OKC Zoo Gorilla Undergoes First-Ever Robot-Assisted Surgery

On Sunday, August 26, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s veterinary team collaborated with human medical specialists to conduct a robot-assisted surgery on Emily, the OKC Zoo’s 33-year-old Western lowland gorilla, to repair an umbilical hernia. This is the first known robotic surgery performed on a Western lowland gorilla in human care.

“Emily’s surgery was a success thanks to the team of specialists who gave their time and expertise to assist,” said Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, Oklahoma City Zoo director of veterinary services. “Performing this advanced surgery was a cooperative effort, and we are fortunate to have such an extensive network of medical experts committed to the care and well-being of our beloved animal.”

With the diagnosis of Emily’s umbilical hernia in 2010, the OKC Zoo’s veterinary team began working closely with the gorilla caretakers to implement an ongoing health plan to monitor Emily’s hernia and confirm it was not harmful. This plan included routine exams and monthly ultrasounds in which Emily voluntarily participated.

In June 2017, Emily began exhibiting signs of hair loss and sporadic appetite loss so the Zoo’s veterinary team made the decision to perform a full examination of the hernia, which included radiographs, a skin biopsy, the collection of urine and blood samples for preventive measures and a CT scan. Results from this exam indicated Emily was, in fact, healthy, and the hernia was not causing her discomfort.

Emily’s treatment continued as planned and during a routine ultrasound in June, the veterinary team noticed a change in the appearance of the tissues surrounding the hernia. With this discovery, the decision was made to consult with local medical radiologists and surgeons to perform another voluntary ultrasound on Emily that revealed that part of her intestine was in the hernia. Though Emily was clinically healthy at this time, the veterinary team wanted to be proactive and made the decision to perform surgery to avoid this from becoming a serious, life-threatening situation.

“Our main priority was to provide Emily with the best treatment possible and prevent this from becoming an emergency situation,” said Dr. D’Agostino. “After consulting with local medical specialists, we determined robot-assisted surgery was the optimal option for repairing Emily’s hernia because it would be the most minimally invasive procedure. It would also provide the greatest opportunity for a full recovery without post-operative complications.”

Caring for a gorilla after surgery can present certain challenges. The Zoo’s veterinary and animal caretakers realized the limitations in restricting Emily’s activity and could not adequately prevent her from picking or pulling at sutures. A standard hernia surgery would result in an 8 to 10-inch abdominal incision whereas the robot-assisted surgery would create a 1-centimeter incision per port placement. If an abdominal incision fails in a gorilla, there is a high likelihood that it could be fatal. With this critical benefit of robot-assisted surgery, the veterinary team decided to proceed with this least invasive and most innovative procedure.

Since surgery, Emily has been recovering in the behind-the-scenes area of the Great EscApe building where she can rest under the observation of her attentive caretakers. The veterinary team continues to monitor Emily’s medical status through follow up exams and ultrasounds but report she is doing well. Once Emily’s surgical repair has fully healed, she will be reunited with her family group.

The three-hour surgery took place at the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital, the Zoo’s state-of-the-art animal health complex. The Oklahoma City Zoo is home to two troops of Western lowland gorillas–a family and bachelor troop. They can be viewed in the Zoo’s Great EscApe habitat. The OKC Zoo also participates in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). One of the SSP's most important roles is to manage gorillas as a population to ensure that the population remains healthy, genetically-diverse and self-sustaining. Native to the lowland forests of Central and Western Africa, Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. Commercial hunting for meat, habitat loss and disease are contributing factors to their status in the wild. The Zoo works with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to provide funds to help protect Western lowland gorillas in their native habitat.

The Zoo is proud to share Emily’s story in recognition of World Gorilla Day, a global event held today, September 24 and created by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI). World Gorilla Day provides the perfect platform for people to come together in celebrating gorillas, and more importantly, save these great apes. The OKC Zoo provides financial support to DFGFI. This money has been used to support operation of the Karisoke Research Center, which is the base for DFGFI’s field activities. Take action for gorillas and visit the Zoo on World Gorilla Day. Learn what you can do to help protect endangered gorillas in the wild and their habitat from our conservation and animal experts. To learn more, click here.  

Photo credit: Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

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