Science center guides infant gibbon through his first months

News & Record of GreensboroJune 22, 2013 

— As soon as she sees zookeeper Rachael Campbell coming down the path with a bundle on her chest, Isabella starts swinging from rope to rope, making her way to the glass exhibit window.

When she gets there, Campbell holds the tiny baby gibbon in a sitting position, facing Isabella through the window. Immediately, she and Duke reach for each other, and Isabella flicks out her tongue in an instinctive motion to lick and groom her baby. Duke makes a soft hooting coo, and their eyes follow each others’ every movement.

It’s wonderful and sad at the same time. Sad, because keepers at the Greensboro Science Center can’t yet give Isabella her son. Wonderful, because she is showing every indication of being eager to get him back when the time comes.

“When we take him to the fence, she can reach out and touch him,” senior keeper Amanda Bissert says. “She tries to lick and groom him through the fence. So that’s really great.”

Isabella also pokes her finger through the fence to check his ears and feel his teeth.

By August or September, the staff probably will try reintroducing Duke to his parents. Until then, they are continuing the job of raising the highly endangered Javan gibbon – which means holding him 24/7 – with the help of volunteers from Women’s Hospital.

“It’s getting better, but it’s still extremely exhausting,” says Campbell, who spent the previous night with Duke.

Campbell, Bissert and zoo curator Jessica Hoffman take turns spending the night with Duke. They sleep (as much as they can) sitting up, with Duke clinging to the fur vest on their chests, which mimics how he would be clinging to his mother.

During the day, volunteers hold and feed Duke in shifts. Hoffman, Bissert and Campbell still do all the diaper changes.

Like many babies, he’s developed a little diaper rash. But otherwise, he’s doing great. Silvery gray fur is coming in all over his body, and his weight has increased from 408 grams at birth to 612 grams – roughly 11/2 pounds.

He’s awake and alert more of the time, looking around at his surroundings and discovering the world.

“I put his feet in the grass yesterday, and he was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Campbell says.

Hoffman had him the first time Duke discovered his feet. “He was grabbing them, holding them up,” she says, laughing. “Another night, I was making him do pull-ups, and he started twisting his hips like crazy.”

A common bond

The three keepers, bonded by the experience, say they’re becoming like old married people. Sometimes they’re so tired, they just get punchy. When Duke gets fussy and eats less on the nights Hoffman keeps him, Bissert and Campbell tease her that she “broke the baby.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Duke recognizes and reaches out for all of his three keepers, who have cared for him since birth. After a long night of broken sleep, Hoffman says, she’s ready to hand him off to one of the other keepers. By day two, she starts to really appreciate his cuteness again.

“By day three, you really start to miss him,” Hoffman says.

It was Bissert who found Duke, cold and seemingly lifeless, in the gibbon habitat on the morning of April 29. Isabella had abandoned him, which is common with first-time gibbon mothers.

The zoo staff revived and stabilized Duke, but an attempt to reunite him with his mother failed because she was not producing enough milk. So, they took on the daunting task of hand-raising the baby gibbon until he is strong enough to be reunited with his mother.

In addition to sleeping sitting up, the keepers do jumping jacks with Duke clinging to their chests to develop his gripping strength, crucial to the tree-dwelling gibbons. He clings to their thumbs for pull-ups, and they encourage him to climb on the vest.

He’s going through a lot of the same stages as a human infant but much faster, Bissert says.

He’s going four hours between feedings now and staying awake for most of the day. They’ve already started giving him small bits of banana to eat, which he really likes. He spends more time outside.

‘Just adorable’

Though visitors won’t be able to see Duke in the gibbon habitat for a while yet, they are welcome to peek through the glass of the Animal Discovery hospital. If he’s there with a keeper or volunteer, they usually stand up so people can get a better view.

Look for the picture window decorated with blue “It’s A Boy!” decorations.

“Isn’t he just adorable?” says Phyllis Mitchell, a Women’s Hospital volunteer who arrives for a two-hour morning shift Wednesday. “Everybody’s gotten so attached to him. People are almost fighting over the times to come.”

Cone Health is donating virtually all the baby supplies for Duke, and the volunteers also brought diaper bags and a pack-and-play. One nurse brought in a pacifier with a monkey on the side facing the nipple. The volunteer staff has planned an entire summer of fundraisers, including buttons that say “Friends of Duke.”

Mitchell, who last saw him two weeks ago, can’t believe how much more alert he is.

“You’ve come a long way,” she says, looking down on the fuzzy gray head as she feeds him a bottle of formula.

Most of the volunteers are older empty-nesters like her, Mitchell says. But the moment they hold Duke in their arms, everything they remember from raising their own kids comes flooding back.

“It’s amazing,” Mitchell says. “You just step right back into it.”

For her, the best part is the tranquility she feels when it’s just the two of them, silently looking into each other’s eyes. Duke has big, dark eyes that would put a puppy’s to shame.

“It’s so rewarding,” Mitchell says. “He’s certainly won the hearts of all of us at Women’s” Hospital.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service