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Gorilla participates in groundbreaking ultrasound
Thursday, November 10, 2011

New technology helps Willie B., Jr. become the newest contributor to the Great Ape Heart Project

ATLANTA – November 10, 2011 ― Willie B., Jr., a 13-year-old western lowland gorilla, participated in an awake ultrasound on November 3, 2011, in the first successful procedure of its kind at Zoo Atlanta. Made possible by new technology and the expertise of a team from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the procedure contributes valuable findings to a database managed by the Great Ape Heart Project, an inter-institutional effort headquartered at Zoo Atlanta.

Awake ultrasounds had long been a goal in ape cardiac care at Zoo Atlanta, but until recently, had been inhibited by a lack of technology. The Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team now possesses a state-of-the-art GE Vivid I ultrasound machine, the device successfully used with Willie B., Jr., with the aid of volunteer sonographers from Children’s.

“This is a tremendous leap forward. Cardiac ultrasounds had historically been performed on our gorillas only during annual exams, under anesthesia,” said Lori Perkins, Director of Animal Programs. “Awake ultrasounds will give us the ability to monitor their heart health more frequently to better understand changes over time.”

Ultrasound training is just one of the many goals of the Great Ape Heart Project, which seeks to understand, diagnose, and treat cardiac disease across all four great ape taxa (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos). A leading cause of mortality among great apes living in zoological settings, the disease has already left its mark on the Zoo’s most famous gorilla family. Willie B. Jr.’s father, the legendary late Willie B., died of heart-related complications in 2000. Willie B., Jr., and Taz, a 22-year-old silverback, are the first of the Zoo’s gorillas to be trained for awake ultrasounds. By the end of the year, staff hopes to obtain voluntary ultrasounds on three other gorillas: Sukari, 13; Kudzoo, 17; and Macy, 5. 

Zoo Atlanta is home to the nation’s largest collection of western lowland gorillas, with 22 individuals living in distinct social groups. The collection also includes four very special senior members: Shamba, 52; Ozzie, 50; Choomba, 49; and Ivan, 49. Gorillas are considered geriatric after the age of about 35.