Saturday, November 28, 2009

Zoo Atlanta gorilla takes own blood pressure

Vet Hayley Murphy explains why

Consider this a new twist on the phrase “a trained monkey could do that.”

In this case, actually, it’s a trained gorilla. Ozzie, the oldest of Zoo Atlanta’s 22 gorillas, has learned to take his blood pressure. It seems that heart disease is the main killer of gorillas in captivity. So Zoo Atlanta entered into a partnership with the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University to come up with a way to get blood pressure readings from the animals while they are awake.

Biomedical engineering students at Georgia Tech developed the “Gorilla Tough Cuff,” and Zoo Atlanta became the first place in the world to do the awake readings. More time is needed before veterinarians establish the normal blood pressure range for adult male gorillas.

Dr. Hayley Murphy, director of veterinary services at the zoo, talks about stress, Lipitor and pudding.

Q: Why measure a gorilla’s blood pressure?

A: Gorillas have heart disease in captivity. So we started asking [zoos] if they could get blood pressures on awake gorillas because we suspected some of the heart disease was due to high blood pressure. But because gorillas are not that easy to work with, nobody had ever gotten a blood pressure on an awake gorilla. We had data from anesthetized gorillas.

Q: But an anesthetized gorilla, what’s that going to give you? Their heart rate would slow because they are relaxed, right?

A: Right. What we didn’t know was how much the drugs were affecting the actual blood pressure readings.

Q: So where does Georgia Tech come in?

A: They had students that needed an interesting project, and they were always approaching the zoo for ideas. We had a really great project that needed to be done. So the two clicked. Gorillas are wild animals, so we really need equipment that would stand up to a gorilla pulling on it.

Q: What’s the difference then in the stress level between a gorilla in the wild and one in captivity?

A: Everybody has stress to live with. [Laughs] There are a lot of unknowns with the heart disease. We don’t know exactly what’s causing it. Is it nutritional? Is it stress? Is it genetic? Is it contagious? Is it infectious? The kind of disease they get could be based on high blood pressure.

Q: How did you train them?

A: It takes a lot of patience. When the animal does something you want it to do, it gets positive reinforcement and a treat. So every time Ozzie would put his hand in the blood pressure cuff that the Georgia Tech students developed, he got a treat. And eventually we started blowing up the cuff, a very little bit at a time and then released it to let him know that wasn’t so bad. So, over time, you build their trust and reinforce the fact that nothing bad is happening here, and [he] gets a treat. Now he’s used to doing it.

Q: What kind of treat did Ozzie get?

A: He likes pudding, sugar-free pudding.

Q: How does this thing work? How long does it take to get.....................

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