Gorilla Dies of Heart Disease

A surgeon from the University of Alabama attempts to implant a heart device to aid Kuja, who later died in surgery.
A surgeon from the University of Alabama attempts to implant a heart device to aid Kuja, who later died in surgery. (Photos By Ann Batdorf -- Smithsonian Institution)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

A gorilla at the National Zoo died yesterday as surgeons sought to implant an electrical device to strengthen his rapidly failing heart.

The medical team had traveled from Alabama to perform the unusual operation on Kuja, 23, one of four males in the zoo's collection of seven western lowland gorillas.

But nearly four hours into the procedure, after he had been anesthetized and the surgeons were beginning to connect the device, Kuja's heart stopped.

"It was cardiac failure," said Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian. "What caused the disease, we don't know yet."

Kuja, who had lived at the zoo since 1985, passed his last physical March 31 where the medical team included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). But during a June 20 examination, Kuja was lethargic and showed no appetite. An ultrasound revealed that his heart had weakened.

By yesterday morning, his heart no longer was pumping an adequate supply of blood to his body, and fluid had built up in his lungs.

The zoo's medical staff had been administering medication in recent days, but they knew its benefits would be temporary. "If we didn't do anything, he wouldn't survive much longer," Murray said.

Learning of Kuja's condition, officials associated with Alabama's Birmingham Zoo offered to implant a pacemaker-like device to synchronize two ventricles.

"It was not going to fix the problem, but it would help the heart be more efficient," Murray said.

The operation, she said, has been performed on only one gorilla, in Alabama, extending its life by at least 18 months.

The medical team -- a cardiac electrophysiologist from the University of Alabama and veterinarians from Auburn University Veterinary School -- arrived Friday.

The operation began at 8 a.m. Kuja drew his last breath just before noon. Kuja was born at the Memphis Zoo and lived at the Milwaukee Zoo before arriving in Washington. He was the father of Kwame, 6, and Kojo, 4.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company