Keeping animals healthy is a zoo keeper’s number one goal. But because some health problems can remain unseen until it’s too late, zoos keepers turn to diagnostic tools for help.
Heart problems are a leading cause of death for both zoo-managed and wild orangutans and gorillas, so zoos have banded together to develop the Great Ape Heart Project, based at Zoo Atlanta. The project is collecting data on orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas that will advance understanding of ape heart conditions.
“This effort will help us understand what healthy ape hearts look like,” said Zoo Veterinarian Joe Smith, DVM, who serves as the veterinary advisor for the Orangutan Species Survival Plan and a member of the Great Ape Heart Project Executive Steering Committee.
At the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, keepers conduct weekly ultrasounds on our two orangutans, Tengku (male) and Melati (female), assisted by ultrasound technicians Sue Hansen and Kathy Rutschilling. Ultrasound is a non-invasive procedure where a probe is held against the body, and sound waves emitted from the probe generate an image of structures within the body. The ultrasound machine was donated by Lutheran Hospital.
Keeper Angie Selzer explains that getting ultrasound images of orangutan hearts took months of training. “First, we had to get the orangutans used to the big ultrasound machine,” she said. The orangutans were already trained to present their chest to the keepers, so the next step was introducing the ultrasound probe and holding it against the chest. “We started with a piece of PVC pipe with a cap on the end, then we switched to using the real probe,” Selzer said.
All procedures are conducted through heavy wire mesh to protect keepers from the orangutans, who are far stronger than humans of equal size.
The orangutans are now comfortable with the routine procedure except for one aspect: the clear gel applied on the end of the ultrasound probe. “Tengku does not like the ultrasound gel at all,” Selzer said. “He keeps a blanket nearby to wipe off his chest after each session.”
After Dr. Dave Kaminskas, a local cardiologist, reads the ultrasounds, then the data is sent to the Great Ape Heart Project’s database, where it will help build a healthy future for apes – both in the wild and in zoos.