Zoo Atlanta Gorilla Volunteers For Blood Pressure Exam

6:01 PM, Nov 5, 2009   |    comments
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Willie B, the iconic Zoo Atlanta gorilla, is still remembered nine years after he died from heart disease.
His death not only saddened animal lovers everywhere but it also prompted ground-breaking research.
That research could solve the mystery of heart disease in gorillas.

Ozzie, one of Zoo Atlanta's male gorillas, and his keeper Jodi Carrigan have been working together for seven years.
But this is the most important work of their lives.

"We chose Ozzie" explained Zoo Atlanta primate keeper Jodi Carrigan, "because he's forty eight years old. He's the second oldest male in captivity right now."

Gorillas in captivity don't live much longer than Ozzie has.
And when they die, most of them die from heart disease.

"Heart disease is very serious in the captive population" said director of veterinary services at Zoo Atlanta Dr. Hayley Murphy. "About forty two percent of the animals are affected, and those animals go on to die from the disease itself."

The problem of heart disease in captive gorillas has haunted researchers for years.

"We don't really know what causes cardiac disease" Dr. Murphy said. "Our theory is it's blood pressure. But we can't prove that until we get awake blood pressures."

The traditional way to get a gorilla's blood pressure is to anesthetize it. But anesthesia puts stress on a gorilla's body and skews the results.
The Zoo Atlanta staff wondered if it could get a gorilla to submit to a blood pressure exam....voluntarily.

"How I was going to train a three hundred and fifty pound gorilla" zoo keeper Jodi Carrigan said, "to stick his arm into a voluntary blood pressure reading and let it tighten up around there and get a reading."

While Jodi Carrigan was trying to train Ozzie Zoo Atlanta turned to a design team from Georgia Tech to invent a gorilla blood pressure sleeve.

"We had to design something that would not scare the gorillas" said Georgia Tech biomedical engineer David Sotto. "Nothing...no bright colors. Nothing that would touch them in strange ways along the arm."

It took Jodi Carrigan five months to convince Ozzie to do it.

"We had to build that trust" Jodi Carrigan said. "And he had to trust me completely in order for a foreign object to just enclose around his arm like that."

Now Ozzie puts his arm in the specially designed sleeve and keeps it there, while veterinarian Michelle Moses feeds him pudding.

"So he knows" described Jodi Carrigan, "...okay...I'm holding still. This is what they want from me. And I'm getting rewarded for it."

Zoo Atlanta is the first and only zoo in the world to do awake gorilla blood pressures.

"It's been an incredible process" said Dr. Murphy. "And something that I think will drastically alter the way we approach gorilla health in captivity."

Zoo Atlanta believes that the information collected from this research will not only benefit gorillas in captivity but might also have a connection to --human--heart health.

To be honest Ozzie's not doing this for science.
He's doing it for the pudding.



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