The Atlantic

Something Mysterious Is Killing Captive Gorillas

For a decade, zookeepers have known that something strange was stopping the giant animals’ hearts—now they’re beginning to trace the culprit to their guts.
Source: Claire Merchlinsky

Just before 8 o’clock on a snowy Wednesday morning, deep in a maze of doors and steel fencing in the basement of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 30-year-old gorilla named Mokolo is getting a heart exam. He’s voluntarily shambled up to a stainless-steel fence, squatted on his stout legs, and pressed his belly to the mesh. Now he looks at the ceiling with thinly veiled exasperation, like a kid who wants to play outside but knows he has to stand still long enough to get slathered with sunscreen first. His expression is so recognizably human that it’s disconcerting.

An animal keeper, Brian Price, crouches on the other side of the mesh. “There you go, Moki,” he murmurs, passing a green bean into Mokolo’s mouth as a treat. The 400-pound animal gently accepts it with his lips.

Through a small opening in the fence, Price rubs ultrasound gel on Mokolo’s thrust-out belly. Mokolo bats at Price’s hand. He wipes off some of the goo and examines it with a suspicious expression, frowning as he rubs it between thumb and forefinger. Then, as though satisfied it’s the same substance Price used last week, he raises his arm above his head and looks back at the ceiling. His fingers, with black nails and creased knuckles, curl around the steel fencing.

“Hold,” says Price softly, rolling an ultrasound probe over Mokolo’s ribs. Mokolo holds still.

A few feet away, a pulsating gray-and-white image of Mokolo’s heart appears on a portable ultrasound machine. Mike Selig, a staff veterinarian, watches the right ventricle flutter open to let in blood, and the left ventricle pump it out. Rhythmic and regular: good. Selig records Mokolo’s heart rate, then pushes a button to capture a photo. Later, he’ll measure the fluid that’s collected around Mokolo's heart cavity to make sure it hasn’t increased, and add the information to a national database.

Like many captive male gorillas, Mokolo suffers from heart disease—specifically, fibrosing cardiomyopathy, a condition that turns red, healthy heart muscle into bands of white scar tissue too rigid to pump blood. Although heart disease is nearly absent in wild populations, it’s the leading killer of captive male gorillas around the world. Roughly 70 percent of adult male gorillas in North America have heart disease, and many die prematurely as

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