'It was really special': Orangutan learns to breastfeed by observing human mom in Virginia

An old video of a Virgina zookeeper and a special orangutan has resurfaced and is going viral because of the incredible display of the ape's adaptability.

The orangutan, named Zoe, delivered her second baby, a boy, on Dec. 12, 2022, according to the Metro Richmond Zoo. After the ape struggled to nurse her firstborn, the zoo's staff went to greater lengths to ensure success the second time around.

The crew spent months trying to "kickstart" the ape's maternal instincts leading up to the delivery, Metro Richmond Zoo said. The zoo's vet contacted zookeeper Whitlee Turner, a new mom who happened to be nursing, with a bright idea.

Turner would allow Zoe to observe some of her feeding sessions to see if the ape would catch on.

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'It was really special'

Zoe was orphaned at 9 months old when her mother died unexpectedly. "She likely never learned how to be a mother," according to the video.

In the clip, Turner is shown sitting outside of Zoe's cage during one of their breastfeeding sessions together.

"I just had my breastfeeding bra on, and I was able to show her everything with zero modesty," Turner says in the video. "I wanted her to be able to see the whole process because orangutans don't wear shirts."

"I was very exaggerated ... and the whole time I was talking to her and pointing at her, pointing at the baby and pointing at her breasts," Turner shared. "The whole time she just kept watching me, curious."

Zoe learns how to nourish her baby

It didn't take long for Zoe to catch on, but it wasn't just Turner's instruction that brought on the victory. Zoe had been watching videos of other orangutan mothers caring for their young for months leading up to that moment.

Zoe's caretaker also taught her how to carry her baby by demonstrating with a stuffed animal. Her zookeeper was able to model how to posture the baby for future well checks. Once her baby was born, Zoe was eager to show what she had learned.

"She was able to do exactly (a) mirror image of what we had shown her, which was really, really exciting," her caretaker said in the clip.

Turner said like Zoe, she too had struggled in the beginning of her breastfeeding journey.

"I think it was really special being able to share this with her and help her in her journey," Turner said. "Whether it is an orangutan or human. I just want to help any new mom."

More about the 'critically endangered' orangutan

A female of the orangutan with a cub in a native habitat. Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) in nature.

The orangutan is "critically endangered," according to the Metro Richmond Zoo, mostly because they have been victims of poaching and deforestation. The species is native to the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and is second largest of all primates.

Adult males can weigh up to 350 pounds and their gestation is nearly as long as humans, usually around eight and a half months.

The word “orangutan” means “man of the woods," according to the Metro Richmond Zoo, noting the importance of distinguishing them as apes. They are not monkeys.

And as we witnessed with Zoe, orangutans are extremely intelligent. And very good moms.