Detroit Zoo gorillas undergo cardiac exams

ROYAL OAK Mich., March 29, 2012 – How do you conduct a cardiac exam on a 400-pound gorilla? With weeks of training and patience, according to the animal care staff at the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). Chip, 15, Pende, 14, and Kongo, 13, three male Western lowland gorillas at the Detroit Zoo, recently underwent cardiac ultrasound exams to monitor their heart health. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of mortality among great apes living in zoos.

When Chip, Pende and Kongo first arrived at the Detroit Zoo nine years ago, DZS veterinarians recognized that the youngsters provided an opportunity to better understand the early stages of cardiac disease in male gorillas. Recently, all three gorillas were trained to allow awake ultrasound examinations, using a step-by-step process to familiarize the animals with the equipment and personnel and reward them for allowing ultrasound to occur.

First, zookeepers trained the gorillas to stand or sit in a position close to the enclosure mesh in order for veterinary staff to reach them with the ultrasound probe. Next, the gorillas were trained to remain calm and still while being touched lightly on the chest. Finally, the gorillas were introduced to an ultrasound probe coated with gel held by an ultrasound operator.

“With weeks of encouragement, we were able to train all three gorillas to allow us to press the probe against their chest for the time needed to collect the images used to measure cardiac function,” said DZS Chief Veterinarian Dr. Ann Duncan. “After the first few nervous sessions, the gorillas began to enjoy the challenge of training and seemed very glad to see that it was time for their ultrasound exams.”

After performing the awake exams, the ultrasound study was repeated on each gorilla while under anesthesia for routine physical examinations. The measurements from both exams were compared to identify any inconsistencies that may exist between awake and anesthetized cardiac ultrasounds.

To gather even more information, the DZS was invited to participate in a new component of the the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) based at Zoo Atlanta. Each gorilla underwent a procedure to implant a small recorder used to monitor human cardiac patients. For the next three years, data from the implants will be downloaded and forwarded to the DZS’s human cardiology partners – including Dr. Ilana Kutinsky, a cardiac specialist from Beaumont Health System and national expert on primate cardiology – to help them better understand gorilla heart disease.

The GAHP was established in 2010 to address the need to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in great apes. Organizing partners include the Emerging Diseases Research Group of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. For information, visit www.greatapeheartproject.org.

Chip, Pende and Kongo arrived at the Detroit Zoo in 2003 from the Bronx Zoo, earning them the collective nickname The Bronx Boys. The gorillas reside at the Zoo’s Great Apes of Harambee, a four-acre habitat that also houses chimpanzees and drills.