•the middle of a warm, lazy spring afternoon, the Indianapolis Zoo’s 6-month-old lion cubs lolled on a sun-soaked rock.
Enzi, Mashaka and Sukari rolled on their backs, rested their heads on their paws and stretched out, drawing a chorus of “awwww” from the crowd craning for a view of the animals.
Nearby, the 3-month-old reticulated giraffe calf Mshangao galloped in its pen. Though more than 7 feet tall, it seemed dwarfed by its larger parents and siblings.
Baby fever is in the air at the Indianapolis Zoo this spring. In the last year, zoo staff have welcomed a newborn gibbon, flamingos, meerkats and a dolphin.
The most recent addition is the most spectacular — a baby endangered Sumatran orangutan, born March 23 in the zoo’s Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center.
For the zoo staff tasked with caring for its collection of animals, the new critters represent a new challenge and opportunity for conservation.
“It’s exciting for us to watch them grow up,” said Susanne Wyatt, a senior keeper for the zoo. “With each species, there are different concerns, but as long as the mom is taking care of them, it’s fine. It’s not that difficult.”
In a quiet moment between mother and daughter, Sirih, a Sumatran orangutan, cradled her week-old baby in her arms.
She tightly protected the newborn, delicately picking straw out of its hair before positioning it to nurse. Sirih went about her motherly duties, more focused on her child than the throngs of visitors pressed against the glass of their enclosure.
The baby orangutan’s birth was a cause for celebration at the Indianapolis Zoo. The species is critically endangered in the wild, and this was the first birth since the zoo opened its specialized orangutan habitat.
“Just for the conservation community in general, it’s been very significant. And we’ve never had one at our facility before, so it’s a very special time,” said Carla Knapp, spokeswoman for the zoo.
Newborn animals have become a common occurrence at the zoo in the past year. Since March 2015, eight different species have given birth. That’s a significantly higher number than the zoo normally sees, Knapp said.
But each of the births was meticulously planned through the zoo’s breeding program. The Species Survival Plan, stringent guidelines established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, ensures that animals in human care are responsibly managed.
Officials work to prevent overpopulation, or in-breeding within a single genetic pool, to make certain that their animals remain healthy, Knapp said.
While the baby animals do require a different type of care and vigilant observation, they don’t cause that much extra work, Wyatt said.
“They’re kind of hands-off. Our female giraffe is a great mom, and she’s had calves before, so we just watch for the normal stuff — is the calf nursing, is she taking care of it. There’s not that much to do,” she said.
Wyatt has been working with Mshangao since he was born. She and other keepers introduce themselves to him, so that the animal is familiar with them later in their lives. Keepers have started introducing hay and other solid food to him, though he is still nursing.
Most of what he’ll need to know they learn by watching their parents, Wyatt said.
“We hope that the moms take care of things so we don’t have to raise them by hand. But if we do have to hand-raise, that’s a whole different level of care that we need to do,” she said. “Luckily, we haven’t had to do that with giraffes.”
The three lion cubs born in September were even more hands-off, said Holly Balok, senior keeper for the zoo.
The mother, a 9-year-old lioness named Zuri, was very protective of the cubs, and handled all of the feeding, grooming and other aspects of care for the animals.
All the zoo staff could do was watch and occasionally weigh the lions to make sure they were growing properly, Balok said.
“This was (Zuri’s) first litter, and her instincts are so primal in every other way, we were pretty certain she’d be a really good mom. And she was,” she said. “But that meant she didn’t want us anywhere near them. So we just make sure mom is getting enough in her diet.”
Keepers work with the zoo’s on-site nutritionist, Dr. Jason Williams, to formulate specialized diets for the mother animals before and after birth to ensure the health of the baby.
Changes such as adding more protein or calories are tailored to individual species, especially when an animal is nursing, Wyatt said.
Sirih has been taking calcium supplements to up the level of nutrients the newborn orangutan was getting. She’s also eating protein bars and hard-boiled eggs as well.
“There is some stress, but luckily, Sirih is a seasoned mom, and she knows what she’s doing, so she’s making it a little easier on the staff,” Wyatt said.
But just like new parents welcoming a baby into their homes, zookeepers have had to “baby-proof” the habitats to keep the newborns safe. In the lion habitat, they removed the bench in Zuri’s stall, to prevent the cubs from falling off it and injuring themselves.
Hay and straw was placed on the floor to create a soft bed for the babies. The cubs had to stay indoors for the first three months, until all of their vaccines had boosted their immune systems.
“Luckily, we already had things inside for them to interact with. So we had branches and logs and lion toys that we could give them to play with and get them used to going outside,” Balok said.
Zoo officials know that this rush of babies is a rare occurrence. Before Enzi, Mashaka and Sukari were born last year, it had been 11 years since the last lion cubs were born in Indianapolis, Balok said.
So each keeper has come to cherish the infant animals while they’re still young.
“We’ve been waiting for so long. You get used to them not being around, to just adult lions, and all of the sudden there’s babies. It changes everything,” Balok said. “It changes your whole mindset, but I love the experience. You never know if it’s going to come around again.”
Baby animals born at the Indianapolis Zoo since March 2015
Born: March 23, 2016
Parents: Mother Sirih and father Basan
Name: Mshangao, meaning “amazement” or “surprise” in Swahili
Born: Jan. 9, 2016
Parents: Mother Takasa and father Majani
Name: Kopi, meaning “coffee” in Indonesian
Born: Oct. 23, 2015
Parents: Mother Koko and father Elliot
Names: Cato, a boy, and Cashmere, a girl
Born: Oct. 13, 2015
Parents: Mother Rue, father unknown
Names: Boys Enzi, meaning “powerful”, and Mashaka, meaning “troublemaker,” girl Sukari, meaning “sweet”
Born: Sept. 21, 2015
Parents: Mother Zuri and father Nyack
Born: Sept. 9
Parents: Mother Jojo; father unknown
Name: Shani, a Swahili word meaning “marvelous”
Born: July 29
Parents: Mother Taraja and father Baraki
Born: June 26, 2015
Atlantic bottlenose dolphin
Born: April 24, 2015
Parents: Mother Kalei and father Kimo
Where: 1200 W. Washington St.
- Through May 26: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday
- May 27 to Sept. 5: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday and holidays.
Cost: Depends on date; adults range from $15.45 to $21.95, children from $11.40 to $16.70