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Getting to the heart of the matter

Great apes undergo tests at D.C. zoo


June 16, 1996
Web posted at: 8:00 a.m. EDT

From Reporter Jim Angle

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What's the fastest way to a 370-pound gorilla's heart? For a team of three doctors and three veterinarians at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the answer involves heavy sedatives.

Veterinarians hope to learn what makes gorillas, especially males, mysteriously drop dead. As part of this ongoing effort, they have examined nine orangutans and four other gorillas -- two of them males -- since September 1995. Male gorillas tend to have heart problems, which usually aren't diagnosed until it's too late.

"These animals are very stoic, is the word we use," said Richard Cambre, the head of the animal health department at the National Zoo. "They hide any illness. They mask it. They don't tell us they're sick, you know."

And doctors can't tell themselves whether the animals are sick until it is too late, because so little is known about gorilla hearts that doctors don't know what is normal and what isn't.


They are trying to learn more, but progress is slow. Silverback gorillas are terrible patients, and turn every trip to the doctor into a production. Take Gus, for example. He is 15 years old, and weighs 370 pounds. "He's not going to let you stick him with a syringe," Cambre said.

Instead, doctors have to shoot him with a dart to knock him out. "And he runs around, he screams. It's all very traumatic to do this, so we can't do it frequently," Cambre said.

Gus had his visit to the doctor on Saturday. Once he was under anesthesia, and his vital signs were checked, a cardiologist stepped in to perform an electrocardiogram -- the same test given to human patients to check out their heart.


The doctors found one small weakness in Gus' heart, similar to one found in another gorilla: His aortas were normal, but his left ventricle wasn't pumping quite as much blood as it should. Doctors will study this and the exams of 13 other apes in a systematic attempt to find out what is causing their heart problems and what, if anything, can be done about it.

"Gorillas are an endangered species," Cambre said. "We can't afford to lose the individuals to heart disease. One would think heart disease is something we could do something about, and to prevent."

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