Aaron Jesue tries not to play favorites.
However, as he watches Kongo, Pende and Chip, a bachelor group of brother gorillas, lounge about their habitat at the Detroit Zoo, the answer to which gorilla holds Jesue’s heart comes easily.
“It’s Pende,” he says, a smile spread wide across his face. “He’s inquisitive and curious. He will sit on top of the hill and just stare down at everyone. You can almost feel it in your body. He loves to get a reaction.”
Over the course of his career as a zoo animal care team member, Jesue has worked with dozens of gorillas, and like Pende, he says each is unique and special in their own way. Despite their differences, many gorillas and fellow great apes share a common health risk. Much like it is for humans, heart disease is the leading cause of death observed among great apes in zoos.
Though Jesue understands heart complications may be a reality for his favorite gorilla one day, he takes comfort in knowing a group dedicated to mitigating these issues in great apes is now headquartered at his Zoo.
In early 2022, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP), a group of experts who provide a network of clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in understanding and treating cardiac disease in all ape species, moved its headquarters to the Detroit Zoo. Originally based at Zoo Atlanta, this collaborative project was founded to create a centralized database that analyzes cardiac data, generates reports and coordinates cardiac-related research. The move to Detroit was announced after Dr. Hayley Murphy, founder and director emeritus of the GAHP, was named the executive director and chief executive officer of the Detroit Zoological Society.
Though formally established in 2010, the GAHP got its start much earlier. As a veterinary advisor to the gorilla Species Survival Plan, Murphy began seeing an increase in the number of cardiovascular disease cases reported in gorillas housed at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions. Together with cardiologist Dr. Ilana Kutinksy, Murphy created a Gorilla Cardiac Database in 2002 to better analyze and compare the cases they observed in great apes. Overtime, the database gained momentum, and in
2010, with the assistance of a National Leadership Planning Grant from the Institute
of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP was officially born.
“I love gorillas — I love all apes, but I’ve worked the most with gorillas,” Murphy says. “I fell in love with them when I was just beginning my career as a zoo vet, and I realized the toll heart disease was taking on the population. I saw a need to combine the research being done on heart disease so that these apes could live healthier lives. For me, this was a perfect combination of a passion I had for animals combined with a passion for veterinary medicine.”
In its more than a decade of life, the project has maintained a hub for researchers that includes data for more than 90 percent of adult great apes in AZA-accredited institutions. Today, the primarily volunteer-run project creates procedures and best practices used in all AZA zoos and other institutions around the world. In 2020, the project was recognized for its achievements in advancing scientific research with the AZA’s Research Award.
“We provide real-time support to institutions that may not have experts on site,” says Dr. Marietta Danforth, GAHP director. “Our team of dedicated volunteers includes cardiologists, pathologists, researchers, zookeepers and managers all coming together with their persective and expertise to create a database to best understand, treat and monitor apes for cardiovascular disease. This has really grown into something huge and impactful.”
While “database” may conjure images of big-screen computers and abstract numbers, Murphy and Danforth say the impacts of the GAHP are just as real as the mammals it seeks to protect.
“We have certainly seen an increase in lifespan in great apes since we’ve started,” Murphy says. “That’s not only because of us, but I do think we have made a difference. There’ve been many times when people have called us with really sick apes, and we’ve been able to help. We’ve seen these animals recover and live much longer than they would have otherwise. I think that is a really huge marker
Now that the GAHP is based at the Detroit Zoo, with which Danforth says the project had an excellent working relationship even before Murphy’s appointment as CEO/executive director, its leaders hope it can continue to spread its reach and save the lives of great apes — from gorillas to chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and more.
“My vision for the future is that we remain a hub of the wheel where researchers, vets and zookeepers can come together and share resources for great apes,” Murphy says.
“The GAHP exists because everyone involved loves these animals so much. We want to see them thrive. It’s this passion that keeps the program running.”
As a member of the animal care staff on grounds each day caring for the gorillas who call the Detroit Zoo home, Jesue believes having the GAHP at his home Zoo will have positive outcomes for his favorite gorillas going forward.
“We are going to be able to help great apes around the world. It’s so cool that we can now say this is based at the Detroit Zoo,” Jesue says, keeping a watchful eye over Pende as the silverback meanders through his habitat. “I’m so glad this resource is here for Pende, Chip and Kongo. Because of the work the GAHP does, I believe these guys are going to live long, healthy lives.”
Sarah Culton is the communications manager at the Detroit Zoological Society.