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Surgeons Remove Cyst on Baby Gorilla

January 13, 2008

Veterinarians at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle combined their efforts with pediatric surgeons to remove a cyst near the spine of a baby gorilla, which is thought to be the first type of this surgery performed on any animal.

The procedure, performed on Thursday morning at the zoo, took roughly an hour. Surgeons from the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center joined zoo vets in removing the mass, which was around 1.5 inches in size. The surgery also confirmed that the baby gorilla has a mild case of spinal bifida. Doctors believe it should not be an issue as the gorilla grows older.

Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, a neurosurgeon and chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Washington, which is affiliated with the hospital, said “This gorilla operation was an amazing “Star-Trek” type of experience for the team from Children’s and the UW.”

The baby is the 12th successful gorilla birth for the zoo and the third offspring for Amanda, 37 and father, Vip, 28. The yet-to-be named baby gorilla was born in October with the cyst at the base of her back but because of the way gorillas hold their young it was some time before the cyst was noticed.

Experts wanted to wait until the gorilla was older before trying to remove the deformity but grew concerned as test results showed the cyst had become infected and was growing toward the spine, raising the risk of meningitis, said Dr. Kelly E. Helmick, the zoo’s interim director of animal health.

Zookeepers trained the mother, Amanda, to carry her baby to them so they could administer antibiotics to help fight infections, Helmick stated. Once the surgery was complete she was placed on a table just outside the operating room to be given fluids and kept warm while she recovered. The baby gorilla awoke about 30 minutes later, gave a big yawn and opened her eyes. A pink and purple pacifier and stuffed gorilla were waiting for her upon awakening.

Helmick said that as soon as zookeepers returned the baby to her mother, she grabbed her baby and immediately began nursing her. “It was a touching reunion between mom and baby,” she said.

Gorillas naturally pick at each other to remove dirt and insects, so the sutures were buried under the skin and covered with surgical tissue glue, while Amanda’s nails were painted red so she would be distracted and pick at her nails instead of at her baby’s incision.

It is expected that recovery will take about 2 weeks and the prognosis was good. Ellenbogen and other hospital personnel donated their time and Integra LifeSciences, a medical instrument company in Plainsboro, N.J., donated nearly $60,000 worth of spinal instruments to the zoo for the surgery.

Children’s Hospital has about two to five cases a year similar to the one in the baby gorilla, Ellenbogen said. “What we were able to do here was parallel to what we do in the human world,” he said. “We were prepared for the worst and it turned out to be something we could treat and cure.”

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