Nursing Mammals and Mastitis Challenges

I live less than a mile from the Pittsburgh zoo, which I love because I spend lots of time spying on the nursing baby mammals. I have not yet seen the baby rhino nursing, though I long to, especially since he is starting to grow his horn! I’ve watched the elephant nursing, discussing with my sons the way baby pulls her trunk up and out of the way while walking around under mama as she nurses. We’ve even watched the baby otters float around their little river while they nurse.

Last year, when one of the gorillas had her baby, I stood outside for ages watching Moka nurse her baby. A few months later, though, Moka’s baby died! It was heartbreaking and the zoo staff was never quite certain what happened. So I was following along avidly when Moka got pregnant and gave birth again this April.

Things seemed to be going well for Moka until recently–she developed mastitis! And the antibiotics she took dried up her milk supply! So now, it seems, the zoo staff had to remove her baby from her care because the baby needs to drink formula from a bottle. According to the Post Gazette, the zoo keepers are bottle-feeding the baby and taking turns holding the baby 24 hours a day to mimic the kangaroo care Moka would be giving him otherwise.

I’m fascinated by this article, the way it describes how the baby will soon move to be held in back carries, how he gets to interact with his troop through bars from a different part of the exhibit. I also have so many questions, like why can’t Moka take care of the baby even if handlers are taking care of the bottle-feeding. What will Moka’s relationship be like with her son when he is returned to the family? Why can’t lactation be re-induced once Moka is off the medication? Did they try fenugreek??

I feel so sad for this mama and baby pair, who are losing not only their nursing relationship but also this bonding time. Does Moka mourn her baby? Feel sad to not be the one caring for him in his early days? I’m not even sure whether gorillas experience these types of emotions.

So, lacking more information and unable to reach anyone at the zoo, I emailed my veteranarian pal Dr. Ines Rodriguez. Her take on the situation is that because the baby was compromised (dehydrated), they had no choice but to separate the pair. A YouTube video indicated that they needed to sedate the mama in order to get her baby away from her, so it seems like it would be a perpetual challenge to access the baby for bottle feeding if he was returned to mama’s care.[youtube]

According to Ines, the only way to re-start lactation in this gorilla would be if she got pregnant again and was nursing another baby, so that’s why they are probably not trying to return the baby to Moka even though her infection is healed.

Ines also says, “Gorillas are social animals so she will likely still want to take care of him once he returns. She might reject him but other females in the troop may take care of him. I hope he gets back to his troop soon!!”

Me, too, Ines. I’m following this story very closely for updates!

Are there any nursing mammals in the news where you live? Leave us a comment to share your experiences.

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