Zoo Atlanta, Children's Healthcare Team Up To Save Baby Orangutan

5:03 PM, May 19, 2010   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- The baby orangutan born at Zoo Atlanta in March wasn't doing too well, but an amazing partnership between the zoo and a prestigious healthcare institution is helping the animal turn the corner.

It's shift change at the Zoo Atlanta nursery.

Since San-dar was born in March, the orangutan baby has needed constant care -- from humans -- because his mother was physically unable to raise him.

But these humans don't work at the zoo.

They are neo-natal intensive care nurses who work at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"I want to be there...this once in a lifetime opportunity to share our specialized skills with the community in some way," said Chrystina Fields, a nurse at Children's Healthcare. 

One of the zoo's board members is married to a doctor at Children's Healthcare. He asked her if anyone at Children's could offer advice on the care of a baby orangutan.

"I jumped at the chance to come see him," said Dr. Usama Kanaan, apediatric cardiologist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

Dr. Kanaan has periodically been monitoring Sandar's heart, which is doing fine.

"The thing that has really struck me over and over again is how incredibly similar this, you know, baby orangutan's heart and really the overall his physiology, his body, his organ systems are to humans," Dr. Kanaan said. 

"He's funny like he's just like a real baby," said Children's Healthcare nurse Melissa Goodbread.

It soon became clear that the health professionals from Children's Healthcare had a lot to offer.

"The skills of dealing with oxygen and giving tube feedings, that's right up our alley," said Chrystina Fields. "That's what we do every day."

But humans caring for seriously sick baby animals, that doesn't happen every day.

"We don't have a lot of experience with neo-natal care," said director of Zoo Atlanta's veterinary services, Dr. Hayley Murphy. "So we've learned a lot from the human community. And they've learned a lot from the veterinary community."

Chrystina Fields and Melissa Goodbread are used to caring for sick tiny babies, just not sick tiny orangutan babies.

Fields knew "the importance of him being held all the time and being able to grasp and use his hands to climb, because he's going to need to be able to do that once he goes back to his mom."

They named him San-dar meaning "to rely on".

San-dar will need to rely on himself before he can return to his orangutan family.

He must feed from a bottle.

"If he can learn to take this bottle, that's the biggest step," said nurse Melissa Goodbread.

San-dar had pneumonia and couldn't breathe and take a bottle at the same time.

Sixteen nurses work around the clock, on their own time, to care for San-dar.

Their goal is to get him health enough to return to his family.

Sand-dar took a big step Wednesday.

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