With great apes, practice makes perfect. First, we needed Baraka to willingly and consistently separate from his troop each morning at the scheduled exam time. He shifted into the enclosure, participated in a quick training session, received some big food rewards and was immediately reunited with his troop. During the training session, Baraka was asked to present his arm for a syringe and needle with a blunted tip. He and I did this training almost every day leading up to his exam. Practicing this medical behavior consistently helped to build our trust bank.
Just like our doctors would ask us to do, our great apes fast before a procedure to reduce the risk of vomiting under anesthesia. Keepers do not give them anything to eat after a certain time, and we turn off their water sources at the end of the night. The apes are so smart that we need them to fast occasionally even when no exam is scheduled. Otherwise, on exam days they notice that the water is off and it makes them suspicious.
On the day of the exam, Nov. 12, all of our preparation was put to the test. As we had practiced, Baraka separated from his troop, presented his arm at the mesh, and I injected him with the anesthesia. Unlike saline, the anesthetic drugs sting. Baraka noticed the sensation right away, and gave me a not-so-pleased throw of his arm in my direction. Within minutes, he was asleep in his enclosure, and the veterinarians, veterinary technicians and primate team moved quickly together to transport him to the Zoo’s Vet Hospital.
While our veterinary team are able to treat the vast array of species at the Zoo, some exams and procedures call for extra expertise. Having specialists at an animal’s exam while it is under anesthesia can proactively reduce the need for a second anesthetic event. After our vets completed Baraka’s workup—X-rays, bloodwork, ultrasound and physical exam—the specialists were called in to perform their own diagnostics.
Dr. Steven Rosenthal, a veterinary cardiologist, performed a cardiac ultrasound to check the function of Baraka’s heart. All great apes—including humans—are at risk for cardiac disease. Thankfully, Baraka’s cardiac exam was normal.
Next up was Dr. Steven Zeddun, a gastroenterologist, and Dr. Khashayar Vaziri, a general surgeon, both from George Washington University. Dr. Vaziri evaluated a previously noted umbilical hernia to make sure that this was not the cause of Baraka’s discomfort. Dr. Zeddun performed an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and endoscopic ultrasound to check the structures of Baraka’s gastrointestinal system. Once again, we received good news: all structures appeared within normal limits.