Somehow, as with humans, animals have figured out how to be good moms—and some are just amazing at it.
Here are a few of the reasons why they make our list of the best animal mothers!
“The orangutan mother–infant bond is one of the most intense and intimate I’ve ever seen in any animal,” says a researcher on the PBS educational video NATURE: Orangutan Eden. “They feed together. They are in the same nest. They are almost constantly in body contact.” Like many animals, baby orangutans are completely dependent on their moms at first. Weighing nearly four pounds at birth, they cling to their mothers, who carry them everywhere and provide all their food. In fact, orangutan mothers carry their babies around until they are five years old and they can ʙʀᴇᴀsᴛ feed them until they are eight years old!
And even when the young orangutans can get around on their own, they usually stay close to their mothers. When they do eventually leave “home,” the female orangutans will often come back for visits with their moms. “Such prolonged association between mother and offspring is rare among mammals,” according to the Orangutan Foundation. “Probably only humans have a more intensive relationship with their mothers.” It is not uncommon to see a young orangutan holding hands with his mother, which is known as buddy travel. Young orangutans learn nearly everything they need to know from their mothers.
2. Polar Bears
A mother polar bear must make some personal sacrifices for her newly conceived offspring. First, she must gain extra weight—more than 400 pounds—to ensure the fetus is not reabsorbed by her body. Then she doesn’t eat for a few months while she goes into a hibernation state before giving birth. Her cubs are tiny—just one pound—and helpless when born, but even as they get bigger, they stay near their moms for two to three years learning how to survive. Then their moms teach them to be independent and off they go!
Like all great mothers, polar bears have been reported to ʀɪsᴋ their own lives for the lives of their cubs. All polar bears are considered “vulnerable or ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛened” due to rising global temperatures that affect their habitat, ʜᴜɴᴛing, and other environmental factors.
The cheetah mom is a hard-working single mother, having to raise between two and eight cubs at a time. In addition to feeding and teaching them, she must protect them from lions, hyenas, and other predators. To keep her litter safe, the mother cheetah moves her cubs to a new location every few days. The babies nurse until they are about eight months old and then they begin to learn to stalk and ʜᴜɴᴛ, getting lessons from mom and practice time with their siblings. Cheetahs have even been known to adopt orphan cubs, as the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute discovered when they introduced a newborn cub to a nursing-mother cheetah. “She took right to the new cub and just groomed it right away and accepted it willingly,” cheetah keeper Lacey Braun told NPR. What a great mom! Like many of the big cats, cheetahs are vulnerable to ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛion, and many are requesting they be added to the IUCN Red List as enᴅᴀɴɢᴇʀed.
We share 98 percent of our DNA with gorillas, so it’s not surprising that gorilla moms are similar to human moms in many positive ways. Gorillas bond and stay together as family units throughout their lives (males, females, and a few children). Before the babies learn to walk at around nine-months-old, they ride on their mom’s back by grasping her fur, which they know to do immediately after they’re born. “Mothers are highly protective of their young,” according the Gorilla Highlands website, “many have ᴅɪᴇd trying to protect their offspring against ᴘᴏᴀᴄʜers.” Recently, Calaya, a 15-year-old western lowland gorilla at Smithsonian’s’ National Zoo, won the hearts of the nation when she gave birth to Moke, which means “little one” in the Lingala language. Immediately after giving birth, Calaya sweetly held up her newborn and gave him a tender kiss, a little cleaning, and a cuddle.
“Animal care staff were surprised at how quickly Calaya and her infant bonded, given that Moke is her first offspring,” Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute reported. “She cleaned the baby, cleared his nasal passages, and gently cradled him—exactly what the primate team hoped she would do.”
“Calaya is an excellent and attentive mother,” says the zoo’s animal keeper Melba Brown. “We are encouraged to see that she is cradling him. Occasionally, she will set him down on the ground, [but] she is always close by to tend to him.”
The western lowland gorilla, along with the other four subspecies of gorillas, are labeled as “critically enᴅᴀɴɢᴇʀed” due to ʜᴜɴᴛing, habitat loss, and ᴅɪsᴇᴀsᴇs.
Move over Tiger Mom. Some are encouraging a new animal parenting style called the “elephant mom,” which focuses on protection and encouragement. It’s named after elephants because they are so dedicated to their offspring. Like giraffes, elephants share in the responsibility of caring and defending their young. Elephant moms will often come together to protect and save a baby elephant, even at their own ʀɪsᴋ. Elephants are loving creatures and moms stay close to their babies, bringing them back to the fold if they wander away, bathing them, nursing them, and teaching them survival skills. If a mother elephant ᴅɪᴇs before her baby reaches age two, it will likely not survive, despite the efforts of other female elephants. And elephants stay with their mothers for an average of 16 years. The number of these intelligent and sensitive creatures on the planet continues to decline due to ᴘᴏᴀᴄʜing, the illegal ivory trade, and a shrinking habitat.
After a pregnancy of 15 months, giraffes give birth to a calf that weighs 100 to 150 pounds and is 6 feet tall! In less than a half an hour, the baby giraffe begins to stand and eventually walk with its mother’s gentle encouragement. Since the young giraffes cannot run fast, its mother will hide it or leave it with other mother giraffe “babysitters”—known as a creche—while she looks for food. “Like humans, [the baby giraffes] will start to miss their mother and will wait for her where she was last seen until she comes back,” according to Critter Babies website. And like most moms, giraffes don’t get much sleep. They are always on guard, protecting themselves and their offspring, so they only get about 30 minutes of sleep a day, usually just a few minutes at a time. Giraffes are now vulnerable to ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛion, again due to ᴘᴏᴀᴄʜers and habitat loss. There are just 97,500 giraffes left in the world.