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Neglected by mother, baby chimp from Baltimore starts new life in Florida

Keeva, a chimp born in March at the Maryland Zoo, was rejected by its mother but has found a new home and surrogate mother at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Her name, Keeva, is Gaelic for gentle, beautiful, precious. And at two months old, she's every bit of that.

But her mother couldn't take care of her, and now she's down in Florida, bonding with her new family. While her absence here is Baltimore's loss, surely the smile that greets her keepers every morning is proof that those in charge of such things made the right decision.

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Keeva is a baby chimpanzee, an adorable, sweet little girl born March 12 to a female chimp at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Unfortunately, her mom, 26-year-old Carole, seemed ill-prepared for the responsibilities of motherhood. She wasn't hostile toward Keeva, wasn't trying to hurt her. Trouble was, she wasn't trying to do much of anything with her baby – she wasn't nursing her, wasn't bonding with her.

So it is that Keeva has taken up residence at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Right now, she's under the care of the staff there – much as she was in Baltimore, where about a dozen zoo staffers took turns acting as Keeva's mom, holding her and feeding her in eight-hour shifts, making her feel loved and protected. In Florida as in Maryland, Keeva has never wanted for loving attention from her human surrogates.

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"She's a petite little girl. She's tiny. She's starting small, but she's catching up -- let's put it that way," says Lee Ann Rottman, general curator at the Lowry Zoo. Keeva, who weighed just a tad over three pounds when she left Baltimore, has grown to five pounds, Rottman says.

The difference between the Baltimore zoo and Tampa's is that they have a chimp mom who's a proven surrogate – 32-year-old Abby, who's already successfully raised two adopted chimp babies. Sadly, no Baltimore chimp could make the same claim. And so Keeva, at three weeks, was flown to Tampa.

"It truly seemed like Carole was a bit confused," Claire MacNamara, the Maryland zoo's chimp forest area manager, said back in March, after it had become clear Baby Keeva couldn't stay in Baltimore. "The female and the infant were just not connecting."

Such disconnects between mother and baby chimp are rare, said Stephen Ross of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo and chair of the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan committee, a project of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That's mostly because zoo officials keep a close eye on their female chimps, trying to ensure they will make good mothers before allowing them to be impregnated.

"Over the past decade or so, there's only been one or two where the mother had been incompetent behaviorally to take care of her offspring," he said. "Actually, Carole was identified as a potentially good mom, and so we gave breeding recommendation for her.

"But when it came down to it," Ross said, "she wasn't up to doing all the hard work it takes upon becoming a mother."

Still, Ross noted, Keeva is one lucky chimpanzee. Had this happened in the wild, she almost certainly would have died.

After separating Keeva and Carole a first time, her keepers in Baltimore tried a reintroduction. Maybe, they hoped, the separation had made Carole feel a little more motherly.

"We thought that maybe, a few days after giving birth, maybe Carole wasn't feeling very well. Maybe a few days later, she would be feeling better and would be more willing to take those maternal duties. But when we tried to re-introduce Keeva, it didn't go as we had hoped. So the final decision was made … and we started looking for a surrogate."

While Keeva was in Baltimore, her handlers took every step possible to not only keep her healthy and comfortable, but to make her think she was being raised by one of her fellow chimps. They held her almost continuously, wore fur vests ("what you'd make a gorilla suit out of," MacNamara explained), groomed her and made chimp noises to her.

"We are doing our best to mimic anything she would have had," MacNamara said.

On March 29, Keeva and two of her Baltimore handlers -- MacNamara and Mammal Collection & Conservation Manager Carey Ricciardone -- boarded a plane for Tampa. She may have been too young to realize it, but the 17-day-old chimp was getting the royal treatment -- pilot Jeff Luizza, out of Orlando, flew his own plane to Baltimore so Keeva could be transported safely and comfortably to her new home.

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Luizza is a volunteer pilot with Animal Rescue Flights, a group that normally transports rescued dogs and cats to new homes around the county.

So far, Keeva seems to be taking her re-location fine. She hasn't yet been put in with the other chimps, but she has had some contact – through a mesh screen -- with Abby and the other females. Mother and adoptive daughter seem to be taking to one another, and the other chimps have been keeping an eye on things, clearly curious about this youngster.

"She's watching the chimps a little more, but they spend a lot of their time watching her as well," says Rottman. Two weeks ago, Keeva made her first sound directed at her adoptive family, which her keepers take as a good sign – especially since the other chimps answered her back.

Rottman says Keeva should be ready to fully join her new chimp family, and thus go on public display, in a couple of months. But for now, in a development any parent should understand, she's mostly becoming … well, squirmy.

"She's doing good," says Rottman. "She's changing a lot right now. She's awake for longer periods of time, and she's more interactive, klnd of focusing in on her environment a lot more. She's wanting to move. Before, it was mostly eating and sleeping. But now, she's trying to get to the point where she can crawl. She's not there yet, but she's certainly trying."

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