Skip to comments.Gorillas use their smarts to help research on their hearts
Posted on 03/30/2010 5:34:45 AM PDT by greatdefender
Gino the gorilla knows the drill. He reaches way up with his left hand and puts his right hand out to the side. When his keeper asks, he pushes his right leg out and presses his left thigh and chest against the crisscrossed bars of his enclosure.
He knows that striking this unusual pose it looks like an upright round of Twister earns him a treat.
He doesnt know that the ultrasound machine rolled up to the bars will collect information that could help gorillas beyond his Disneys Animal Kingdom home.
The animal-programs team at Walt Disney World began this work late last year and is pioneering the process, which is notable because it uses no sedatives. This allows veterinarians to monitor vital signs of fully awake animals.
Weve seen over the past 20, 30 years that as these big silverbacks get older, they have heart problems, said Dr. Mark Stetter, director of animal health for Disneys Animal Programs.
Gorillas commonly are sedated to get snapshots of their hearts. That disturbs the animals, and it only allows at-rest readings. The result is an incomplete picture of the effects good or bad of heart medication.
Now at Animal Kingdom, a sonogramist rolls an ultrasound machine near each gorillas enclosure not too close, of course and a keeper places a probe against the posing gorillas chest.
Its a neat combination of fields that may not always overlap, said Kristen Lukas, curator of conservation and science at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. This whole notion of fusing training and using that relationship between the keeper and the animal to develop some of these behaviors helps us take better care of the animals.
Each of Disneys eight grown gorillas, which folks may spy along the theme parks Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, have an individualized ultrasound regimen that factors in elements from their temperament to the thickness of their chest.
Youll see animals in different stances just because they need to orient their chest cavity in order to get the right angle on the probe, said Matt Hohne, animal-operations director at Disneys Animal Kingdom.
A few gorillas learned quickly that the exams had tasty payoffs.
Its really a give-and-take relationship based on trust with their keepers, Hohne said.
The animals personalities shine through in the process. Kashata dislikes the cool gel used for sonograms, so keepers warm the gel before applying it to her chest. But when it is boisterous Ginos turn, he takes a swipe of the gel with his fingers and tastes it. He sometimes prefers the unflavored goo to the treat offered from his keeper. During a recent session, Gino was so enamored with the gel-smeared sensor that he attempted to pull it through to his side of the bars.
Keepers reward the gorillas after they assume the proper positions. The animals also respond to specific movements, sounds and commands as simple as the handlers saying closer or tapping a stick.
Once the probe is in place, the sonogram machine records video and still images of the heart. A cardiologist later uses the data to check the organs walls, effectiveness of ventricles and blood flow.
Results are shared through an Association of Zoos and Aquariums cooperative group cardiologists, pathologists, curators and veterinarians that looks at cardiac diseases. Other institutions are trying the no-sedation method but not to the extent that Animal Kingdom has, Hohne said.
Our ultimate goal is making sure that every institution with gorillas benefits as well, Hohne said. It does nothing but benefit the species.
Disney is preparing a video tutorial of its process, including the challenges.
Its so meaningful that we have a place like Disney thats taking the lead on things, not only doing it themselves but then working to get the information to the other institutions, said Lukas, who also serves as the chairwoman of AZAs Gorilla Species Survival Plan. Its the future of where zoos are going.
One finding: The sources of humans heart problems are not the causes of gorillas heart problems.
Were certainly seeing that its age-related; it seems to be mostly in males, Stetter said. But it doesnt appear to be cholesterol. It doesnt appear to be diet. And it doesnt appear to be the hardening of the arteries.
Now that the Animal Kingdom gorillas are cooperating with the ultrasound procedure, the Disney team is working on another task: low-key blood-pressure checks.
Naturally, there have been challenges, such as convincing the gorillas that theyre not being given a new plaything.
How do you get a blood-pressure reading from a gorilla voluntarily without him sort of borrowing that cuff? Hohne wonders.
Yes, but can he read an EKG?
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.