The Pros and Cons of Hand-raising Zoo Babies

The clouded leopard problem has been addressed by pairing them when they're young and by hand-raising them so they're safer to work with. Rice says that mother-raised clouded leopards are very easily stressed, but it was discovered that hand-raising produced calmer, more tolerant animals. Since it's relatively safe to be in the enclosure with the hand-raised cats, keepers can keep a close watch and intervene if necessary when the animals are introduced to one another.

Another reason animals might be hand-raised to be tolerant of people is for use in education programs, as Rice has done with Eurasian lynx. The result is not an animal the general public can pet, but people get to see it closer up than would otherwise be possible. "Our education department uses one of the lynx that was born here. He's on a halter and a lead, and they have him onstage to show behaviors," she says.

Giving Mom What She Needs

Despite those exceptions, when it comes to most animals, the goal is to hand-raise fewer babies. Bernier says while that goal has been achieved over the course of his career at Lincoln Park, it may be partly because they're having fewer babies in the first place as the result of the nationwide coordination of breeding programs, which focuses on breeding only when needed, taking space and diversity into account. But there are cases in which zoos have gotten better at understanding what the mother needs to raise her young successfully on her own, like knowing when to separate the breeding pair for naturally solitary species, as was the case for the three-banded armadillo.

"The females need to be separated from the male quite a bit before the birth," Bernier says. So even if the staff is not sure a female is pregnant, the pair is kept separate, after mating, for the whole gestation period. Then if the female does give birth, they know what to do next. "We've got a protocol set up for how to manage her in the first few critical days, in order to make sure that she's calm and she feels comfortable, so she'll put the kid in a nest and leave it there and nurse it instead of constantly moving it around."

Staying Up All Night

Fewer hand-raised babies is a goal that is probably good for keepers as well as animals, because raising babies means a lot of extra work.

"On the one hand, they're adorable, but talk to me at midnight or 1 in the morning ... " Rice says. "This year, we didn't breed any of our clouded leopards, and I'm more rested than I've been in years."

Most babies need round-the-clock care at first, which at Lincoln Park means keepers being at work in the middle of the night. At the Nashville Zoo, Rice takes the babies home with her several days a week, with a coworker taking them the other days. They need care for about three months, and she recalls one year that they had three litters: "I had five cubs at my house on different feeding schedules."

And if you still look at those cute photos and wish you had a job raising baby zoo animals, keep in mind that doing so is not actually anyone's entire job. Unless you're a clouded leopard keeper, hand-raising a baby animal is a rare event — and you don't get time off from caring for your other animals to do it. "This is on top of the work they have to do otherwise, and they're having to adjust their schedule to come in at midnight and do feedings," Bernier says.

Also, remember: It's not just about feeding, but also cleaning up the end result — which, with some babies, gets rather personal. Some need physical stimulation to eliminate, which the mother would do by licking or grooming. "The human caretaker would have to provide the same type of stimulation by hand with a damp warm cloth," he says.

Still, it has to be said that, yes, keepers generally think that hand-raising a baby animal is totally cool.

"It's stressful, but they find it immensely rewarding," Bernier says. "They're willing to put in that extra effort, and they'll do it with a smile on their face."

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