TAMPA — From the moment he was born, the little chimp named Ruben has been surrounded by love. The women on the primate staff at Lowry Park Zoo fed him from baby bottles, watched him cut teeth and giggled when he stood upright and walked with his arms raised, like Frankenstein.
But as time passed, as Ruben grew from 4 pounds to 11 and began to climb trees and eat bananas, the humans knew they faced a challenge. Ruben's mother, Rukiya, had died after childbirth. Two other females never attached to him. His father was too rough.
"When he was about six months old, we realized we just didn't have what he needed here," said Lee Ann Rottman, 44, the curator at Lowry Park.
So in late July, they climbed aboard a puddle-jumper, baby chimpanzee in their arms, and headed for the plains to try to find Ruben a mama.
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When they landed in Oklahoma City on July 30, Ruben was tired and a little airsick and a long way from home.
The Oklahoma City Zoo has a new $6.6-million exhibit that includes naturalistic habitats for two troops of gorillas, one family of orangutans, and a community of chimpanzees. Among the waterfalls, rocks and tropical flora was a female chimp named Kito that the zookeepers had their eye on as a possible surrogate mother for Ruben.
"You want to make sure that you have a female that has a motherly instinct," said Robin Newby, supervisor of apes at the Oklahoma City Zoo. "We knew which female to try first. Kito is very laid back. She lets the infants come to her. With everything Ruben has been through, we thought she'd be a good match."
Chimpanzees are complicated animals. They live in complex social groups with a strict hierarchy, so introducing a new chimp to the group is tricky, even if he's the cutest thing you've ever seen.
Rottman, from Lowry Park, stayed with Ruben for three days while he got familiar with his new environment. For the first 72 hours, the humans behaved as a surrogate family. This involved "not acting very much like humans," said Laura Bottaro, mammal curator at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
They also let Ruben see his new peers, though he remained in a separate enclosure. The Okie chimps, who had already accepted two infants, seemed to know what was going on. They were very interested in Ruben and watched him climb on his jungle gym.
When the time came to introduce Ruben to Kito, Rottman said goodbye to the chimp she had raised and left. She didn't want to be a distraction.
It was hard.
"She raised this baby for seven months," said Newby. "She was his primary caretaker."
"It's not about us. It's about him," said Rottman. "We can all say we loved him, but his rearing is about him, and he's a chimpanzee."
She left a care package, from Lowry Park to Kito. It contained a jar of peanut butter, raisins and two packages of dried fruit.
And a note.
Kito, you are amazing! Thank you for accepting our Ruben into your family. You are our hero!
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Kito was patient when she met Ruben, as though she was giving him time to make his own decisions. She didn't make any advances.
The Oklahoma City staff describes the process like putting pieces into a puzzle — one chimpanzee at a time — and hoping they all fit.
"There's always a little bit of anxiety," Newby said.
Kito seemed to have a strategy. When it was time to rest, she walked around the room gathering all the cushy materials, the bedding and hay and shredded wood, and sort of made a nest. Then she laid down and waited for the youngster. Before long, Ruben joined her. Now she seems to know she's his mother.
And it wasn't long before Ruben had bonded with the troop's alpha male, Mwami. That was the staff's biggest concern.
"He loves Ruben and Ruben loves him," said Newby. They hug and reassure each other.
"They jump around," she said. "Then they go in for a facial mouth greeting."
Like a kiss?
"Yes," she said. "Like a kiss. He's happy."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.