Gorilla Health Project

The Gorilla Health Project started off as a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional initiative aimed at creating a comprehensive database of health, husbandry, and nutritional information for all gorillas housed in AZA zoos. The project has expanded and now serves as an umbrella connecting several research initiatives aimed toward understanding the complicated relationships between captive care practices, gorilla health, and behavior.

Projects under the umbrella of the Gorilla Health Project include:

Gorilla Health Project Database

Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and The Ohio State University
Thomas Meehan, D.V.M, Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo
Hayley Weston Murphy, D.V.M., Detroit Zoo
Natalie Mylniczenko, Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo
Sharon Gehri, Veterinary Technician, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Cardiac disease is a major cause of death for adult gorillas in AZA institutions. In November 2006 a workshop including physicians, veterinarians, pathologists, and keepers was held to review what is known about gorilla cardiac health, as well as to discuss how to address gorilla health issues. This workshop marked the beginning of the Gorilla Health Project, an initiative to improve our understanding of gorilla health and ways to manage and prevent disease in this species. The meeting identified a critical first step in understanding disease issues of captive gorillas -- the formation of a comprehensive database incorporating information from individual gorillas' medical, nutrition and husbandry records. This database is essential for the identification of risk factors associated with cardiac disease and other disease syndromes seen in the captive population.

This initiative was funded through the Conservation Endowment Fund of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). 

Cardiac Disease

Ilana Kutinsky, M.D., Beaumont Hospitals, MI
Suzan Murray, D.V.M., Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Tom Meehan, D.V.M., Chicago Zoological Society/ Brookfield Zoo
Hayley Murphy, D.V.M., Detroit Zoo
and Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo 
and The Ohio State University

In addition to developing the Gorilla Health Project database, the veterinary advisory team is addressing immediate health issues by actively investigating different questions concerning gorilla health. They are mainly concerned about the diagnostic challenges associated with identifying heart disease in zoo gorillas. In gorillas, cardiac disease traditionally has been diagnosed based on physical examination, electrocardiography, and echocardiography. The gorilla cardiac database was developed as a means of establishing normal parameters for echocardiographic findings in order to allow better evaluation of heart health in captive gorillas. This project will capitalize on this database, and extend the work to further investigate means of evaluating heart disease in gorillas, as well as examining possible risk factors associated with heart disease in an effort to understand the underlying cause of this disease in this species.


Funding demonstrates historic show of support for great ape veterinary care
ATLANTA - August 23, 2010 - Zoo Atlanta has received a prestigious grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to lead a multi-institutional effort to examine heart disease in great apes. The $92,000 grant represents an historic show of support for an area of ape health care that has until now been poorly understood by veterinarians. 

Identified as a leading cause of death in great apes living in zoological settings, cardiovascular disease (CVD) requires advanced understanding of diagnosing, treating and monitoring affected individuals, as well as adapting techniques already in use for treatment of heart disease in humans and domestic animals. Under the leadership of Hayley Murphy, DVM, while the Director of Veterinary Services, the Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team will use the one-year grant to design an innovative national program for investigating ape CVD and establishing state-of-the-art diagnostics, treatment and prevention. Partnership institutions include The University of Georgia, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and more than 15 additional zoos and universities. 

"We are pleased and proud that IMLS saw the merit in a project that will have a positive impact on great apes in zoological collections throughout the world," said Raymond King, President and CEO. "This is an important step forward that will allow experts from around the country to share knowledge and build on their individual strengths." 

Zoo Atlanta is a likely candidate for leadership in a great ape heart health initiative. The organization houses the nation's largest collection of western lowland gorillas, with 23 individuals, as well as the largest zoological collection of orangutans in the U.S., currently with 11 individuals. Four of the Zoo's great apes are over the age of 45. 

"National Leadership Collaborative Planning Grants provide opportunities to conduct research and develop the framework to support future projects that have the potential to generate new tools, research, models, services, practices, or alliances that will positively impact museums, libraries, and the communities they serve. These projects encourage partnerships that address national issues of importance impacting education, scholarship, and public service and encourage the broad application of standards and models to improve professional practice," said IMLS Acting Director Marsha L. Semmel. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, visit www.imls.gov

People need healthy hearts too! Learn more about heart health from the American Heart Association.

The Association between Several Serum Biomarkers and Cardiovascular Disease Status in Captive Western Lowland Gorillas (G. gorilla gorilla)

Eric Henthorn, Kent State University

Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and The Ohio State University
Hayley Murphy, D.V.M., Detroit Zoo
Ilana Kutinsky, M.D., Beaumont Hospitals, MI
William Devlin, Michigan Heart Group, Troy
Mary Ann Raghanti, Ph.D., Kent State University

Captive western lowland gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla) mortality due to cardiovascular disease has been reported to be as high as 41% in adult males during a 10 year period. Postmortem diagnoses include aortic dissection and fibrosing cardiomyopathy. We suspect that cardiac disease in captive gorillas is associated with metabolic syndrome, including dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, and increased inflammation. The aim of this study is to address the relationship between several serum biomarkers and captive gorilla heart disease status. Thus assays were performed for each biomarker and compared to independently diagnosed cardiac disease for 31 male and 17 female gorillas from AZA institutions. Cardiac disease status was identified from echocardiographs. Final results of this investigation are pending.

Training Gorillas for Awake Blood Pressure Measurement

While blood pressure readings taken while animals are under anesthesia may be unreliable, securing the cooperation of an awake gorilla for taking blood pressure readings is no easy task. However, the capacity to take waking blood pressure readings is critical for monitoring and understanding gorilla heart health. The Gorilla Health Project personnel would like to commend Jodi Carrigan and Staff at Zoo Atlanta for their success in training Ozzie, a silverback G.g.gorilla, to voluntarily extend his arim into a sleeve used to take blood pressure readings.

To read more about this amazing accomplishment, please visit Atlanta's 11alive.com.

Download instructions for design of a cuff system to monitor gorilla blood pressure.

Learn more about how zoos use training everyday to reduce distress associated with medical procedures.

Voluntary Cardiac Ultrasound Training at Disney's Animal Kingdom®

Disney's Animal Kingdom performs cardiac ultrasounds on all gorillas during routine preventative health exams. Although the information from these procedures is valuable, it is not considered to be a reliable indicator of true awake values of the heart. In 2008, ultrasound data from immobilized gorillas showed that four out of five of our silverback gorillas had some level of heart disease. Therefore in late 2008, it became our top priority to train voluntary cardiac ultrasounds on all five of the silverbacks in the collection. Within three months, readable images were obtained from all five gorillas. These images were promptly sent to the Gorilla Health Project (GHP) vets in order to get accurate assessments of each gorillas' level of heart disease. The GHP vets were able to modify their original analysis of the immobilized images to determine the true degree of heart disease for each gorilla. For two of the gorillas the awake images showed a less severe degree of heart disease than the previous immobilized images. One of the gorillas whose immobilized images were not clear was resolved of heart issues once his awake images were analyzed. A medicinal regimen including follow up exams and medication was implemented for three of the five gorillas. Because this behavior is so critical to the health of the gorilla population, the primate team at DAK has produced an instructional video on how to train the behavior. It is currently in the final phase of production and will be sent to all gorilla holding facilities once it is complete. 
- Rachel Daneault, Disney's Animal Kingdom®

Related Projects

Effects of Dietary Resistant Starch on Cardiovascular Parameters, Colon Health, and the Occurrence of Regurgitation and Reingestion in Gorillas Housed at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and 
The Ohio State University
Burk DeHority, Ph.D., The Ohio State University Department of Animal Sciences, Emeritus
Bill Weiss, Ph.D., The Ohio State University Department of Animal Sciences
Kristen E. Lukas, Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Elena Hoellein Less, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Case Western Reserve University
Chris Peterson, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The death of several adult male gorillas recently has increased concern regarding the health of the captive gorilla population. Preliminary necropsy findings indicated that heart disease may have played a role in the animals' deaths. Additionally, several published studies have demonstrated that cardiovascular disease contributes significantly to mortality in the captive lowland gorilla population. Therefore, this study addresses three important questions: 1. Does the addition of resistant starch to the diet improve the cardiovascular risk factors of the two adult male gorillas at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo? 2. Does the addition of resistant starch to the diet improve the colonic environment? 3. Does the addition of resistant starch to the diet reduce the occurrence of abnormal feeding behaviors, i.e. regurgitation and reingestion, by the two adult male gorillas at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo?

Adiposity in Captive Gorillas: Variance in BMI, Diet, and Activity Levels

Elena Hoellein Less, 
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and 
Case Western Reserve University 
Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and The Ohio State University
Kristen E. Lukas, Ph.D., 
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Christopher Kuhar, Ph.D., 
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Mary Ann Raghanti, Ph.D., Kent State University

This study examines the influence of diet and activity level on gorilla adiposity. The investigators propose that for captive western lowland gorillas, those gorillas that are fed a diet more similar to their wild counterparts and/or spend a large percentage of time active will have lower adiposity as reflected by body mass index and hormone levels. To test these hypotheses, investigators are surveying the diet composition and feeding protocol along with activity levels in all gorillas housed in AZA institutions. In conjunction with assessing diet and activity, they are measuring (1) serum hormone concentrations related to adiposity, (2) biological markers of inflammation and (3) body measurement indices. As part of this study, researchers are developing the first Body Mass Index (BMI) for western lowland gorillas.

Removal of Primate Biscuits from Gorilla Diets: The Impact on Behavior, Adiposity and Health

Elena Hoellein Less, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Case Western Reserve University
Richard A. Bergl, Ph.D., North Carolina Zoological Park, Duke University, and North Carolina State University
Shana Lavin, Ph.D., Lincoln Park Zoo
Pam Dennis, D.V.M., Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and The Ohio State University

Kristen E. Lukas, Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Christopher Kuhar, Ph.D., Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Mary Ann Raghanti, Ph.D., Kent State University

This study examines the influence of typical captive diets on gorilla behavior, obesity and overall health. In particular, we propose that for captive western lowland gorillas, replacing biscuits and fruit with larger quantities of plant material will reduce undesirable behaviors, increase activity and reduce adiposity. To test this hypothesis, researchers are: measuring the amount of time engaged in physical activity (i.e. foraging, climbing, running, etc...) and the rate of feeding-related undesirable behaviors according to the two different diet types; determining concentrations of serum hormones related to adiposity and biological markers of inflammation; examining stool volatile fatty acids; and applying body measurement indices of physical condition in a sample of captive western lowland gorillas.

Watch a video about this study produced by Think: Research at Case Western Reserve University and learn more from AOL news.