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UT Health cardiologists give pioneering heart exam to gorilla at Toledo Zoo

The largest of all primates at the Toledo Zoo turned out to be the perfect patient, only hairier.

“Working with a gorilla was a scary and exciting experience,” said Dr. Samer Khouri, UT Health cardiologist and director of cardiac imaging. “We were in a controlled environment, but Kwisha is a 470-pound, muscular creature. He is so powerful that his hand has the ability to crush all the bones in my hand with one squeeze.”

Amy Lather, an ultrasound technician at UT Medical Center, conducted an ultrasound on Kwisha the gorilla at the Toledo Zoo as Dr. Qaiser Shafiq, a cardiology fellow in the University training program, center, watched.  

Amy Lather, an ultrasound technician at UT Medical Center, conducted an ultrasound on Kwisha the gorilla at the Toledo Zoo as Dr. Qaiser Shafiq, a cardiology fellow in the University training program, center, watched.  

Several cardiologists, anesthesiologist Dr. Andrew Casabianca, and ultrasound technician Amy Lather from The University of Toledo Medical Center recently volunteered their human health-care expertise for the 27-year-old male western lowland gorilla.

“Heart disease is a global problem facing great apes,” Dr. Kirsten Thomas, Toledo Zoo associate veterinarian, said. “The UTMC team was brought in to provide a new and unique measurement of cardiac health in great apes.”

“We take pride in the high-quality care we provide our animals here at the Toledo Zoo,” Jeff Sailer, Toledo Zoo executive director, said. “This collaboration with UTMC offered an additional level of imaging and cardiac expertise helping us to provide the best possible care for Kwisha.”

Under the oversight of zoo veterinarians, the UT team conducted a comprehensive heart exam while Kwisha was under anesthesia. The specialists gave the gorilla a clean bill of health with no immediate issues that need to be addressed.

Kwisha in 2013 in this photo courtesy of Andi Norman/Toledo Zoo

Kwisha in 2013 in this photo courtesy of Andi Norman/Toledo Zoo

“Kwisha’s pictures look good,” said Dr. Christopher Cooper, executive vice president for clinical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “We were happy to help. This also was a terrific opportunity for us to learn more from a highly related, yet nonhuman primate about cardiac performance.”

“A gorilla’s heart is almost the same as a human heart — only bigger,” Khouri said. “We followed the same principles, but this checkup was anything but routine. What’s amazing to me is how similar gorillas are to us physically.”

The silverback gorilla’s screening included an echocardiogram and a strain test, which is believed to have been the first strain analysis ever done on an ape.

“It’s a more sensitive and more accurate test,” Khouri said. “The process takes a detailed look at the contraction of heart muscle. We can detect any problem in the heart before it’s apparent in a regular echo.”

“To the best of our knowledge, the strain test has not previously been performed in great apes, and is a novel approach to measuring cardiac function in these animals,” Thomas said. “The collective efforts of the UTMC cardiac team and Toledo Zoo veterinary staff has provided us the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of great ape research.”

Khouri plans to publish the new data soon and hopes to expand the work to include more apes to advance knowledge about heart function.

“This is an important first step for research to compare a gorilla to human heart contraction and function,” Khouri said. “Doing this special analysis makes us proud. Taking care of this kind of animal shows that every life on the planet deserves respect and highlights how similar we are to all creatures on earth.”