Veterinarians from Woodland Park Zoo teamed with pediatric surgeons from Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center on Thursday in what they believe was a first -- removing a cyst from near the spine of a baby gorilla.
The yet-to-be-named baby gorilla was born to Amanda at the zoo in October with the cyst at the base of her back. Because of the way gorillas hold their babies, the mass wasn't noticeable at first, but it continued to grow. Tests showed that it had become infected.
Veterinarians were afraid that the mass would reach the spine and possibly cause meningitis. Although they hoped to wait until the baby was a bit older and could tolerate surgery better, they had no choice but to operate, said the zoo's interim director of animal health, Dr. Kelly Helmick.
Before the surgery, zookeepers trained Amanda to carry her baby to them so they could give her antibiotics to help fight the infection, Helmick said.
During the hourlong surgery Thursday morning at the zoo's animal health complex, a team of physicians and surgeons from the zoo and the hospital removed the cyst, which measured 3 to 4 centimeters, said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, a neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital and chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington.
Doctors confirmed during surgery that the baby also suffers from mild spinal bifida, which is not expected to be a concern as she grows older, they said.
Ellenbogen and other Children's Hospital experts donated their time to help with the surgery. Integra LifeSciences, a New Jersey medical instrument company, donated nearly $60,000 worth of spinal instruments to the zoo specifically for the operation. The company's chief executive, Stuart Essig, who recently vacationed in Seattle and visited Woodland Park Zoo with his children, agreed to the donation after he heard what it was for, Ellenbogen said.
"What we were able to do here was parallel to what we do in the human world," Ellenbogen said. "We were prepared for the worst, and it turned out to be something we could treat and cure."
Children's Hospital sees two to five cases a year of children with a problem similar to the baby gorilla's, he said. The baby is the 12th successful gorilla birth for the zoo and the third offspring between 37-year-old Amanda and the father, 28-year-old Vip.
Because gorillas pick at each other to remove dirt or insects, surgeons buried the baby's sutures under the skin and covered them with surgical tissue glue. Zookeepers also painted Amanda's nails red, so she would be distracted and pick at her nails instead of her baby's incision.
After the surgery, the baby gorilla was taken to a table just outside of the operating room where she was hydrated and warmed while she awoke from anesthesia. About 30 minutes later, a groggy, yawning baby opened her eyes and looked around the room. She was wrapped in a large, pink blanket, her pink and purple pacifier ready and waiting and a small stuffed gorilla sitting on the counter nearby.
Zookeepers then took her back to her mother. Amanda immediately grabbed the infant and began nursing, Helmick said.
"This gorilla operation was an amazing 'Star-Trek' type of experience for the team from Children's and the UW," Ellenbogen said. The team was "proud to help with an endangered species. ... The operation was a great success from our perspective."
Recovery is expected to take up to two weeks, Helmick said, adding that she, too, is optimistic that everything went well.
"The baby is young and was fighting a congenital mass and infection, so we're always cautiously optimistic the first few days," Helmick said. "But we don't see any reason for difficulty, and she should recover nicely. It was a touching reunion between mom and baby."