In late October, a team of veterinary experts from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Detroit Zoo, and Gorilla Doctors traveled to a remote area of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to assist with health exams for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas living at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center. The objectives were to conduct physical wellness exams to make sure the gorillas were healthy and also to build capacity in GRACE’s veterinary staff. The visiting team, who had decades of gorilla care experience, included three veterinarians (Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko from Disney, Dr. Ann Duncan from Detroit Zoo & Dr. Joost Philippa from Gorilla Doctors), a veterinary technician (Matt Runnells from Disney), and a gorilla husbandry expert (Beth Richards from Disney). Dr. Mylniczenko, who has been working with GRACE since gorillas first arrived there in 2010, led the health checks with GRACE staff.
“We are fortunate to have experts in the U.S. who are always willing to lend a hand so we can provide the best possible care for the GRACE gorillas,” said GRACE Executive Director, Dr. Sonya Kahlenberg. “We are especially grateful that our partners are also wonderful teachers. Our Congolese staff care for the gorillas day in and day out, so their training is a top priority. Our partners absolutely get this and do an incredible job with capacity building.”
The GRACE staff and the visiting vet team examined 12 gorillas in a period of 5 days. “During the health checks it was very busy around the gorilla: each of the 4 vets [including GRACE’s onsite veterinarian] had their own station/role (anesthesia, dental, blood collection, ultrasound), each of us partnered with a staff member from GRACE for training,” said Dr. Philippa. “Despite none of us having worked together previously, the whole team was very efficient, and it was a fantastic experience.”
In addition to the hands-on learning, the team also led classroom-like trainings for the GRACE staff to help them better understand key aspects of gorilla health. Beth Richards also worked with the gorilla caregivers on emergency preparedness and training protocols that help the staff monitor gorilla health on a daily basis.
In addition to the “dream team” of veterinary experts, GRACE’s health exams also benefitted from donated and loaned equipment that helped improve diagnostic capabilities. In house, GRACE has the capacity to run basic blood chemistries and urine and fecal analyses, thanks to equipment donated over the years by Abaxis, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Martin Microscope Company. Earlier this year, GRACE also received a portable ultrasound machine and probes from UltraSolutions and an anonymous corporate donor. The health checks were the first opportunity to extensively use this equipment. Cardiac ultrasounds were a focus, since heart disease is a concern in great apes. Although all the images looked great–something expected in such young animals–the data will importantly serve as a baseline to assess cardiac health as the animals age.
On this trip, the Disney team also brought a battery-powered dental x-ray unit, sensors, and imaging software borrowed through their partnerships with the KaVo Kerr Group, Sirona Dental Systems, and Patterson Veterinary Supply. This equipment helped the team thoroughly evaluate the gorillas’ dental health for the first time.
Gorilla Doctors also contributed a portable x-ray machine, which was useful for monitoring the progress of two healing injuries: Kalonge’s femur which was fractured in a fall earlier this year (see: blog post from Jul. 30) and Amani’s old tibial injury that she suffered when she was shot by a poacher at a young age. Both females will always walk in an unusual manner because of their injuries, but are expected to be otherwise fine.
In addition to the diagnostic equipment, Disney also brought a gas anesthesia machine for the health checks, which Matt Runnells built specifically for GRACE. “The anesthesia machine was critical for allowing longer and safer procedures to allow for a complete and thorough diagnostic work-up,” said Runnells, who configured the equipment using hand-made components so it would withstand the rugged travel and field conditions in DRC.
Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko remarked, “This year we were able to examine most of the gorilla group in truly remarkable ways because of the diagnostic equipment available. In addition to performing thorough health examinations, we were able to critically evaluate all the gorillas’ teeth with radiographs and visualize skeletal structures of several animals with bone concerns. I am extremely proud to be part of this animal team and grateful to our partners for making the health checks so successful!”
Reflecting on her experience, Dr. Ann Duncan said, “I went to GRACE because I love gorillas and was very happy for an opportunity to help these beautiful animals. While there I fell in love with the people. The staff at GRACE is very committed to providing the best care possible, and is very receptive to input from people who can help them achieve this goal. My time there was truly an amazing and life-changing experience, and I hope to be able to be of service again in the future.”
GORILLA REHABILITATION AND CONSERVATION EDUCATION (GRACE) CENTER – Founded in 2009 by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in collaboration with the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) and Tayna Center for Conservation Biology, GRACE is the only facility in the world dedicated to providing in situ rehabilitative care for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas and ultimately aims to reintroduce gorillas back into the wild. GRACE also works with local communities, through education and other outreach programs, to help ensure the long-term survival of wild gorilla populations. Other major partners for this project include Disney and the Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Detroit, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and Utah’s Hogle Zoos. For more information about GRACE, please visit www.gracegorillas.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you would like to help, please visit our secure online donation page.