In the 44-year history of Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens, hundreds of creatures have been born on site. This past spring and summer, however, were resplendent with the newborn cries, peeps, and whines of creatures as tiny as the golf-ball-sized dikkop chick to the man-sized giraffe calf.
The excitement of new life started in early March when a furry, wide-eyed joey emerged from its koala mother’s pouch. The baby, named Charlotte, promptly climbed onto mom’s back and has been hitching a ride since. The last joey was born at Riverbanks in 2015. After a joey is born, the size of a jellybean, it crawls inside the mother’s marsupial pouch where it latches on to nurse until it has developed for about six months. Once it has fur and can see and hear, it crawls out to face the outside world. For the next six months, at least, Charlotte will be content enjoying a maternal ride. Charlotte’s dad is Jimmy and her 16-year-old mom, Lottie, has birthed 11 joeys at Riverbanks; nine of those have been sired by Jimmy. Charlotte will stay with Lottie for about 18 months until she is re-homed to a new zoo.
A month later in early April, a 5-foot, 7-inch female giraffe, Amelia, dropped 6 feet to the ground. “Falling actually boosts respiration, jolting and clearing lungs,” says John Davis, director of animal care and welfare. “Within a few hours, the calves are standing. In the wild, they are susceptible to predators so they have to be up and moving quickly.” Amelia, who weighed 93 pounds at birth, is expected to grow to 14 feet and weigh around 1,500 pounds. The baby’s mother, Ginger, was born 18 years ago at Riverbanks. Amelia is the eighth calf born at the zoo; she is Ginger’s third.
One week after Amelia’s arrival, three lion cubs were born at Riverbanks. A lioness had not given birth at the zoo for 10 years. It took Thabisa five hours to deliver the three female cubs. Lindelani, Thabisa’s sister, gave birth a few days later, but neither of her two cubs survived. Both lionesses are first-time mothers. Lindelani, since she is part of the pride overseen by the father, Zuri, will help to raise, nurture, and protect Thabisa’s cubs.
On May 15, a spotted dikkop chick became a first for Riverbanks. The parents, native to tropical regions in Central and South Africa, are in the African Savannah Exhibit in the bird house. Of two eggs, only one chick survived. Interestingly, according to curator of birds Coleen Lynch, the hatchling was incubated, hatched, and cared for not by its parents but by masked lapwings. “We tried for three years with the dikkops, but they failed. But the masked lapwings are so successful as natural parents. The [masked lapwing] mother has raised 45 chicks. Dikkops and masked lapwings are of the shorebird group, so they have similar diets, habits, and habitat. And the new dikkop is behaving as a dikkop and not as a masked lapwing, so we expect success, even when we introduce it back with its parents.”
From mid-May to early June six hatchlings were born to 100 to 150-year-old giant Galapagos tortoise parents. The parents weigh between 400 and 550 pounds, but the hatchlings barely fluttered the scale at a few ounces each. Galapagos tortoises take about 20 years to fully mature sexually. Scott Pfaff, curator of reptiles, says the key to raising healthy hatchlings is to feed a high bulk, low protein diet and provide much exercise over surfaces like lava rock so muscles and shell develop slowly.
Finally, the first gorilla baby to survive at Riverbanks was born June 4. The western lowland gorilla is on the critically endangered list. The 12-year-old mother, Kazi, is one of the zoo’s five gorillas. Cenzoo, 22, is the infant’s father. Survival rate for a baby gorilla born to a first-time mother is generally around 80 percent. This past year, another gorilla, Macy, lost her baby when it was born breech. Riverbanks’ new infant male gorilla, which at publication had not yet been named, will be raised by the cohesive gorilla troop and will stay with them indefinitely.
“All expectant species are monitored through smartphone camera apps, and keepers respond if necessary,” says John, “but we respect that animals are wild, and we will intervene only if there is an emergency situation.”