Providing Innovative Health Care: Necessity is the Mother of Invention!

Our Great Ape staff at the OKC Zoo has daily opportunities, as well as some challenges, due to working with very large and very smart animals. Gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees are complex thinkers. Therefore, thinking “outside the box” when it comes to providing excellent health care and enrichment is critically important. Training is a huge part of our daily routine. Most behaviors we train animals to display center around their health care needs. So through training, the apes learn to present body parts so the animal caregivers or vet team can get an overall view of their bodies or observe specific areas. Often, we have to get creative and find practical solutions that work so that we limit the need to immobilize animals and adhere to our protected-contact safety policies.

The Way to a Gorilla’s Heart!

We have trained all four of our adult males to participate in voluntary cardiac ultrasound testing, which means the procedure is completely non-invasive to the gorillas. We then send the cardiac information of the gorillas to the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP), a database of cardiac information collaborated by zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums all over the United States. The GAGP stores this data to help the male gorilla population by analyzing genetics, overall health and age to see why some gorillas are susceptible to heart disease and some are not.

To aid in training, the vet staff found a broken ultrasound machine similar to the one used on the animals. We use this machine to help the gorillas adapt to the procedure before the vet team uses the “real” ultrasound. This small extra step has greatly helped the gorillas transition over to a viable cardiac ultrasound test.

Something’s Up Their Sleeve!

Another example of innovation is when our animal care team created a specialized, stationary “sleeve” made of PVC pipe that the apes can put their arms in for either a voluntary blood draw or blood pressure test. Male orangutan Elok is currently training for a blood draw and he is very intrigued with each new step. By using this sleeve, our vet team can determine if an ape has high or low blood pressure in order to prescribe the appropriate medications needed. We can also obtain cholesterol or thyroid levels from the blood samples, which enables us to take appropriate precautions or actions.

We have also used PVC pipes as X-ray tubes for the apes. We noticed that Leom, our 4-year-old male gorilla, had begun to limp. So we trained him to put his leg inside a PVC tube and hold it there for a knee X-ray. The training took about two weeks, but the vet staff was able to capture an X-ray to determine that Leom had some soft tissue damage. We began a healthcare regimen and Leom is fine today.

Apes Just Gotta Have Fun!

Enrichment is something we provide the animals to stimulate their minds and promote natural behaviors that they experience in the wild. Playing the Token Game with the chimpanzees is a great example of a unique but practical innovation. We hide 3-inch long PVC pieces, or tokens, in the chimps’ dayroom or habitat. The object of the game is for the chimps to find these tokens, bring them to the mesh door and trade them for treats. This game is an enriching way for the chimps to seek specific items asked for by the staff. Other practical items we use for enrichment are firehoses, donated by local fire departments. We use the hoses to make hammocks, vines for swinging and a variety of feeders. The firehoses are strong and can hold the weight of a 400-pound Silverback gorilla. It is recycling at its best!

--Robin Newby, Zoo assistant curator

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