Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How To Give A 500-Pound Gorilla A Physical Exam

gorilla examThe gorilla opened wide and stuck out his tongue allowing the wooden depressor to lightly explore his mouth. He eagerly accepted a piece of apple and waited for his next command.

"Good boy," encouraged his trainer gently, "you're a good boy."

She then made her next request, "Shoulder." He turned his massive body sideways, leaned his shoulder against the reinforced metal mesh barrier and waited patiently for his shot.

"Good boy, such a handsome boy." He didn't flinch as the dull hypodermic needle poked through his hair and barely touched his skin.

This scene has played out for six years at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens between Quito - one of the zoo's three silverback Western lowland gorillas - and Tracy Fenn, his primary trainer.

They are part of the zoo's Gorilla Training Program, which, according to program supervisor Fenn, is designed to facilitate medical care for its gorillas.

"Our daily five- to 20-minute training sessions give us an up-close look at the gorillas," Fenn explained. "This allows us to notice signs of illness and teach them to cooperate for basic medical procedures."

Animals with known or possible medical conditions are given training priority. Quito (pronounced KEE-toh) has a heart condition, so his training includes desensitization to heart monitoring instruments.

"Training makes examinations safer for the animals, plus we can give them a real shot and they don't hold a grudge," Fenn said with a laugh.

Zoo executive director Tony Vecchio said these kinds of programs have evolved over the years.

"Zookeepers once believed animals should be left alone and maintained in as close to their wild state as possible. Training was for the circus," Vecchio said. "We ignored the fact that animals were traumatized each time they needed treatment."


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