Understanding Cardiac Health in Great Apes

Cardiovascular disease isn’t just the leading cause of death for humans, it is also a health issue faced by great apes. These majestic creatures – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – share 98 percent of human DNA. As is the case with humans, it is apparent that we need to investigate and understand the cardiac health of these animals.

Fifteen years ago, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) began to form in order to address this responsibility – two zoo veterinarians, a human cardiologist and a veterinary epidemiologist put their heads together around the topic. Early on, they recognized the critical need for a multidisciplinary approach to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in these special animals. In the years since, they have enlisted the help of a number of passionate and hard-working medical experts and scientists – the team now consists of zoo veterinarians, human and veterinary cardiologists, ultrasonographers, human and veterinary pathologists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, geneticists and zookeepers. They use clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treatment of cardiac disease in all of the ape species, with the ultimate goal of reducing mortality and improving the health and welfare of captive great apes.

Members of this project recently convened at the Detroit Zoo for what was the largest working group meeting the GAHP has held to date.

Much progress has been made over the years – with generous funding from Zoo Atlanta and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the GAHP has been able to hire a project manager to move their initiatives forward and coordinate the development of an extensive database to store the information needed to unravel this complicated health issue. A website has been developed, containing all of the information needed for veterinarians to understand how to contribute to the project and provide feedback about their patients. Additionally, normal cardiac parameters for gorillas and chimps have been established, which is an important step toward early recognition and treatment. Human and veterinary pathologists have worked together to improve tissue collection techniques and agree upon the terminology used to discuss findings. Together, they’ve been able to identify aspects of heart disease that are shared between great apes and humans, and this has helped inform future directions for research.

This team has demonstrated that a small group of very committed people can make tremendous strides toward improving the health and well-being of animals in our care. At the Detroit Zoo, we’ve been at the forefront of research, using implantable loop recorders to understand the impact of cardiac arrhythmia on heart disease in chimpanzees and gorillas.

A thousand dollars in proceeds from our recent Pool for Primates fundraising event was donated to the GAHP by the Detroit chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Inc. The Detroit Zoological Society is committed to contributing to this important work and ensuring that great apes worldwide live longer, healthier lives.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Education: Instilling Respect for Gorillas and the Environment in the Congo

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), located in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). GRACE is truly a special place – it is the only facility in the world that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders.

Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only approximately 4,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas residing at GRACE, where a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care and monitors the group while they explore a 24-acre forest – the largest gorilla enclosure in the world.

GRACE is overseen by a dedicated board of directors, which includes Ron Kagan, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) CEO and executive director, who has also served as board chair. In addition to Ron’s valuable leadership, the DZS’s involvement with GRACE also includes financial and staff support. In 2015, Ron helped secure funds for a new night house enclosure for the gorillas, which I was able to see in operation while I was there. Also in 2015, DZS Director of Animal Health Dr. Ann Duncan traveled to the Congo to perform health examinations on 12 gorillas, which had never been done before.

I traveled to the DRC with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the executive director of GRACE as part of the GRACE Education Advisory Group. We carried quite a bit of luggage with us, which included a number of veterinary medicines and supplies provided by the DZS.

While at GRACE, we worked extensively with the Congolese education team. We observed current programs, provided our feedback and facilitated trainings focused on methodology, messaging and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of their various audiences. We also began to draft a strategic plan for their education programming and evaluation efforts as they move forward. The team’s reach is vast; not only do they work with primary and secondary school groups onsite and in local villages, they also conduct programs with community groups and the military, to name a few. GRACE doesn’t have open visitation hours, so all of the groups that they work with have been scheduled by the educators. Throughout all that the team does, there’s a common theme of instilling reverence and respect for not only gorillas, but all animals and the environment. They work with people of all ages to help foster behavioral changes that result in a positive impact for people, animals and their shared home.

I can’t say enough about the amazing people that I met throughout the course of our visit. The team at GRACE is truly a hard-working, dedicated, passionate group of people and they give tremendous hope for the future. Additionally, on our last day at GRACE, we were fortunate to take part in a tour of the local village, led by the women’s cooperative, where we met many members of the community. We were invited into homes to see cooking demonstrations and to learn about some of the small-scale businesses they own and operate. We also visited Muyisa Primary School, where we were greeted with song and dance and hundreds of smiling faces. Everywhere we went, people were kind and welcoming. They definitely made it difficult for me to leave.

As we move forward, the Education Advisory Group and the Congolese educators will continue to meet by way of monthly conference calls. We’ll continue to advise efforts and offer additional training. I’ll also be working on developing humane education curriculum and projects for the children’s conservation clubs which currently exist in five communities. Stay tuned for more to come on that!

– Lisa Forzley is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Education: Making Less Harmful Choices

Every day we make choices. We decide what to wear, what to eat and which products to use. Each of these actions has an impact with implications we may not immediately think about.

We can consider the impact of our decisions by exploring two questions:

  • What are the effects of this item or activity on animals?
  • Are there any alternatives that may be less harmful or even provide some benefit?

As an example, let’s take a moment to explore coltan. You might not even be aware of its existence, but you likely use it on a daily basis. Coltan, an ore, is an essential component of our smart phones and many other electronic devices that we use, including laptops and game consoles. Unfortunately, the mining of coltan is having devastating effects on the habitat of endangered gorillas and other wildlife living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While it is mined in different areas of the world, a good portion of the world’s reserves are found in and around the DRC.

So what can we do? We can’t avoid using it, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Pass on the opportunity to get a free upgrade unless your cell phone is no longer in good working order
  • Opt to fix your electronics, if possible, rather than buy new
  • Consider buying refurbished electronics
  • Always responsibly recycle your electronics so that the coltan can be used again

When we take a moment to examine the products we’re purchasing, it enables us to make the best choice possible for people, animals and the planet. This enables us to make knowledgeable decisions on how to walk softly and treat the Earth’s creatures gently. Every action we take to help the Earth and its inhabitants is something to be celebrated!

– Lisa Forzley is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Berman Academy for Humane Education.

Animal Welfare: Educational Partnerships that Improve Animal Well-Being

In a number of instances, the work we do to enhance the welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo is a result of collaboration and partnerships. One such partnership is with Madonna University. Students enrolled in a class that is part of the humane education curriculum join us each semester to undertake projects that will benefit the animals.

We work with animal care staff to select projects suited to each species and the students are responsible for learning about that species to better understand the impact that their project will have on the animals’ welfare. The students are divided into three groups and each group is assigned a particular project. The groups work with mentors from the Life Sciences division and over the course of several weeks, complete their project. On the last day, all of the students get the chance to see the results of all of the projects in order to gain more appreciation of the various ways in which we can positively impact animals living in the care of humans.

Over the course of the last few years, the Madonna University students have participated in projects benefiting warthogs, amphibians, giraffes, gorillas, reptiles, rhinos and birds living in the Free-Flight Aviary, to name a few. This year, the students will help us to modify habitats for giant anteaters, flamingos and kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian Outback Adventure. This will involve the creation of nesting areas for the flamingos, as well as planting shrubs for the anteaters and kangaroos in order to add more complexity to their environments and create additional areas of shade. These types of modifications are important to ensure that animals encounter novelty and have more opportunities to display species-typical behaviors.

This wonderful partnership is an example of how the Detroit Zoo provides educational and inspirational opportunities for students and is always finding ways to design engaging habitats for the animals.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Veterinary Care: Gorillas in the Congo

Last month, I was able to experience something that was truly a dream come true. For my entire career, I’ve longed to travel to the home country of a species I care for at the Detroit Zoo, and contribute directly to the health and welfare of that species. In October, I travelled to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), which is located in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

GRACE is the world’s only facility that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders. Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only 5,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas being cared for at GRACE, ranging from 3-14 years of age. At GRACE, a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care, including a diet that includes local fruits and vegetation training for important animal management behaviors and treatment for medical problems. Caretakers also monitor the group while they enjoy a 24-acre forest, which is the largest gorilla enclosure in the world. The Detroit Zoo entered into partnership with GRACE in 2014, and as the Chair of GRACE’s Board, Detroit Zoological Society CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan has provided and facilitated important support to the project. Most recently, he secured funding for a new night house enclosure that is currently under construction.

I traveled to the Congo with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including a veterinarian who led the team, a veterinary technician and a husbandry expert. Our goal for the eight days at GRACE was to perform examinations on 12 of the 14 gorillas – this has never been done before anywhere in the world, and it was important that we do all we could during these exams to learn about the health problems they may face.

The objectives were to conduct physical wellness exams to make sure the gorillas are healthy and to build capacity within the GRACE staff. Most orphaned gorillas suffer from malnutrition and are in poor shape when they first come into human care, and examinations under anesthesia allow a thorough exam to be performed and blood to be collected for testing. During the procedures we worked closely with staff members to demonstrate techniques and discuss observations. The team also transported several diagnostic tools to the site for the exams. A veterinarian from Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda brought a portable X-ray machine and took images of several animals that have had orthopedic injuries in the past. The veterinarian at Disney was able to secure the loan of a portable dental X-ray unit that we used to take radiographs of the teeth to ensure that normal adult teeth are forming below the visible baby teeth. A recently donated ultrasound machine was used to perform cardiac exams on the gorillas as well. With all of these diagnostics being performed, it was especially important that we work efficiently as a team – we discussed our exam plans and responsibilities before each procedure, and worked very well together. During the afternoons, we provided lectures to the staff at GRACE, and shared information about dental health, heart disease and training for important behaviors that allow care to be provided. The staff is very appreciative of opportunities for learning and improvement, and was a very attentive and interactive audience.

In all, my trip to GRACE was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The people at GRACE were very welcoming and gracious and greeted us with a ceremony that included a traditional song and dance prepared just for our team. We were able to observe the gorillas in their forest enclosure, which is the closest I’ve come to seeing them in the wild, and a very special experience. It was wonderful to work with a group of people so committed to the care of these amazing animals. Everyone had to work very hard to allow these health checks to happen, and at the end of week, we celebrated with a party and shared the very American dessert “s’mores” with the staff. I am very thankful to the Detroit Zoological Society for providing me with the opportunity to travel to the Congo, and honored to be able to serve the people and gorillas of GRACE.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

Animal Welfare: Animals After Dark

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Have you ever wondered what the animals do at night when the Detroit Zoo is closed? Some animals, like gorillas and lizards, are most active during the day – known as diurnal – others, like aardvarks and beavers, are most active at night – known as nocturnal – and some have other activity patterns.Kaatie the aardvark - Patti Truesdell

It is important for us to understand the activity patterns of the different animals that live at the Zoo because we have a responsibility to meet their needs all of the time – not just when the Zoo is open to our visitors during normal business hours. For some species, there is already a lot of information available about when they are active and when they spend more time resting. This can help us plan how to best provide them with the opportunities they need to thrive. For others, it can be helpful to monitor their behavior so that we can make informed decisions about each individual animal’s care and welfare.

Jabari the giraffeGiraffes are a good example of this, as it is a species that sleeps for short durations several times a day. In the wild, giraffes need to be constantly on alert for predators. Since this is not the case in a Zoo setting, the sleep and activity patterns of giraffes vary, therefore we wanted to determine what they were for the giraffes here. We spent time monitoring the behavior of the 7-year-old adult male giraffe, Jabari, and the 6-year-old female giraffe, Kivuli, during the night and found that they do spend periods of time resting and ruminating. However, they do have activity peaks as well. Having this kind of information presents us with the chance to develop ways to provide them with things like additional foraging and feeding opportunities throughout the night, which we have done.

It is so important that we always seek additional knowledge to help us ensure that the needs of all the animals who call the Zoo home are met, even when we are not there to see it.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard