It's been more than nine months of baby steps for orangutan Eve.
But after long, tiring shifts for a 32-member zoo staff, the effort to train Eve so she'll embrace her offspring, Acara, has reached a huge milestone. The two orangutans now spend all their time together, baby girl mimicking mom.
"The progress was very slow from the get-go," said Erin Jones, part of Hogle Zoo's animal-care staff who has been instrumental in training the primates. "We had to take very tiny steps. If Eve could even look at Acara, we'd reward her, and even that would take a week. It was hard to take nine months of tiny steps."
"It's much more rewarding to see her as an orang," Jones said of Acara.
After a dangerously long labor, Eve gave birth to Acara by caesarean section last Mother's Day. Because the birth was not natural, 15-year-old Eve did not recognize the baby as hers. So, 20 staff members and 12 volunteers have hand-raised Acara and trained the pair to co-exist.
"My family always bugs me about my other granddaughter who I spend all my time with," five-year zoo volunteer Pat Meekins said
Meekins took turns with other trainers wearing a faux-fur vest, modeled after Eve, to feed, train and care for Acara. As she grew, training involved getting the baby Bornean Orangutan to grab the vest's fur, grasp a trainer's arm or crawl around her jungle gym.
"Slowly, our tasks lessened and we were told to back off. She has transferred all her desires to her mother, and we are so excited."
Staff members have cared for Acara 24 hours a day, seven days a week, slowly trying to introduce her to mother Eve. Although primary care has rested on the shoulders of the vest-clad staff, introductions between Eve and Acara started on Day One and have increased since then.
Efforts began with simply smearing peanut butter on the wall above Acara's head, allowing Acara to grab onto Eve's fur while mom licked the treat off the wall. Eve would be rewarded for tasks such as looking or touching Acara, a model she knew well through the zoo's positive reinforcement training.
"When she found out she got really big rewards for Acara touching her, she used to pick up Acara's hand and put it on her face," said Bobbi Gordon of the animal-care staff.
But that's not to say raising Acara came without its challenges.
"There were times when we didn't know if we could put them together," said Liz Larsen, animal-care supervisor. "Things would change sometimes daily."
"I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it," said Jones, who has been Eve's primary trainer for years. Although staff was in constant communication with other zoos and the Specie Survival Plan, a program through the national zoo accreditation organization, training sometimes failed or the two would not respond to each other.
Fortunately, Eve always acted with nervousness toward Acara, not aggression.
Bornean Orangutans are highly endangered and tough to breed. But Hogle Zoo was able to breed Eve with 16-year-old Eli, who sits in the pen next to Eve and Acara, sometimes watching them through the window. Orangutan males do not have any part in raising their offspring and are solitary animals.
"She's much more careful around the baby," Jones said of Eve's typically playful, wild nature. "She wants to play and she still does . . . but she makes sure it's safe."
Today, the two stay in a child-proof pen. Staff stopped wearing their furry monkey suits about December, and Eve and Acara spent their first full night together on Valentine's Day. They are kept in the pen visible to the public, rather than the training enclosure downstairs, and guests have taken delight in watching mother and daughter bond, playing with enrichment toys such as a PVC pipe, puzzle feeder and large sheets of paper.
"It's cute. She has a nice hairdo," said Colin Myers, 8, who came to the zoo Wednesday with his family from Kaysville. "Watching her suck on the pipe, it's adorable when she does that."
They still need monitoring, but the interaction and advancements between the two keep zoo staff smiling."That's a big step for Acara," said Gordon, as Acara picked up a piece of food in a trough, not given to her by Eve or taken from Eve's food pile. "We're taking note of that, that Acara's taking her own food."