What does it take to raise zoo babies? Columbia's Riverbanks has an answer

Riverbanks Zoo has a well-planned baby boom

Breeding and raising healthy animals is part of Riverbanks Zoo's mission to create self-sustaining animal populations for educational purposes in zoos. The zoo has recently welcomed baby giraffes, lions, koalas and an Eastern Lowland Gorilla.
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Breeding and raising healthy animals is part of Riverbanks Zoo's mission to create self-sustaining animal populations for educational purposes in zoos. The zoo has recently welcomed baby giraffes, lions, koalas and an Eastern Lowland Gorilla.

If it seems like there are a lot of infants over at Riverbanks Zoo these days, you’re right.

In the past six months, Columbia’s premier tourist attraction has become the home of several animal babies — a giraffe, a koala, three lion cubs, six Santa Cruz Island Galapagos tortoise hatchlings and a western lowland baby gorilla.

And that’s not counting the birds and what’s going on inside the reptile house.

The infants are proof of Riverbanks' role in helping endangered species survive. The zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, or AZA, and is dedicated to preserving endangered animals from around the world through a breeding program called the Active Species Survival Plan.

John Davis, director of animal care and welfare at Riverbanks, and his staff use the plan to create self-sustaining, breeding habitats for endangered animals, which essentially leave the wild animals in the wild. The goal is to inspire conservation efforts and make the zoo's more than 1 million annual visitors more aware of the plight of wild animals and the dangers that they face from hunting, poaching and human encroachment that lead to extinction.

The Active Species Survival Plan can be thought of as a sophisticated version of Match.com for animals.

Through the zoo association, biologists have compiled detailed genetic records of animals from select species housed in participating zoos and aquariums.

Zoos such as Riverbanks that focus on breeding share the genetic records through animal management programs that seek to match males and females. The matches are based on factors like individual behavior and compatibility, reproductive cycle and gene pool, or pedigree. More than 200 AZA-accredited zoos participate in the survival plan.

When Riverbanks requested a troop of gorillas in 2015, Davis says, the zoo association identified animals that would most likely work as a family group.

But it's not all hard science and cold data.

"There's also a social component," he says. "There are introductions to go through. We're introducing animals that are unfamiliar with one another, and we want to make sure that (process) goes seamless and the transition is very smooth.

"Animals that are uncomfortable and in a new surrounding may be — even like people — a little nervous about things, and if they're pushed too soon, they can become very anxious and we want to be very sensitive to that. It takes the staff to read the animals and not move too quickly."

For instance, Kazi and Macy, two of Riverbanks' female gorillas, came from Zoo Atlanta together. Acacia, a female, and Cenzoo, a male, came separately and had to be introduced to the group over a few months.

Once the animals are together, the Active Species Survival Plan team works with the zoo on details and makes recommendations that help to insure a successful breeding. The team also works with the zoo after a baby is born to determine how long the infant stays with the group, when it gets introduced to the public and when it may be relocated to another zoo.

Most of the time, things work out as planned and zoo babies abound.

"Understanding animal behavior with each individual species is very, very important," he said.

For mammals, zoo keepers are the "first frontline" who know the animals the best. The keepers are not only aware of species' behavior overall, but they also understand the individual animals' personalities. With that in-depth knowledge, the keepers can best identify which animals are ready for breeding.

In some cases, animal breeding can be a challenge, Davis said. Right now, Riverbanks is trying to breed a pair of Malaysian tapirs.

"Breeding animals sometimes isn't always easy because you have individuals from different backgrounds and sometimes you have age and time working against you," says Davis. "Maybe the animals are no longer reproductively viable. Sometimes you have behavioral challenges that don't work like you think they should. All the computer modeling and programs ... we have to implement that but then the real life implementation becomes a little bit different."

In the case of the tapirs, the staff will take another look at the health and behavior of the animals before deciding whether to continue an active breeding process.

"We work at the animal's pace and we don't exceed its threshold. We'll see how it goes."

Riverbanks has been lucky with its recent newly born brood.

The three yet-unnamed lion cubs will not be on public display for another month, after vaccinations. In about two years, the young lions will be put up for recommendation in the AZA.

Baby giraffe Amelia is already on display and will remain at Riverbanks for a while. She's the eighth member of the giraffe herd at the zoo, and her mother, Ginger, was born at Riverbanks 19 years ago. Amelia will be eligible for AZA recommendation when she reaches three years of age.

As far as Riverbanks' new baby gorilla, Davis says that Kazi and baby are doing well, and the staff is discussing when to reopen the exhibit.

But don't worry, this baby will be in Columbia for a few years because gorillas take longer to develop, Davis said.

First, the baby will depend on the mother for nourishment for about two years before moving to a solid food diet. After that, the young gorilla (Riverbanks had not been able to determine the baby's sex) will continue to learn social skills from the troop for another few years. At around the age of five to eight years, the young gorilla will be considered for relocation.

Meanwhile, the mission of Davis' staff is to maintain a high quality of care of the animals, and it's a lot of hard work. Among the staff's challenges are the weather, including extreme temperature changes, and the complicated nature of the zoo's overall animal population, with different species requiring unique types of care.

Maintaining a safe and secure environment for the different species is the utmost priority, and the zoo staff plans each exhibit area down to the smallest detail. For the elephants and lowland gorillas, the boundaries to their exhibits need to be enforced to withstand the animals' strength, and industrial heating and air units are required; for the reptile house, special consideration is taken for the safe construction of containment facilities and handling of the exotic and venomous snakes; and the koalas have to have a climate- controlled environment.

Riverbanks has more than 2,000 specimens — the mammal collection has about 55 species and 160 individual animals — and 50 animal welfare keepers, each one having their own taxonomic specialization. Bird, mammal and aquatic staffs are not necessarily interchangeable.

"It's truly amazing to see the dedicated staff that comes here," said Davis, "and that they are true champions for this collection of animals and how much responsibility they take for the animals."