At Burgers’ Zoo, we prefer animals to raise their young without zookeepers’ intervention. Young animals learn vital skills from their mothers and—depending on the species—their fathers. In certain species, the father actually plays a more important role in this respect. Older siblings may also assist in the process; in some cases, the whole group is involved in forming the young into fully-fledged group members. Animals raised by humans lack these essential, species-specific skills as they grow up, making it difficult to reintroduce them to their conspecifics later. In some cases, there are very important reasons for hand-rearing a young animal. This time: the aardvark.
A previously published article elaborated on the European population management programme for the aardvark, which Burgers’ Zoo coordinates. Sometimes a female is still very inexperienced or has had a difficult birthing, and she temporarily stops eating. The result can be that the milk production does not start or does not start well, or a cub may look weak after the birth. In these cases, zookeepers can play a crucial role by lending the mother and cub a helping hand.
On day one, the milk let-down is usually fast. As the days pass, the let-down becomes more and more difficult; it takes a little longer each day. Sometimes a cub will lie on its mother’s nipple for forty-five to sixty minutes before the milk starts to flow. In these cases, zookeepers ensure that the cub does not fall asleep from exhaustion and misses the milk when it starts flowing. You can usually tell when a female aardvark is lactating as the nipple is swollen to the size of a thimble; normally, it is just a small knob.
Before drinking, the mother licks the cub to stimulate defecation. After defecation, the cub has an empty feeling in the abdomen and is more inclined to drink. If the mother and/or the cub are still very weak after birth, zookeepers will first put the cubs in front of the mother’s snout so that she will start licking it. The cub must be weighed before drinking and immediately after to establish whether the milk has entered the cub’s stomach. When the zookeeper places the cub with its mother, they gently feel the cub’s throat while drinking to see if it is swallowing and getting milk.
The first ten days of a young aardvark’s life are crucial: if the cub makes it through this period, its chances of survival are generally very high. On day three/four, a weakened cub should reach an important turning point: from then on, it must steadily gain weight and may gain as much as a hundred grams daily. After those first ten crucial days, the cub is much more mobile and active.
If a cub is very weak after birth and not drinking properly, the zookeeper may decide to temporarily take it home in the evening and feed it extra milk to help it through this critical period. The cub is given a bottle at around 23:00, usually again in the middle of the night, and then put back in the bush with its mother at 06:00. Of course, the feeding frequency by the zookeeper depends on the amount of milk the cub has drunk per feeding. Getting the cub used to the teat of a bottle is difficult: this requires a lot of patience and dedication. If the cub is still not drinking properly, the zookeeper will carefully drip some milk into its mouth so it still gets some nutrition per feeding.
The zookeeper always tries to introduce the cub to its mother as soon as possible, and if the cub drinks well during the first few nights, it is hoped that it will soon no longer need to be taken home. In this example, a little human help can literally mean the difference between life and death. Because the mother raises the cub all by herself, there is no other adverse effect of human intervention on the young aardvark’s natural behaviour. Thanks to the experience and dedication of the zookeepers, aardvarks that are temporarily weakened after birth can grow into healthy adults.