Six-month-old Thai was living a gibbon's good life Tuesday, swinging nimbly between branches in a display at Utah's Hogle Zoo, his ever-loving mom and dad keeping a watchful eye over him.
But without four months of around-the-clock care from zoo staff, this uplifting scene of primate domestic tranquility would not have been possible. Thai would have starved to death. Instead, he's doing the things young gibbons do, gaining weight and strength as the approach of spring entices throngs of visitors to meet the zoo's new arrival.
"He's the first successful gibbon baby we've ever had," said a beaming Katie Richins-Benson, primary keeper of the zoo's primate building and Thai's main godmother through infancy and a delicate transfer back to the care of his natural parents.
This tale of devotion began shortly after Thai's birth Aug. 14 to Candy, a sassy 31-year-old, and Riley, a 12-year-old male imported from the Santa Barbara Zoo in California.
Candy had severe complications during birth. While she was being treated, keepers noted she did not have enough milk to feed her baby. It quickly became apparent that zoo staff would have to intervene or Thai would die.
"It was heartbreaking, horrible," said animal care supervisor Jane Larson, adding that taking Thai from his agitated parents was "a tough decision, but our only course of action."
For four months, Richins-Benson and more than a dozen other zoo personnel (including Barbara Lester, a retired primate specialist from Houston) kept a constant watch over Thai, striving to maintain connections between parents and child.
When feeding Thai formula from a bottle, they wore vests covered with black fur to simulate the parent gibbons' hair. Feeding sessions took place next to a window so "he could see them and they could see him," Richins-Benson said. Blankets used to keep Thai warm were passed to Candy and Riley so they would know his smell. A special trainer also was brought in to help prepare the parents for Thai to re-enter their lives.
That event took place, with much trepidation, on Dec. 11.
"We had heard horror stories" of other zoos' reintroduction attempts, Larson said, mostly of fathers attacking youngsters. But in this case, Riley made only one aggressive move toward his son before Candy stepped in, gave her mate a little slap and made him back off. "It was beautiful," Larson added.
Now, both parents dote on the boy. When they move around the exhibit case, one parent is in front of him, one behind. As he plays in the tangle of vine branches, one parent is up above, the other down below. "They baby-sit, groom and play with him all day," Richins-Benson said. "They are the best parents."
Importantly, Thai pays scant attention to the humans who spent many sleepless nights with him, raising him on baby formula, pieces of banana and mushes of cooked carrots, yams, kale and spinach. He still will take a bottle from people, Larson noted, but then quickly returns to his parents' protective care.
As it should be, Richins-Benson added.
At birth, Hogle Zoo's baby gibbon Thai weighed just under a pound. After six months of tender loving care, he weighs 3.3 pounds and is looking a lot more rambunctious.