Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gorillas pass heart exam


WICHITA, Kan. — Two 10-year-old gorillas at the Sedgwick County Zoo passed their heart exams with flying colors.

That was the good news Saturday after Jabir and Samson underwent an elaborate medical screening performed by physician Ravi Bajan of Heartland Cardiology and several other medical professionals.

Sedgwick County asked Bajan to perform the heart exam as part of a national effort to determine why gorillas in captivity are dying of heart disease and other complications.

Bajaj said it's unclear why captive gorillas have a high instance of heart failure. Males in their 20s and 30s have been particularly susceptible to heart-related illnesses, staff members said.

Several zoos in the country are scheduling their gorillas for an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to detect the heart's rhythm and weaknesses in different parts of its muscles.

"We hope to find out what's causing the heart muscle weaknesses and how to treat it," Bajaj said.

During the exams Saturday, a team of medical professionals, zookeepers and Douglas Winter of the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital of Wichita surrounded the operating table.

They examined a sedated Jabir first, listening to his heart with a stethoscope. An ultrasound captured on a television mounted above Jabir's head showed his heart pumping. Then it was Samson's turn.

"They both have healthy hearts. That's what our hopes were," Bajaj said.

"There is an awe" being in the same room with a massive animal, said Winter, who performed dental exams. He found a fractured tooth causing some pain in Jabir's upper lip, but everything else looked good.

Sandy Wilson, an associate veterinarian, said the zoo plans to examine all eight of its gorillas.

The same exam was performed on the zoo's youngest gorilla, Virgil, several months ago and he had a perfectly normal heart, Wilson said.

Danielle Decker, a senior zookeeper with the Downing Gorilla Forest, said staff trained for the exams for three to six months. They taught the gorillas to hold their arms out for an injection, moved them to different rooms and practiced giving injections with different widths of needles.

"Training helps us do preventative care," Decker said. As an example, she said, the gorillas open their mouths to let staff brush their teeth.

Doctors plan to perform similar exams on the zoo's older silverback gorillas, which can weigh as much as 500 pounds.

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