Babec, the Birmingham Zoo gorilla who became famous when he received a pacemaker and defibrillator in 2004, was euthanized Friday, zoo officials said.
The 28-year-old lowland gorilla was diagnosed with heart disease in 2003. He started clutching his chest and acting lethargic about three weeks ago and was pulled off exhibit about two weeks ago.
"He will be missed," zoo curator Roger Iles said Friday. "He's known nationally. That's something to be proud of and something not just the zoo but the Birmingham community has accomplished."
Iles said the operation to insert the cardiac resynchronization therapy, CRT, device, prolonged his life for 3½ years. Lowland gorillas typically live until their early 30s in the wild, but average higher in zoos, with the record at 54 years.
Iles and zoo CEO Bill Foster said Babec contributed to the understanding of gorillas, who have a history of suffering heart disease in captivity.
"Babec is a pioneer for his species," Iles said. "We've learned so much from his life with us."
Every beat of Babec's heart was monitored and recorded by the machine, and on Friday veterinarians began a necropsy, the animal version of autopsy, which is standard for all zoo animals when they die.
The information gathered will be fed into a database scientists around the country are working on to determine why zoo gorillas, especially males in their 20s and 30s, are dying of heart ailments.
Babec himself started exhibiting symptoms in March 2003, when he was 23. A team of zoo veterinarians and UAB medical school and hospital doctors determined that the 400-pound gorilla suffered from severe cardiac disease. He was treated at first with the same medications humans take for heart disease, including diuretics, and given a prescription for Powerade to keep him hydrated.
It worked for a while, but by July of 2004, an exam showed he had gotten worse. He lost 80 pounds, his appetite declined and he became lethargic, and doctors decided he had final stage heart failure.
A team of UAB cardiologists decided to try implanting the CRT device, which is commonly done for humans but had never been attempted in a zoo animal. Keepers worried they would lose him during the seven-hour operation.
Instead, he lived through it and two more. The device was replaced in 2005 after it was damaged when Babec scuffled with the zoo's other lowland gorilla, Jamie, and again last year when the battery was wearing down.
Iles said the success made Babec famous, particularly in the zoo world, where colleagues always asked about him at conferences.
"We were on the cutting edge of research with this, but we knew in the back of our minds that we were on borrowed time," he said. This time, however, Babec was too ill for another surgery.
Cade said the primate keepers were trying to plan some kind of memorial for Babec. Meanwhile, a sign will likely be placed on his exhibit - which includes pictures of his first heart operation - informing visitors what happened.