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Mahal's life, death impact zoo community

Sudden loss of young orangutan hard on zoo staff, surrogate mother

Mahal was born to an immature mother at the Denver Zoo that couldn't take care of him, so Mahal was introduced to his surogate mother MJ at the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2010.

Mahal was born to an immature mother at the Denver Zoo that couldn't take care of him, so Mahal was introduced to his surogate mother MJ at the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2010. Photo By Gary Porter

Jan. 15, 2013

Milwaukee County Zoo goers lost a favorite animal with the death of Mahal the Orangutan, but zookeepers and his adoptive mother lost much more. They lost a family member.

Mahal came to the zoo an orphan in 2008. His biological mother was unfit to care for him, so he was given to his grandmother, who died.

He passed away Dec. 29.

Growing up

When Mahal came to meet his new mother in Milwaukee, an orangutan named "MJ," he wasn't ready for her but still needed 24-hour contact. His zookeepers knew this and spent all their time with him, going so far as to sleep in his exhibit with him for two weeks.

MJ was patient with Mahal, sidling up to him and slinking away when he cried. One day he didn't cry when she approached and the two locked arms. They were inseparable from that moment on.

While he constantly clung to MJ, the zookeepers were still a large part of his young life. They gave him milk every two hours and taught MJ to bring him to the mesh that separated them to get it.

"They turn almost to family," zookeeper Stacy Whitaker said. "They really do. It's really hard on me."

According to his zookeepers, it was important that Mahal be raised by another orangutan so that he could learn how to act like an orangutan. MJ was a perfect match and, in fact, at the top of the registry for potential orangutan mothers. She had the patience, intelligence and energy to handle raising a baby orangutan.

Those qualities were needed to deal with the energetic toddler that Mahal became. According to his keepers, he was an instant zoo favorite due to his energy and charisma.

"It took maybe three years for him to start showing independence and when he started showing it, oh my god watch out. He was a typical toddler. He was all over the place. The public loved him and he knew he was loved and he showed it. He was not afraid."

When he wasn't showing off for the public, he was trying to play with his keepers. He would constantly shove rope or things through the mesh that separates them for games of tug of war.

He and MJ were always together. His keepers said that MJ took to him like there was nothing else in the world. The two painted together, watched television and even played with iPads.

Things went well for his four years at the zoo, until a cold December morning.

A sour turn

Mahal started showing signs of sickness Dec. 27, acting sluggish and not as energetic. One of Mahal's keepers rolled a grape at him Dec. 28. It hit his foot and he didn't look at it, a sign that he was very sick. His keepers held a meeting and decided it would be best to knock him and MJ out the next day and perform full tests on him with expert veterinarians.

They got the call the next morning.

Mahal was gone.

Officials don't know his exact cause of death, but they believe it may have been pneumonia.

"When you walk away from this job at night, you expect to see the same guys the next morning," keeper Mark Scheuber said. "You take it hard (when they die), especially with the little guys. Pneumonia (the suspected cause of Mahal's death) can come up quick on you and if you don't catch up on it, animals die."

MJ was depressed and lethargic for days. She knew he wasn't coming back.

"That was her life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that was what she did," Whitaker said. "And then it's gone. She needs a job. She's a high maintenance animal. She needs something to do all the time and she can be very demanding."

Her keepers did what any family member would do to help her recover from a loss. They simply stayed by her side. They would sit next to her cage and spend as much time with her as possible. They also opened a window between her and Tommy the orangutan so that they could interact. There are plans of having them share an exhibit when they are ready.

Expecting the unexpected

Every six months zookeepers sit around a table with veterinarians and discuss how to deal with animal's health issues. They discuss steps to prevent animals' deaths like Mahal's, but they also know that some can hit without warning.

"We look back and ask, 'should I have done something differently?' 'Did I do something wrong?' 'Should I have noticed something earlier?' 'Should we have knocked him down that night?'" Scheuber said. "You constantly question yourself, asking what you could have done and you can't do that."

While it's the zookeeper's job to constantly monitor animal's health to catch things like pneumonia, it's the animals' job to mask their sickness.

According to the keepers, when they see an animal is sluggish, it has been sick for a while.

To give a strong ape like Mahal a full exam, both he and MJ would have to be knocked out. The zookeepers aren't fond of jumping the gun and knocking out animals every time they exhibit signs of sickness.

"Think about if you have a kid and every time they have a runny nose you send them to the E.R., you can't do that," Scheuber said. "Knocking them down isn't the greatest thing ever. Their immune system takes a hit from that."

Giving an animal medication is another obstacle for the keepers. They usually have to mask antibiotics with the animal's food or they won't take it. The animals won't eat something they haven't had before and many of the antibiotics can have a bitter taste.

Moving forward

MJ is still on top of the list of surrogate mothers. It may be possible that the zoo could see another young orangutan under her care, but there are no leads yet.

She will continue to be provided with brain stimulating activities like her building blocks, television shows and paintings. She will eventually be in the same exhibit as Tommy and will continue to receive constant attention from her keepers.

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