A giant anteater baby, born July 24 at the National Zoo, ventures outside for the first time. Mother and baby will be on display Saturday morning until 11:30 a.m.
A giant anteater baby, born July 24 at the National Zoo, ventures outside for the first time. Mother and baby will be on display Saturday morning until 11:30 a.m.
Jessie Cohen - Smithsonian Institution
A BIRTH AT THE ZOO

Baby Anteater Is Latest Addition To Zoo Population

A week-old giant anteater, the first ever born at the National Zoo, clings to its mother's back in an enclosure designed to resemble their Central and South American habitat. Zoo staff have not yet weighed the newborn or determined its gender in an effort to minimize stress on mother and child.
A week-old giant anteater, the first ever born at the National Zoo, clings to its mother's back in an enclosure designed to resemble their Central and South American habitat. Zoo staff have not yet weighed the newborn or determined its gender in an effort to minimize stress on mother and child. (Photos By Jessie Cohen -- National Zoo Via Reuters)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Moments after the National Zoo's first baby giant anteater was born last month, it most likely let out a high-pitched screech worthy of a velociraptor.

The shriek is what keeps it alive: Anteater mothers are fairly blind and none too bright, and the cry kicks in the mothering instinct. "It's like, 'What's this noise? What's this noise? What's this noise? I gotta make it stop," animal keeper Marie Magnuson said. "Kind of like humans and crying."

It's also probably why some baby anteaters born in captivity have died: Their easy-to-startle fathers have wound up killing them. "The sound kind of freaks them out," Magnuson said. And they start slashing with their razor-sharp claws -- which can beat back a jaguar attack -- to make the noise go away.

For just that reason, when the baby was born July 24, its father, a studly 5-year-old anteater named Dante, was sleeping in a separate stall.

Yesterday, Dante wandered around the leafy exhibit designed to look like his native Central and South American range, probing the air with his long, thin nose in search of rotten logs to claw open and juicy termites to suck, occasionally sticking out the tip of his two-foot-long tongue.

Anteaters can eat up to 30,000 insects a day. Dante gets a mix of insects and food from the zoo. He's partial to yogurt. The new father most likely has no idea that he has a baby, which will be out in the exhibit for the public to see for the first time this morning. Nor will he ever know.

In the wild, giant anteaters are fairly equal opportunity breeders. They mate and move on. "They're tramps," Magnuson said. "Non-monogamous." Males are never involved in bringing up baby. So Dante will be kept separate from mother and baby from here on out.

That leaves mom, 4-year-old Maripi, to do the heavy lifting. Literally. Once they let out that life-or-death screech, baby anteaters climb on their mothers' backs. And, though they do get down from time to time, many will stay there for nearly a year. A mature male such as Dante can weigh as much as 90 pounds and stretch as much as seven feet from snout to tail.

The new baby has yet to be named -- keepers have not figured out whether it is male or female. Giant anteaters, it turns out, all look rather the same. Both sexes have what's called a "cloaca," Magnuson said. So it may be more than a month before they can get close enough to find out.

For now, Magnuson just calls it "Little Schnozzy."

Although it is the first anteater born in the zoo's 118-year-history, that's largely because the zoo hasn't kept giant anteaters. It had a pair about 20 years ago, but the animals didn't hit it off, apparently. Last year, when the zoo decided to again add anteaters to the collection and breed them, two keepers drove a pickup to Nashville -- which is apparently the place to go for giant anteaters -- and came back with Dante and Maripi.

From the start, zoo employees watched for hard-to-detect signs of breeding behavior. They noticed little dings on Maripi's shoulder, marks that Dante was swiping her and forcing her to the ground. Giant anteater breeding, it turns out, looks a lot like wrestling.

In most cases, zoos can't tell when a giant anteater is pregnant. So, to be safe, Dante and Maripi were always separated at night. Then, about six months ago, Magnuson started giving Maripi weekly sonograms -- offering peanut butter to her to soothe her. And the baby watch began. "If we hadn't been ultrasounding, we could easily have missed it," Magnuson said.

Zoo officials figured Maripi would give birth sometime this month. They wanted to videotape it. But the IT guy wasn't scheduled to install the camera until last Tuesday. By then, the baby had been born.

An anteater being born in captivity isn't necessarily rare. Zoos in Nashville and San Diego have seen their fair share. It's more that it's fairly rare to have giant anteaters at any zoo.

"We think they're cool," Magnuson said.

The exhibit at the National Zoo is next to Lemur Island, and the zoo says the mother and baby are most apt to be seen between 8 and 11 a.m.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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