By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) — A male orangutan has taken on an unusual role at the Denver Zoo after the death of the family’s matriarch last month. Nias, a Sumatran orangutan, died unexpectedly on Dec. 17 at age 32. Berani is the father of her 2-year-old daughter, Cerah, and has started taking care of the youngster.

(credit: Denver Zoo)

“Berani stepped up to the plate and he’s just been a fantastic Mr. Mom,” said Cindy Cossaboon, a zookeeper at the Denver Zoo. “In the wild you would never see a male taking care of a baby, the full responsibility is on the mom.”

It is a rare situation to see even among zoos, Cossaboon told CBS4 on Wednesday she had only heard of one other case like this in the U.S. Nias, the mother, died of a heart attack last month.

“It’s incredible to see, it’s this giant male with a tiny little baby,” she said. “It’s one of those things where you have this terrible storm and then you have the rainbow at the end.”

Zoo staff say that Berani is attentive to her and protective of his daughter. He will carry and comfort her, they even snuggle when they sleep in the same nest at night. He has even run after her when he sees she is crying and lets her nibble on his chin. Hetsy, who is older and shares the same mother with Cerah, has also become a big sister and plays with Cerah throughout the day.

“The three of them are sticking together and moving forward,” staff explained earlier in the week.

(credit: CBS)

Nias came to the Denver Zoo in 2005 when she was 17 years old and spent 15 years meeting guests and serving as an ambassador for her critically endangered species, according to a Facebook post. Her death was shocking and devastating to zoo staff. Both the keepers and the orangutans needed time to grieve.

“Losing Nias was tragic, devastating, she was my heart animal,” Cossaboon told CBS4. “Not many people get to experience the kind of relationship I get to experience with these animals.”

The significance of Berani serving as a doting parent is important not only because males don’t usually take on that role, but also because motherhood isn’t instinctual for orangutans. The species also has the longest birth interval of mammals, eight to nine years.

So the time Cerah and Hetsy got with Nias was crucial.

(credit: CBS)

“It brings us all a great deal of comfort to see him doing such a great job,” she said. “He is doing a fantastic job, we couldn’t ask for better care for her.”

Orangutans can live into their 40s or even 50s. While the loss of her mother at a young age is crushing, zoo staff believe Cerah has a bright future. The bond she has with her father has already caught the attention of the public and their story is a reminder of how similar they are to humans.

“It’s just heartwarming to see something that can bring us all joy and something to look forward to,” Cossaboon said. “They each have their own personality and own story and these really special moments and memories.”


Shawn Chitnis