Breastfeeding in Captivity

Breastfeeding is as ingrained in our culture - as ingrained in humanity - as life itself. In The Breastfeeding World, we'll share captivating historical information, interesting stories and thought-provoking perspectives behind breastfeeding. 

In our first cultural post, we're going to share a unique and fascinating story. We've heard this story floating around for some time and were able to hunt down the newspaper article to get you the real story - it's about a gorilla and it's awesome. Ready for it? 

In 1987, a gorilla named Malaika, who was raised in captivity at the Toledo Zoo, shared a bonding experience with a woman named Cindy Beely and her daughter Christy as Cindy sat right in front of Malaika and breastfed her baby.

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Wondering why?

Earlier that year, Malaika's first baby, Shani, was born. According to the Toledo Zoo keepers, Shani had to be taken away because Malaika would not hold her baby in a position that allowed her to nurse. Malaika was raised in captivity for most of her life away from her village - her band of gorillas -and as a result, she didn't know how to nurse her baby. It didn't help that Shani was not showing much interest in latching or nursing either. (Perhaps this story is beginning to sound familiar.)

The zoo tried and tried to teach Malaika mothering techniques with dolls and treats, but she just wasn't getting it. So, when Malaika became pregnant with her second baby, the zoo keepers knew they needed to try a new tactic. Enter Mrs. Beely. Twice a week, Cindy would come into the zoo and sit with Malaika while breastfeeding her daughter, Christy. No pressure, no judgement, no embarrassment - just two mamas observing each other. Over time, Malaika was reported to start showing more interest in Cindy breastfeeding her baby and she'd watch her rather than ignore her. Malaika is even reported to have pulled on her nipple showing Cindy and the zookeepers that she was starting to understand.

Malaika had her second baby in February 1988 and, this time around, she did it! It was a joint effort, but she held her baby and successfully nursed.

So why is this important in understanding breastfeeding? 

We love this real-life story because this truly emphasizes our belief that, while we may be hard-wired and biologically built to breastfeed, there is such a major social and cultural component to breastfeeding as well. Just as we learn how to walk and talk through observation, we learn how to be mothers and breastfeed through modeling and observation of those around us - family, friends, strangers, Hollywood. Many of us are breastfeeding for the first time, perhaps we're even the first in our social circles, and we have no idea what we're doing. We go through intense labors only to come out with this perfect, tiny creature and suddenly we're meant to know how to be moms. But we know, sometimes it's just not that simple.

Sometimes, we need to see how it's done to understand how to replicate it. How do we hold our baby to breastfeed so that it is comfortable and allows baby to get a deep latch? How do we know if baby has a good latch or if they're transferring milk properly? How do we know how to troubleshoot issues before they become big challenges that shake our confidence as moms?  How do we know what is in the range or normal and what we should or shouldn't be concerned about? Malaika was a gorilla bred in captivity - she didn't have any older mama gorillas to show her how it is done and she needed some help. Malaika is a good reminder that breastfeeding isn't solely biological - it's okay if you feel like you have no idea what you're doing. We've been there!

If you find that you need some extra help or support, check out our resources below or email us at


Additional Resources

Find an IBCLC near you here

Find your local meeting La Leche League or call 800-LA-LECHE (800-525-3243)

Locate your state's breastfeeding coalition

Facebook Groups: Nursing the Littles, Working Moms Who Make Breastfeeding Work, La Leche League International Support



Estadt, J. (1988, December). The road to mother rearing. Gorilla Gazette. Retrieved from

Marrison, B. (1987, November 13). Woman teaches gorilla art of nursing a baby. Toledo Blade. Retrieved from