When one of the National Zoo's gorillas goes in for tests, it's not just standard operating-room procedure

By discovering heart disease early, echocardiograms have improved life for many a human; now Washington cardiologists are using them to help great apes at the National Zoo

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When I ask how she got into doing this, Dr. Spelman says simply that she always wanted to be a zoo vet. She was in private practice but prefers the variety of experience in a zoo. In one day she may help with a cardiac workup on a gorilla, do a root canal on a Sumatran tiger, take blood from a sea lion.

As Mopie's heart thumps away in living color on the Doppler machine, a frighteningly accomplished trunkful of electronics costing six figures and loaned by Hewlett-Packard as a friendly gesture, I talk to Dr. Steven Goldstein, one of three Washington cardiologists who have given up this Sunday and volunteered to help. I ask if Mopie's heart rate of 123 beats per minute, duly recorded on the monitor, is very bad.

"It would be bad for a human but might be not so bad for an ape. This may be mild for him." Goldstein does, however, see what appears to be a problem in the main pumping chamber, the left ventricle. Normal human ventricles eject 60-70 percent of the blood in a given contraction. In orangutans, the efficiency is down to 55-65 percent. Mopie's is as low as 35 percent.

"I think it's abnormal, but I've only seen 10 or 11 great apes," says Goldstein, who has been volunteering at the Zoo since September 1995. "He's the second gorilla that I've seen with this condition. His father died at 37 of a heart problem, but then his father was born in the wild. Apes do live artificially long in captivity."

The beauty of the Doppler machine, National Zoo primates curator Lisa Stevens tells me, is that you can literally watch and videotape the heart at work. A conventional heart x-ray might be obscured by the ribs and, besides, is two-dimensional and static. When the ultrasonic scope is inserted, you can see everything in motion, even the aortic valve opening and closing.

Stevens came to the National Zoological Park straight from Michigan State, 18 years ago. "I thought I'd do this for a few years, but then I realized that this was it. I started with cats, then bears, seals and sea lions. You become specialized eventually, but most people are very versatile. You work with all the animals, from elephants to fish. And you appreciate and respect them all."

Dr. Cambre, who came here two years ago after 15 years at the Denver Zoo, says that being a zoo veterinarian gets into your blood. "Animal personalities are fascinating. We have PhD curators here and a keeper staff that's mostly college educated. We depend on them to report unusual behavioral patterns for individual animals to us. Sometimes these are early warning signs of illness. It takes a team effort to figure out what's going on." Without an owner to tell them what an animal's problem is, Zoo people have to rely on their own close observations. Is an animal eating well? Defecating normally? Moody? Under stress?

On another of my visits to the Zoo, Azy, a large male orangutan, spotted Cambre as we strolled past. Azy rushed back and forth in his cage, pushing a huge barrel before him in an impressive display of power. "It's a lot of bluster," Cambre said. "He's trying to intimidate me. He knows who I am. He knows who's going to win if I get my dart gun. So he's bluffing. Of course, if I was stupid enough to wander into his cage, he'd kill me. They're forgiving up to a point. But they don't like us, because if they're sick we've got to dart 'em."

After the heart exam, as Mopie lies on his back, half covered by a blanket and breathing peacefully, Dr. Spelman cleans the gorilla's wicked-looking teeth with dental tools. Yes, even apes are prone to cavities and gum disease. Now Mopie is being unplugged from the monitors and transferred to an x-ray table for a complete set of pictures. Even moving him from one table to another takes a half-dozen people hauling on the heavy canvas netting he's lying in.

"We'll take him off anesthesia when he's back in a cage," explains Stevens. "He'll recover pretty fast. He'll be groggy for the rest of the day, but awake and eating. He might be a little cross. He's into that role of being the big dominant male. Mopie can be sullen, but he has his light moments. By tomorrow he'll be back to normal."

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