December 21, 2020

My Heart Animal, Nias

A Tribute to Nias, the Sumatran Orangutan, From Her Longtime Keeper, Cindy


Few things are harder for zookeepers than the loss of an animal. Great Apes Keeper Cindy Cossaboon cared for Nias for 15 years, since Nias’ very first day at Denver Zoo. Hear from Cindy about what Nias was like when guests weren't around, and the depth of their bond. 


Who was NiasTo me she was my “heart orangutan.” She arrived in November 2005 to be a mate to our male Mias. I am sure you can see the confusion that caused, caring for a Mias and NiasSo, we gave her a lot of nicknames. Mrs. Neeners, Ladybug, Queen Bee and Sweetpea are just a few of the many terms of endearment we would use.   

Working with orangutans is all about relationships. Nias really made you work hard to earn her friendship. As the years went by, I was always surprised how deep and strong my friendship was with her. In 2010, the very first time she was pregnant and had gone into laborshe built her nest in the far corner of her den. It was a busy day at work, but once it quieted down and it was just us left, she moved her nest to where I was sitting and gave birth in front of another keeper and me. It was truly one of the most humbling experiences of my life. When an orangutan gives birth for the first time, we observe 24 hours a day. Nursing a baby is not an instinctual thing; it’s learned and we needed to be sure she was able to nurse her baby. One night when it was my turn to observe, Nias and I were just sitting together. She looked at me, then at her baby. She pulled off the dried umbilical cord and gave it to me. I know, sounds gross, but when an orangutan gives you something, it is a true gift. She was letting me know we were friends.  

When Nias accepted you into her circle, she was truly a sillygoofy girl.  She had the cutest giggle and she knew I loved it. She would somersault and do headstands all while giggling away. Sometimes we would be sitting in our office and hear giggling and playing sounds. We would sneak back and see the entire family playing and wrestling together. 

Queen Bee was a nickname, but it was also Nias’ personality. We all worked for her, and she knew it. One day, her first mate Mias had a belly ache. I made him a Pedialyte drink and I made her a cup of juice. Everyone knows juice is much better than plain PedialyteNias did not think so. She thought I was giving her mate something special and she didn’t appreciate me not letting her have it. Soshe took a sip of her juice and sprayed me with it. She was letting me know that she was the boss and I should only give special things to her. Her family also knew she was the Queen BeeBerani, her new mate, never went anywhere without her. Once he arrived, he became instantly attached to her. If she wasn’t around, he would not eat his biscuits and if she was around, he would share his food with her. It was Nias’ world and we all just lived in it. 

Nias was also an amazing mother, and it was a privilege to watch her grow into that role. With her first-born, Hesty, she was unsure what she was doing, but she was fiercely protective. When Hesty was about 4, she climbed to the top of the cottonwood tree. Nias was too heavy to reach that part of the tree, but Hesty had no problems causing chaos and chasing a squirrel.  Nias called to Hesty but Hesty refused to come. Nias increased her vocalizations, but Hesty still refused to listen. Finally, Nias got a hold of her. She held her with her foot and used her own body to block Hesty from climbing back up the tree. It was like watching any parent whose kid keeps running off at the playground.  

With her second child she was so much more relaxed. You could see how independent Cerah is, often swinging and climbing away from mom, but still under her watchful eye. When I finally had a child of my own, I was so excited to bring my baby to the zoo for the orangutans to see. However, Nias was not pleased that I had been gone so long (she often was unhappy when I took vacation time). She let me know by giving me the cold shoulder that I had been gone too long. Despite being mad at me, I could tell she really wanted to see my babySo, I turned my back to the glass and held the baby up. She came over immediately and spent quite a bit of time looking at my baby. On that day, we were both just moms, soaking in the splendor of a new life. 

I have so many of these memories of Nias, and they were all so special to me. She taught me so much about being a better zookeeper, a better mom, and a better person. She was my heart animal.

May she nest in peace.    


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