For Release: July 1, 2006
John Gibbons (202) 633-3083
Peper Long (202) 633-3082
National Zoo Gorilla Dies During Cardiac Surgery
Kuja, a 23-year-old male western lowland gorilla, died today while undergoing surgery to receive a biventricular pacing/implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a cardiac device that delivers electrical therapy to treat heart rhythm disorders associated with heart failure and cardiac disease.
A cardiac electrophysiologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham along with veterinarians from Auburn University conducted the surgery, while Zoo veterinarians delivered anesthesia and monitored Kuja's condition. Philips Medical Systems lent a portable fluoroscopy unita video X-ray machine with a fluorescent screen that displays real-time images of the heartwhich allowed clinical staff to view Kuja's heart activity during the attempted implantation.
In June, Kuja was diagnosed with congestive heart failure related to cardiomyopathy, a chronic disease of the heart muscle that results in its decreased ability to pump blood throughout the body.
Heart failure does not mean the heart abruptly stops beating. Heart failure refers to the heart's reduced pumping capacity, due to the muscle's inability to contract and relax properly. This prevents the heart's two ventricles from pumping in synchrony.
At the National Zoo, gorillas undergo anesthetized physicals once every three years, where they receive a complete cardiac examination, including X-rays, electrocardiogram (EKG) and ultrasound. Information from the cardiac exams helps Zoo staff monitor gorillas' heart health. From these exams, veterinarians and the Zoo's cardiac consultant can measure changes in the heart's size, wall thickness and function, which help them detect the presence of heart disease, and its severity.
At Kuja's last routine physical on March 31, 2006, he was not in heart failure, and test results showed his heart condition to be consistent with his age.
However, Zoo veterinarians re-examined Kuja on Tuesday, June 20, after he showed lethargic behavior and a lack of appetite. Ultrasound images of his heart from that exam showed a significant change in heart functionKuja's heart muscle was unable to contract normally, and his heart's pumping capacity had diminished.
There are a number of possible reasons for the sharp change in Kuja's heart function including a virus or other stimulation of his immune system.
Kuja was in congestive heart failure at this morning's surgery, which means that his heart was not pumping strongly enough for an adequate distribution of blood through his body. This was also causing a buildup of fluid in his lungs. Zoo veterinarians were administering medication to help ameliorate his heart failure and reduce the symptoms of his disease, but this would have only been a short-term solution.
The cardiac device that surgeons attempted to implant today would not have cured Kuja's heart disease, but would have electrically stimulated his heart ventricles to beat in synchrony, thus boosting his quality of life, helping his heart pump more effectively, and giving him more energy and an increased appetite.
Kuja was born in 1983 at the Memphis Zoo, but was peer-raised in a nursery at the Milwaukee Zoo before arriving at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in 1985. He was owned by the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Kuja was the leader of one of the Zoo's two western lowland gorilla groups and the father of 6-year-old Kwame and 4-year-old Kojo.
Western lowland gorillas can be found in the African tropical forests of Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Nigeria. They are listed as endangered by The World Conservation Union (IUCN).
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