Caesarean section, Megan Elder, primate zookeeper and lead orangutan trainer at Como Zoo, said.

“It’s not every day an orangutan is brought to the University for a Caesarean section,” she said.

The process

Markisa’s baby was the first orangutan born at Como Zoo since 1999. It was also Markisa’s second pregnancy, Elder said; the first ended in 2005 with a stillbirth.

With Markisa’s pregnancy history, zoo staff began preparing as soon as they suspected she was pregnant, Elder said. A birth management plan was written up, laying out scenarios for any problems that could have arisen.

Most orangutans are in labor for less than half an hour, Elder said, so, after an unnaturally long four hours in labor, Markisa was sedated and brought to the University.

“At this point, the staff here was very concerned that the baby might already be dead,” Elder said. “We were mentally prepared for that scenario.”

University veterinarians, led by large animal surgery head Micky Trent and assisted by OB-GYN’s from the children’s hospital, then performed the Caesarian section.

A few moments later, however, the baby stopped breathing – and so did Elder.

“Obviously something wasn’t right,” she said.

The veterinarians were able to revive the baby, and transferred him from the medical center’s intensive care unit where, to simulate his mother, caretakers took turns wearing a special orangutan suit and holding the baby 24 hours a day.

“I could hardly see the baby against the orangutan color,” Trent said. “It looked so natural.”

Three days later, the baby was shown to his mother through a mesh divider, and on Christmas Day Markisa was reunited with her baby.

“At that point, it’s out of our hands,” Trent said.

The Como Zoo now holds the record for reuniting an orangutan baby with his mother following a Caesarian section. Its 12-day timeframe beats the nine months it took a zoo in Utah to do the same feat, and the 11 months it took Busch Gardens to reintroduce, Elder said.

“This was a huge success in the zoo world,” she said.

All in the family

Although the Veterinary Medical Center does many surgeries for the Como Zoo, Trent said this was the first time a baby had spent time in the ICU, which is usually occupied by dogs and cats.

“Generally, the plan with the adults is that we do the surgery Ö and they go directly back to the zoo,” she said.

The presence of a baby orangutan was unique, ICU supervisor Vickie Skala said.

“It was more like taking care of a human infant than taking care of a baby animal,” she said.

The ICU staff had to wear protective gear to keep from spreading human diseases to the baby, something they rarely have to do around other animals, Skala said.

Orangutans are also similar to people in terms of anatomy.

Trent said the only difference between Caesarian sections in humans and in the orangutan was the incision – human incisions resemble a bathing suit line, while Markisa was given a more standard cut, she said.

“Everything looks so much the same,” she said.

This helped collaboration between the animal and human specialists.

“With exotic species, usually there is so much unknown, and it’s hard to translate working with dogs and cats to working with an orangutan,” Elder said. “The neat thing is we are primates as well, so we could utilize human doctors on this case.”

Markisa is now on display with her baby at the zoo. Elder said she had expected her to be reclusive with her new baby. Instead, Markisa loves showing him off, Elder said.

“For me, seeing Markisa’s development and seeing her be a mom has been one of the most fulfilling moments of my life,” she said.