On February 22, Kigali—the National Zoo’s 15-year-old female western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)—successfully underwent dental surgery for a fractured tooth. “Tooth cracks are somewhat common in animals and humans alike,” explains Dr. Suzan Murray, Chief Veterinarian and Head of the Zoo’s Department of Animal Health. Exactly what cracked Kigali’s tooth and when the fracture occurred remains a mystery to her keepers. “She never showed any signs of discomfort,” says Dr. Erika Bauer, interim Curator of Pandas and Primates. “She has consistently eaten well and chewed food on both sides of her mouth.” Left untreated, a cracked tooth could become infected. Zoo staff called upon an outside veterinary dental specialist, Dr. Barron Hall, to fix Kigali’s tooth. After a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT), Dr. Hall performed root canal surgery and repaired the fracture. Both Murray and Bauer remained with Kigali throughout the exam and assisted veterinary staff with transportation.
In addition to dental work, Kigali also received a routine cardiac exam from Dr. Steven Rosenthal, an outside veterinary cardiologist. The information gathered from this test allows National Zoo scientists to investigate the characteristics of heart disease in gorillas. They will share their findings as part of an ongoing, multi-institutional study.
Named after the capital of Rwanda, Kigali is one of seven gorillas born at the National Zoo in the past 20 years. Like other western lowland gorillas, she has a brown-gray coat of fine hair. Visitors to the Great Ape House can easily recognize her by the reddish patch of hair atop her head. According to her caregivers, Kigali is very intelligent and has a dynamic personality, often switching roles between peace keeper and instigator of the group.
In captivity, western lowland gorillas can live upwards of 50 years old. In their native tropical forests of Western and Central Africa, however, a gorilla’s lifespan is limited to about 35 years. Increased hunting, outbreaks of the Ebola virus and poorly-regulated development projects threaten these great apes as well as their habitats. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the western lowland gorilla as critically endangered.