Once a week, Meekins volunteers for an eight-hour shift to watch the young Hogle Zoo orangutan. Despite the close contact she has with the baby, Meekins does her best to blend into the background.
"My family teases me that she's my other grandchild," she said as Acara fidgeted on Meekin's brown, fake fur sweater.
But the Salt Lake City zoo volunteer knows creating such a bond could be harmful for Acara because experts are trying to reunite the baby with her real mom, 15-year-old Eve.
Birthing complications forced doctors to deliver Acara via Caesarean section. The first-time mother did not recognize the baby as hers partly because the birth did not proceed in the natural way.
Since the operation, trained volunteers and zoo employees have taken shifts to look after Acara, said Liz Lar- sen, the zoo's primate supervisor. In the beginning, staff members constantly held the baby orangutan.
"Now we're telling [caregivers] not to make eye contact with her and to try not to interact, but it's difficult," Larsen said.
"Particularly the eye contact because she'll look right up at you," Meekins added, "and you wonder what's going on in her mind."
Larsen said the zoo is making progress in introducing 6-month-old Acara to Eve. Early on, staff would not place the two in the same room. Under close supervision in recent months, mother and daughter have spent time together and have initiated contact with one another.
"I think [Eve] is clueing in to the fact that this is not an animal that is going to hurt her," said Nancy Carpenter, the zoo's head veterinarian.
It may still be some time before Eve can take over full-time care of her baby, who has grown from 3 pounds to 10, but the signs are promising.
"The mother is showing a lot of interest in her, and she is showing more and more interest in her mother," Larsen said. Because the zoo can't wait for a permanent reunion, caregivers are doing their best to maintain Acara's natural development. In the wild, mother orangutans start leaving offspring to play independently at age 6 months.
Acara will sometimes take the initiative to play alone, Meekins said. Other times, the caregiver gives a little nudge.
The gangly orangutan has her own makeshift jungle gym, made of artificial vine and PVC pipes, to test out her growing strength. Acara rattles the apparatus as she contorts into different positions.
"It's cool," said Jaqui Hunt, 9, of Taylorsville as she watched Acara play. She said she liked how small Acara is and how much hair she has.
Acara is on public display Monday through Friday, from 1-2 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10-11 a.m. and from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
l Orangutans are a highly endangered species found in Malaysia and Indonesia, on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
l Hardwood logging is destroying the natural habitat of the orangutan.
l Orangutans eat mostly fruits and will travel great distances to return to specific fruit trees.
l Females can grow up to 140 pounds and can live for up to 50 years.
More information is available on the Web at http://www.hoglezoo .org.
- Source: Hogle Zoo