Even when everything looks perfect, nature sometimes takes a turn.
A western lowland gorilla at the Toledo Zoo gave birth to a stillborn baby Friday. Keepers discovered 16-year-old Sufi Bettine carrying the deceased male infant early that morning.
Dr. Adolf Maas, director of veterinary medicine and nutrition at the zoo, said the umbilical cord became tangled in a knot during the birth, which cut off oxygen to the baby. The complication is not uncommon and all signs showed the birth was otherwise normal.
“When you have an animal, you can’t put monitors on during the birth process, there’s no way to know this is going on,” Dr. Maas said. “If there’s anything we could have done, we would have.”
The pregnancy, which was Sufi’s first, was very smooth. There was nothing she, the other gorillas, or zoo staff did that could have caused the sad outcome. Frequent ultrasounds showed no problems.
“All through the pregnancy, the baby was beautiful and growing normally,” Dr. Maas said. “Even about a week before the birth, he had a good strong fetal heartbeat. Everything looked really nice.”
Staff had been monitoring Sufi very closely as she neared the end of her 8 1/2-month pregnancy. Keepers were arriving early, watching cameras, and checking on her at night. Michael Frushour, curator of mammals, said she had shown no signs of labor even Thursday night and gave birth in the early morning hours between staff checks.
Dr. Maas said Sufi showed him her baby that morning, and he was able to see the knot in the umbilical cord. The gorilla exhibit was closed Friday and through the weekend while Sufi and the troop adjusted.
“We don’t rush anything,” Mr. Frushour said. “We let her take her time and go through the process. We just gave her space.”
Sufi carried the baby until eventually realizing he wasn’t viable. She put him down Sunday and zoo staff was able to collect and examine the body. A necropsy did not show any problems beyond the knot in the cord.
“That proves to us how good her maternal instincts are,” Mr. Frushour said. “She was carrying the baby correctly, cleaning the baby, and trying to nurse. As sad as it was, it was good to see all those behaviors.”
Sufi had been lactating and actually nursed Mokonzi, a male born to Kitani in May, a few days before delivering her own baby. She and the other members of the troop, including silverback male and father Kwisha, showed entirely appropriate behavior after the birth.
“They were very protective of Sufi and the baby,” Mr. Frushour said. “Kwisha was really protective, which is what we want. He was keeping the rest away from her.”
Sufi is healthy and will breed again when she is ready.
“She did so well,” Mr. Frushour said. “Her appetite is coming back and she’s still in with the troop. We’re really happy with how things have gone in that regard.”
Western lowland gorillas, found in the heavy rain forests of west central Africa, are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Red List as critically endangered.
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