Baraka, the National Zoo’s giant silverback gorilla, gets a checkup – inside and out

Michael E Ruane

THE WASHINGTON POST – Baraka, the 400-pound silverback gorilla, lay on his back with a tube down his throat, red-and-orange booties on his feet, and his insides beamed in colour on a video screen.

It was an inelegant position for the leader of the National Zoo’s troop of western lowland gorillas – the boss, the arbiter of disputes, the ultimate authority.

For several hours last Thursday, veterinarians, technicians and keepers poked him, drew blood, checked his heart and used special scopes to peer at his stomach and other organs as he lay anesthetised at the zoo’s veterinary hospital.

All the while, as monitors beeped, he rested with his mouth propped open and his gigantic hands limp. Zoo veterinarian James Steeil had cautioned those present, other than the veterinarians, not to hold Baraka’s hands. Should they involuntarily contract, it would be very painful.

And if the gorilla moved, people should “exit the room”, he said.

Baraka stayed asleep.

The procedures, including a rare – for gorillas – endoscopic ultrasound, were done because Baraka had in recent months showed signs of abdominal distress. Zoo experts wanted to see whether they could find the cause.

Special examination equipment was trucked to the zoo earlier in the week from Pentax Medical in Montvale, New Jersey, company spokesman Daryl Testa said.

Baraka, a silverback gorilla, gets a medical checkup at the National Zoo after showing signs of abdominal distress in recent months. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A zoo veterinarian holds Baraka’s hand during the check-up
Worrisome gum inflammation was found around Baraka’s teeth

In the end, Baraka’s digestive tract looked fine, Steeil said, though the source of his stomach problem remained elusive.

“The liver is normal,” Steeil said. “The gall bladder is normal. The pancreas is normal. The stomach, the esophagus are all normal.”

“This is the best-case scenario,” he said, adding, “All great things.”

So what’s causing his stomach distress? “It’s one of these (things) in zoo medicine that sometimes you never find the answer,” Steeil said. “But as long as the problem doesn’t continue to recur, you’re still okay with that.”

But some worrisome gum inflammation was found around several teeth, and that tissue was biopsied for analysis.

“This swelling in his mouth,” he said, “could be inflammation. It could be an infection. Or it could be a tumor.”

“We don’t brush their teeth,” Steeil said. “His oral care is done by him by chewing on various things.”

The biopsy results should be back in about a week or so, he said.

“It is likely that he will need a second procedure,” Steeil said. “Whether it’s multiple teeth that need to be extracted or it’s strictly related to a tumor that we have to determine what to do with.”

“The goal will be to give him the best quality of life that we can,” he said.

The day began at 7.30am in the Great Ape House when primate keeper Erin Stromberg gave Baraka an injection of anesthesia in his left biceps. “I think my hands are done shaking,” she said.

He had been trained to present her his left arm.

The shot seemed to hurt – he rubbed the spot afterward, she said. He was asleep in five to 10 minutes and was transported in a van to the hospital on the zoo grounds.

Chest and abdominal X-rays were taken, along with an echocardiogram of his heart.

Gorillas can live into their 50s and develop heart disease, Steeil said. Baraka is nearing middle age, and males “are under extensive pressure,” he said.

Because they are the “troop maintainers,” Steeil said, “they tend to succumb earlier than the females”.

But his heart looked fine.

A gastroscopy, where a tube bearing a tiny camera is inserted down the throat to see the stomach and environs, was done. An endoscopic ultrasound, a similar procedure to see the pancreas, gallbladder and various ducts, followed.

“This might be the first endoscopic ultrasound ever in a gorilla,” said George Washington University’s Steven Zeddun, the doctor who did the procedure.

Baraka is 28. He was born at the zoo in 1992. Standing, he is about six feet tall, said Assistant Curator of Primates Becky Malinsky.

As a teenager he lived for about two years at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. He is the father of two-year-old Moke.

Baraka is called a silverback because of the silver/gray hair that all males develop in maturity.

Malinsky said she had not been sure what was ailing him. “Based on the symptoms that we’ve seen him exhibit we are suspicious that it could be something gastrointestinal,” she said. “We could be totally off base.”

She said a few months ago gorilla keeper Carly Hornberger called her and reported that Baraka had turned down his afternoon fruit snack and was not acting like himself.

“He is a big guy” and usually eats five or more meals a day, Malinsky said.

And it’s troubling when any animal turns down a favorite food, she said.

Gorillas are vegetarians and eat lots of lettuce, broccoli, squash and cabbage. They love treats such as apples, oranges and pears.

“He normally shovels the food in,” Malinsky said.

Malinsky took a look and agreed with Hornberger. Baraka would not approach the mesh at the gorilla enclosure to take any food, and his body language suggested that he was having a stomach problem.

But he seemed fine the next day and remained so for several weeks.

When the symptoms reappeared about a month ago, the tests were arranged before there was an emergency, Malinsky said.

“Most animals are pretty stoic and tend to hide discomfort and pain,” she said. And when they show it, attention must be paid.

“He really, really is a gentle giant,” she said, adding that “he is an incredibly gentle silverback … (with) a very laid-back demeanour” – and is a fair judge of conduct within his troop of the zoo’s six lowland gorillas.