Zoo Miami gorilla gets his annual physical
She stood at the foot of his bed, rifle in hand, finger on the trigger.
But Barney was the perfect patient.
The anesthesia flowing through his body probably helped.
Zookeepers know they can’t take any chances when there’s a 414-pound gorilla on the exam table.
“You have to take all precautions,” said Ron Magill, Zoo Miami’s spokesman, adding that some zoo staff are trained to shoot to kill if an animal attacks. “Safety is always our first priority.”
Barney, a 25-year-old silverback gorilla, needed his annual physical — weight taken, blood drawn, heart checked. A pesky cough gave Barney’s caregivers another reason to give him a thorough examination. He’s also had a few cases of random hives in recent months.
Threading a scope down Barney’s throat may have given some answers. Dozens of tiny white mites crawling through his airways could clearly be seen on the monitor. Observers cringed.
“We were not expecting to see that at all,” said Jimmy Johnson, an associate veterinarian for the zoo. “But that is likely the cause of the cough.”
A lot goes into planning a gorilla exam. First, the gorilla has to be trained to accept injections. That way zoo veterinarians can inject the gorilla with a cocktail of drugs to put it under anesthesia. Then, Johnson said, it was a matter of coordinating doctors — those who specialize in animals and those who specialize in humans — to make sure “as much is crammed into the exam” as possible.
That means checking his heart, airways, ears, eyes and teeth. It also means giving him an allergy test, just like humans.
On Tuesday, zookeepers attempted to give Barney his injection to make it to the scheduled 10 a.m. exam. But Barney wasn’t having it.
Johnson said halfway through the injection, Barney pulled away.
“Gorillas are smart,” he said. “It’s like he knew what was going on.”
It took them a while before the veterinarians were able to give Barney the rest of the anesthesia with a blow dart.
Once Barney was out cold, it took at least six people to load him onto a truck to be driven from his enclosure to the animal hospital. When he arrived his team of doctors was eagerly waiting to get started. At the count of three, they lifted him from the van and onto a gurney.
First he was weighed. Then he was intubated, his massive, hairy arms hanging lifeless next to him. A blood pressure cuff was placed on the pinky of his catcher’s mitt-sized hand. When doctors were sure he was completely sedated, he was rolled to the X-ray room, where they got photos of his chest, shoulders, knees and hips. Occasionally, Barney’s body shivered.
Then he was taken back to the exam where the prodding began. While some doctors drew blood, others examined his heart. The images popped up on the screen, while the sound of blood flowing through his heart — heard during an echocardiogram — filled the room. A dermatologist then began allergy tests, shaving a piece of Barney’s chest before sticking him with multiple needles.
Turns out Barney is allergic to plantains, mangoes and some types of grass — all reasons he may have broken out in hives. Johnson said they will have to alter his diet and exclude anything from the banana family.
Then came the bronchoscope. Gregory Holt, a pulmonary critical care doctor for humans, said he was asked to perform the procedure because gorillas have similar anatomy to humans. He said finding the mites was shocking.
“I’ve never ever seen that before,” he said. “You don’t see that in humans.”
With the scope, Holt was able to grab some of the critters and put them in containers to be tested. Meanwhile, doctors flushed out his airways, and he was given a dose of medicine to kill the mites.
After about three hours under anesthesia, Barney needed to be weaned off the drugs and brought back to his enclosure.
Doctors seemed pleased with the results of the exam.
“The ideal amount of time is three, three-and-a-half hours,” Johnson said. You don’t want them down much longer than that.”
Barney was the first of the zoo’s two gorillas to get an exam. His older brother, Shango, will get his turn Wednesday.
Johnson said the exams are meant to be preventive so that they are “ahead of the game.”
“With humans, you can just make an appointment if something is wrong,” he said. “It’s a bit different for gorillas.”