Taming a Reluctant Patient
Friday, March 14, 2008
"Handsome" has been feisty this morning. The young, 170-pound gorilla has been galloping around his National Zoo enclosure, rattling the cage and leaping on the mesh like Spider-Man, until just now.
Although the animal's real name is Kwame, veterinarian Suzan Murray gently calls him Handsome as she strokes the arm he has stuck into the plastic sleeve protruding from his cage.
It is a tense and potentially dangerous moment. As she soothes him during a recent training session, Murray presses a capped needle for drawing blood against Kwame's arm through an oval hole in the top of the sleeve. Suddenly, the gorilla shoots his gigantic hand through the hole. Murray recoils. Kwame dashes away.
And there is a pause in the national gorilla heart disease project.
Across North America, home to 368 western lowland gorillas in 51 zoos and one private preserve, the animals are dying of heart disease at an alarming rate. Forty-one percent of deaths among captive adult gorillas result from heart disease, experts say, and 75 percent of cardiac-related deaths occur in males.
This week, the Detroit Zoo announced the death of a 34-year-old male gorilla that had been suffering from heart problems for years.
Two years ago, Washington's National Zoo lost two gorillas to heart disease in two days. The first, Kuja, died on the operating table while surgeons were preparing to implant a device like a pacemaker. The other gorilla, Mopie, died as keepers were introducing him as the leader of Kuja's family. Cavorting around in his new role, Mopie collapsed and died.
In addition to Kwame, the zoo has two other male gorillas and three females. All are relatively young and seem to be in good health, the zoo says.
A team of scientists from across the country, led by a group that calls itself "the Gorilla Girls," is focused on trying to find out why the animals contract and die of heart disease. Is it diet? Disease? Old age? Environment? Something else?
Their first challenge is proper diagnostic testing.
But gorillas, which weigh as much as 500 pounds, do not readily hop onto an examining table to have blood drawn or their blood pressure tested. Although usually docile, they are powerful and unpredictable and can easily injure a keeper. So to be thoroughly examined, a gorilla must be rendered unconscious with anesthesia.
That can be a hazardous procedure, which experts prefer to do only periodically, said Murray, the National Zoo's head veterinarian and a Gorilla Girl.