Last week I flew from Perth to Melbourne with two gibbons, completing a very long journey that started many years go with Lily, one special little ape.

The first time I met Lily I heard her before I saw her. I wasn’t sure if it was a bird noise I heard squawking but then I saw Nelly, Lily’s mother and it became obvious she had given birth overnight and I knew I was looking for an abandoned baby gibbon.

We started the process to get Lily back with her mother. We even anaesthetised her mother and laid Lily on her so she could suckle. When Nelly woke up she carefully manoeuvred her body so Lily would fall off her onto the blanket and we knew that we would have to hand raise this critically endangered small ape.

We don’t enter into any hand raising case lightly but we prepared for this option in Nelly’s birth plan just in case. Perth Zoo primate staff had hand raised two white-cheeked gibbon infants previously from different parents and both cases were successful. We knew that Lily would most likely never live with her parents after it became clear her mother had no recognition towards her. Luckily we had another gibbon family with two young female offspring that Lily could be integrated with.

And so it began, the high of my career.

As much as I would have loved to see Lily holding on tightly to her mother as she brachiated around their island home, I felt extremely privileged to be involved with her hand raising, I didn’t even mind the 2am bottle feeds!

The hand raising process was intense with 10 bottle feeds over a 24 hour period. She was in a humidicrib to begin with and then in an indoor ‘jungle gym’ area to learn how to climb. Slowly she started on solid food. She was shown to the unrelated family group of white-cheeked gibbons when she was regulating her own body temperature.

I still remember the day Lily first met females Jermei and Kit who were five and three years old. We would sit in with them and watch Jermei groom Lily and laugh watching Lily learn to climb the vines and branches. Slowly Lily’s strength improved and she became independent of her human carers.

Then the day came for Jermei to leave her family group and so Lily and Jermai lived together.

Jermei was like a mother to Lily and when it was her time to breed, a male ‘Tao’ was imported from France to be her mate. Tao was introduced to Jermei and Lily, and you would have thought Lily was Jermei’s offspring. Lily watched them pair bond, all valuable learning for her future experience as a mate. When it came time for Jermei to have babies of her own Lily was there watching and this by far was the most important part of Lily’s development. Lily observed Jermei being an attentive mother. Jermei herself was hand raised but she experienced no issues caring for her young. Lily carried Jermei’s baby ‘Tiane’ around the exhibit and was respectful and gentle.

As species coordinator for the White-cheeked Gibbon it’s my job to play gibbon matchmaker and make recommendations as to which gibbon should be paired with whom to ensure the best breeding match. Recently I had the honour of finding a boyfriend for Lily, the gorgeous young gibbon who I’d raised. At seven years old she’d come of age and it was time to find her a mate!

Jin came from America and was paired successfully with Lily at Perth Zoo before their transfer to Melbourne Zoo. Pairing gibbons isn’t easy, It’s a long process and involves leaving them to it to go through the bonding stages. Zoo keepers have to take a step back and allow the gibbon’s time to accept one another and fall in love!

Luckily love prevailed and it was music to my ears when Lily and Jin’s pair bonding duet song, which gibbons are renowned for, rang out across the Zoo.

Just last week I travelled with Jin and Lily to Melbourne Zoo and worked with their amazing team of keepers, managers and vets. Even though I know Lily and Jin will flourish it was still so hard to say ‘goodbye’ to Lily. She’s a little ape, but she’ll always have a big part of my heart.

Lily is nearly 10 years old and we have been a constant presence for each other and experienced so much together. We do have a very special bond. I know when I visit Melbourne Zoo she will come straight over and push her belly up to me for a scratch and look into my eyes.

When I left her my eyes were filled with tears of sadness but also excitement for Lily’s next adventure.

It’s certainly been a journey.

Holly Thompson, Perth Zoo Primate Supervisor