When I think of heart disease, I usually associate it with people – but given the similarity in our DNA with great apes, perhaps it not all that surprising that it is an issue that they deal with as well. An innovative program at Zoo Atlanta, in Atlanta, Ga., is exploring just that, heart disease in great apes.
Usually observed in middle-aged or geriatric males, the disease is a leading cause of death in gorillas. The causes are unknown, but theories include high blood pressure, genetics and diet. Another speculation is that as care has improved in accredited facilities, gorillas are living longer lives and the disease is becoming apparent whereas historically, the animals did not live long enough for it to manifest itself.
In November of 2009, after months of positive reinforcement training by Zoo Atlanta veterinary and keeper staff, Ozzie, the Zoo’s 50-year old silverback, voluntarily placed his arm into an inflatable cuff and allowed the first ever non-medicated blood pressure test of a gorilla. Since then, two of Ozzie’s sons, Charlie (14) and Stadi (19), are being trained to do the same.
Why is this important? Well, previously, blood pressure readings had to be taken while the gorillas were under anesthesia – and this can skew results. The goal is to get accurate readings from multiple individuals over time so that staff can analyze any trends that may appear and determine if high blood pressure is contributing to the heart disease in gorillas.
The Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) aims to understand heart disease in all four groups of great apes: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. The project currently involves 52 professionals from 33 institutions. In February of this year, the GAHP, hosted in Atlanta, had its largest meeting yet, bringing together 50 vets, cardiologists, nutritionists and ape specialists – all working to gain a better understanding of great ape cardiac health.
“Great ape heart disease is an issue that needs a bigger-picture approach if we’re going to get to the root of the problem,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services at Zoo Atlanta and the principal investigator on the Great Ape Heart Project. “It’s extremely exciting that Zoo Atlanta is the foundation of this initiative. The Great Ape Heart Project represents an unprecedented meeting of the minds among experts from so many different fields, and it has the potential to change the lives of apes living in zoos everywhere.”
As our understanding of health issues in great ape populations grows, steps can be taken that may help gorillas and other great apes in our care when they develop heart related health issues – and perhaps even prevent these conditions from occurring.