New methods of monitoring the health of gorillas at Disney

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Florida Guide > Animal Kingdom

New methods of monitoring the health of gorillas at Disney

Animal Kingdom is home to a huge variety of animals and birds, so it is only to be expected that, from time to time, their health will need to be monitored. For the smaller creatures this is usually reasonably easy, but how on earth do they examine the huge silverback gorillas, for example?

Well, the answer is rather surprising. Not so long ago, around two years to be precise, if it was necessary to perform an ultrasound examination of the gorillas to check their hearts, or if they needed to assess their blood pressure, the gorillas had to be sedated.
Interestingly, adult male gorillas often have weak hearts, and around 40% of them die of heart problems, so a periodic cardiovascular check up is essential to monitor these amazing animals.

However, Dr Mark Setter, director of animal operations for Disney’s animal programmes, has, together with his staff, developed a way to train Animal Kingdom’s gorillas to be motionless, and to co-operate during blood pressure checks and ultrasound scans. This has had a huge benefit in pinpointing the state of their health. These methods have been so successful that other zoos across America are using Disney’s guidelines.

So how does it work?

Well, trainers used verbal cues, hand signals and treats such as fruit as positive reinforcement to teach Gino, a 385 lb silverback gorilla, to display the appropriate body parts. Of course, it can take several months to train a gorilla to co-operate with his trainer so that an ultrasound scan can be performed.

However, the gorillas have even learned to place their arms into a specially designed blood pressure cuff so that they can have their blood pressure monitored. Gino will now stand right up against the bars of his cage while his trainer applies gel to his chest. Each time, Gino swipes the gel and tastes it, after which his heart is scanned with a wand. Gino’s keeper, Beth Richards, uses fruit and oatmeal as rewards. She speaks firmly but lovingly to Gino as she prepares to monitor him. When she says ‘hands’ Gino shows her his hands, then his rear, and finally his shoulder, which is a useful move when he needs his injections. On being asked to come closer, Gino obliges by putting his chest up against the bars, so that Beth can move the ultrasound wand across his left side.

It is not just the gorillas who have been trained. Komodo dragons have been taught to stand on a scale to be weighed, and poisoned dart frogs have learned to respond to a clicking noise by jumping into a container which can then be weighed.

All this shows just how hard Disney try to refine and improve the way they handle the animals in their care, to ensure that they remain in tip top health.

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Page added on: 18 January 2013
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