Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



The Heart of the Matter

Sidebar: This Won't Hurt a Bit!


Luckily, none of the Zoo’s current gorillas or orangutans has been diagnosed with heart disease. But vets and keepers remain ever vigilant. During the animals’ complete physicals, conducted every two to three years, the vets draw blood for BNP analysis and take radiographs of the chest to assess heart size. A consulting veterinary cardiologist, Steve Rosenthal, attends most routine examinations and performs echocardiograms. These studies help clinicians understand what is normal for apes and promote earlier detection of disease.

gorilla mother with baby

(Ann Batdorfn/NZP)

The apes are being trained to participate in their own health checks, such as permitting blood draws without the need for anesthesia. That’s an important step for regular monitoring. Staff are constructing a rigid sleeve, designed by Zoo Atlanta vets and Georgia Tech grad students, into which an ape can slip its arm for blood draws and eventually for blood pressure checks.

The animals also are learning to allow vets to perform “awake” echocardiograms. Several of the apes are trained to present their chests up to the mesh of the enclosure so that keepers or vets can touch them with the probe.

As with human patients, there are individual quirks to overcome. Some apes, notably young male gorillas Kojo and Kwame, just can’t stand needles. When they see a needle, they jump and move away or bang on their enclosure, reactions that many of us can no doubt identify with.


More: "The Heart of the Matter"

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(6) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.