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Zoo Atlanta Gorillas Undergo Cardiac Exams
Friday, May 20, 2011

Groundbreaking month coincides with 50th anniversary of the arrival of Willie B.

ATLANTA – May 20, 2011 ― On May 18 and 19, 2011, select members of the western lowland gorilla collection at Zoo Atlanta underwent a crucial health check: a cardiac exam. Cutting-edge technology and specialized veterinary techniques mark just two of the revolutionary advances made at Zoo Atlanta since the arrival of the late Willie B., five decades ago this month.

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of what is now one of the nation’s most renowned centers of excellence for the care and study of gorillas, inspired by the life of Zoo Atlanta’s most famous ape. Born in Africa in approximately 1959, Willie B. arrived in what would become his home city in May 1961. Despite his meteoric rise to the status of a celebrity beloved by countless Atlantans, Willie B. lived alone in an indoor enclosure for 27 years prior to the opening of the acclaimed Ford African Rain Forest in 1988. He quickly adjusted to life as a troop leader, siring five offspring: Kudzoo (1994); Olympia (1996); Willie B., Jr. (1998); Sukari (1998); and Lulu (1999). All five currently reside at Zoo Atlanta, as do Willie B.’s three grandchildren, the youngest of whom was born to Kudzoo on May 9, 2011.
 
Based at Zoo Atlanta, the Great Ape Heart Project (GAHP) is targeted at the very disease ultimately responsible for the death of the legendary silverback, who passed away in 2000. The multi-institutional collaboration is the world’s first effort to understand, diagnose, and treat cardiovascular disease in great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos) living in zoological settings. Funded by a prestigious 2010 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, GAHP is led by Hayley Murphy, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services at Zoo Atlanta. Organizing partners include the Emerging Diseases Research Group of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine; the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine; and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

“Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of mortality among great apes living in zoos today, so its diagnosis and treatment are of critical importance to all accredited institutions housing these species,” said Dwight Lawson, PhD, Deputy Director at Zoo Atlanta. “We are extremely proud and honored that our own veterinary and animal care professionals provide the level of talent, expertise and passion necessary to lead this charge, particularly given the legacy begun by Willie B.”

Now home to the nation’s largest collection of western lowland gorillas, Zoo Atlanta is a national leader in the husbandry, training and behavioral research of these critically endangered great apes. Zoo staff and colleagues have produced over 120 published scientific studies on gorilla behavior, and Zoo Atlanta remains committed to the preservation of wild gorillas and their habitats through partnership with The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which is headquartered on Zoo grounds.

Zoo Atlanta also houses four very special senior gorillas, which are considered geriatric after the age of about 35. Leading the pack is Shamba, who turns 52 on May 24. Shamba is joined by Ozzie, 50; Choomba, 50; and Ivan, 49.  Because they were born in the wild, the four are considered founder individuals by the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, and Shamba, Ozzie and Choomba are the only surviving members of the Zoo’s pioneer generation of gorillas. Of the 24 gorillas residing at Zoo Atlanta today, 20 are descended from Shamba, Ozzie or Choomba.
 
“It’s been a privilege and an honor to observe not just the growth and milestones of these families, but also the dramatic progress I’ve observed in our gorilla program over my years here,” said Charles Horton, Curator of Primates, who recently celebrated his 40th anniversary at Zoo Atlanta. “I’ve been here for some of the biggest moments of their lives, and I’m here for new moments every day. They’re incredibly special, and I’m proud that Zoo Atlanta has made such an investment in the welfare of gorillas living not just here, but around the world.”