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Children's Healthcare helps deliver baby orangutan

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ATLANTA -

It was a risky delivery: a young mother who'd lost one baby at birth was delivering her second child by C-section. She was surrounded by more than a dozen specialists and nurses. But this high stakes birth wasn't in a hospital operating room. It was at Zoo Atlanta.

Zoo Atlanta wanted to give this baby every chance of survival, so they put together a birth team of vets and obstetricians. They needed people with a lot of experience with newborns and they found some of them at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

Willie Bailey job is a respiratory therapist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. It's his job to help the babies breathe. He's been there 26 years and has taken care of thousands of newborns and been part of about 15 births. But nothing like the one Zoo Atlanta associate veterinarian Dr. Kate Leach was planning.

Dr Leach's mother-to-be was Blaze, a 16-year-old endangered Sumatran orangutan,  considered "high-risk" because she'd lost a baby during birth three years ago.

When Leach performed ultrasounds, Blaze's fetus appeared healthy. But given Blaze's history and small size -- she's only 98 pounds -- Zoo Atlanta didn't want to take any chances, so Leach pulled together a team of human and veterinary experts to deliver Blaze's baby by a rare caesarean section.  

Dr. Leach asked Willie and a handful of Children's NICU nurses if they would help deliver Blaze's baby, Pongo.

"Never done that with an orangutan before," said Bailey.

On January 10, the tiny redhead, just over three and half pounds was born.
 
"He had much less hair than he does now on top of his head, very small," Leach said.

Willie says Pongo behaved very much like a human newborn except for the breathing part.

"I expected him to breathe, as soon as a newborn would be expected to breathe.  Well, Pongo took his time about that process," Bailey said.

Orangutan newborns need to be held upright constantly so they can breathe.  So, for weeks, the NICU nurses and Zoo primate staff took shifts holding Pongo.  As soon as they could, they introduced him to his mother.

"She is a little bit quirky and things sort of happen on her watch," Leach said.

But they kept bringing Pongo back to Blaze, placing him on the other side of a protective mesh as she began to respond to her baby.
 
"Trying to kiss him, putting her lips through the mesh towards him," Leach said.

Dr. Kate says orangutan mothers keep their babies close for the first 7 or 8 years of life.  At the zoo, Pongo is always with Blaze.

"He looks to his mother when he's climbing and gotten himself higher than he knows what to do with, he squeaks and she responds.  They've really developed a strong relationship," Leach said.

And Willie Bailey says helping Pongo survive helped him appreciate life -- all life -- a lot more.

"And I'm of the belief that every day that I live and I experience something new that I am changed by it," Bailey said.

Pongo is now four months old. On warm days, he and Blaze and have started coming outside where you can see them together.

Zoo Atlanta is tracking Pongo's progress in a blog. Click here to read more: http://www.zooatlanta.org/home/animals/mammals/orangutan/orangutan_baby_updates

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