Written by Tammy Buhrmester
This is the time of year that many students are getting physical exams when going back to school, so here we will tell you about how the keepers do daily health checks and examinations on the primates in conjunction with our veterinary team.
When you visit your doctor, they start with very basic tests to make sure that you are healthy. The doctor may take your temperature, have you stand on a scale to obtain your weight, listen to your heart and may take a sample of blood for laboratory tests. We are always monitoring our primates to ensure that they stay healthy. You may wonder: how do you take a temperature of an ape? How do you weigh primates that can be as small as 400 grams and as large as 380 pounds? What is a normal heart rate for an ape? We achieve this by training our animals to do specific behaviors that we ask of them. Training is teaching specific responses to certain cues and then giving positive reinforcement for that behavior like juice, peanuts or grapes, as well as lots of praise. Training is most valuable for management and husbandry behaviors.
So how do you take a temperature of an ape? The apes at the zoo are trained in three ways to take their temperature: using an ear thermometer, a forehead thermometer and a LifeChip. Some of the apes are trained to present their ear and allow the keeper to place the ear thermometer inside and hold it until the thermometer beeps. Some of the apes are trained to present their forehead to the keeper while the keeper holds the thermometer to their forehead until the thermometer beeps. The last way is reading a LifeChip. Similar to a pet transponder, the apes have their LifeChip inserted between the shoulder blades during a sedation or immobilization. A special scanner is used to read the microchip. We train the apes to present their back and hold still as we wave the scanner over the designated area until the scanner beeps. We can then read their identification number and their temperature.
Getting monkeys and apes on the scale is also very similar to what we do. Most of the primates, small and large, are trained to step onto a scale. The scale varies in size from a small kitchen scale to a large livestock scale. The black howler monkeys are trained to climb inside a basket and sit as they are weighed from a hanging scale, sort of like the kind you might find in the grocery store.
When you see the doctor, they may use a stethoscope to listen to your heart. The chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are trained to present their chest and allow the keepers and vets to see images of their heart using an ultrasound machine. The images show the heart pumping and valves opening. Did you know that Rudi, our male orangutan, has a heart rate of 118 beats per minute?
Lastly, you may have to get a sample of blood taken. Our orangutans are now being trained on how to present their arm for us to take their blood. Due to orangutans having such long arms they have to have a specially made structure to place their arm in for taking the sample. The orangutans are trained to rest their arm inside a long, steel tube and hold completely still in order to allow the keeper and veterinarian technician to access their vein in order to get a blood sample. They receive treats throughout this process and will get a big bonus treat for actually giving blood.
So, as you can see, going to the doctor is something everyone has to do. Training the primates to do these procedures can take up to many months depending on the animal and the behavior. The keepers want to make sure the animals are healthy and training plays a very large role in their daily activity. We want all of our animals to get a clean bill of health – just as Houston students are doing when going back to school!