These Gorillas Caregivers Face Familiar Questions About Aging

This month, as the patient lay anesthetized on a table, a cardiologist made a half-inch incision in the skin of his chest. He removed a small implanted heart monitor with failed batteries and inserted a new one.

The patient, like many older men, was diagnosed with heart disease; the monitor will provide continuous heart rate and rhythm data, alerting his doctors to irregularities.

Closing the incision requires four smooth stitches. In a few hours, the patient, a gorilla named Winston, will be reunited with his family in their home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Winston, at age 51, is an old male gorilla, said Dr. Matt Kinney, a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance led the medical team through the procedure. With improved health care, new technology and better nutrition, we are seeing animals live longer, and they are also healthier, he said.

In human-managed care (the term captivity no longer flies in zoos), gorillas can live two decades beyond the 30- to 40-year life span typical in the wild, and taller than the gorillas in the zoo in previous decades.

Like their human relatives, however, aging also brings diseases that require testing, diagnosis and treatment. Gorillas are prone to heart disease, the leading cause of death for them and for us.

So now the questions for Winstons caregivers are similar to those faced by doctors and elderly human patients: How much treatment? What is the trade-off between longevity and quality of life?

Geriatric wildlife care is becoming more and more sophisticated, said Dr. Paul Calle, the chief veterinarian of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo. The medical and surgical knowledge of the people can be directly applied.

It’s like human geriatric care. To keep the gorillas healthy, the zoo’s veterinarians not only turn to technologies and medicines developed for humans, but also consult medical specialists such as cardiologists, radiologists, obstetricians and dentists.

Winston, for example, takes four common heart medications that people also take, albeit in different doses. (He weighed 451 pounds.) The heart monitor he received, which was smaller than a flash drive, was also implanted in people. Winston received his annual flu shot this fall, and is undergoing physical therapy for arthritis.

Seeking to provide comfort to these animals later in life, Dr. Kinney said.

That wasn’t cheap: There were about 20 doctors, technicians and other staff in the operating room when Winston received his new monitor. But the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, parent organization for the zoo and the safari park, covers the care of the Winstons through its annual operating budget. Donors and partners can offset some additional expenses.

None of our animals have insurance, and they never pay their bills, said Dr. Kinney.

Several of the Winstons’ longtime caretakers, called wildlife care specialists, have retired. But Winston, who has reached silverback status in age, stays on the job, managing his troop of five gorillas, keeping the peace and intervening in fights when necessary.

He is a gentle silverback, an incredibly devoted father, said Jim Haigwood, the curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. His youngest daughter, hell still allows him to take food from her mouth.

The zoo has twice introduced females with sons to the troop, which in the wild can lead to killing the child. But the Winstons’ caretakers believed he would accept, and he did.

He raised those boys as if they were his own children, said Mr. Haigwood. (However, when they become rambunctious teenagers, they are rehomed in their own homes, an option that human parents sometimes envy.)

Winston, a western lowland gorilla native to Central Africa, arrived at the San Diego Zoo in 1984. He enjoyed good health until 2017, when his keepers noticed a general decline, said Dr. Kinney, who arranged Winstons first echocardiogram.

The test showed only a couple of subtle changes, nothing alarming, Dr. Kinney said. Everyone was relieved. Normal aging.

After 2021, the whole troop contracted the coronavirus, which was probably transmitted by a person. As with human patients, age matters.

Winston was the worst affected, Dr. Kinney said. He has a cough, quite significant weakness, lack of appetite. He started grabbing things as he walked.

After an infusion of monoclonal antibodies, Winston recovered. Now the whole troop is vaccinated and raised against the virus.

But while Winston was being treated, veterinarians and human doctors ran other tests that looked for health issues. Winston’s heart began to pump less efficiently; which led to a daily regimen of blood pressure and heart medications hidden in his food, and an implanted monitor. He also takes ibuprofen and acetaminophen for arthritis in his spine, hips and shoulders.

More worrying was the CT scan and biopsy which showed a cancerous tumor that was destroying Winstons right kidney. That prompts the kind of risk-versus-benefits conversation that should inform decisions about invasive treatment for older patients, but that is often skipped for humans.

Are we doing a surgical procedure? Dr. remembers. Kinney wondered. The big concern is, what does recovery look like? After considering Winston’s age and life expectancy, and determining that the tumor has not grown, we feel comfortable continuing to monitor him, she said.

For now, it’s in a good balance, he said. That was not a medical issue, but demonstrated Winston’s ability to lead his troops including a woman, Kami, with whom he had a devoted partnership of 25 years, Mr. Haigwood said.

Some aspects of healthy aging may come more quickly for zoo primates than for humans; their guardians provide only healthy choices. They don’t smoke, said Marietta Danforth, the director of the Great Ape Heart Project, a research effort at the Detroit Zoo. They don’t eat cheeseburgers.

Winstons vegetarian diet consisted mainly of tree branches and root vegetables. The half-acre Gorilla Forest where he lives, with its hills and ponds and climbing structures, promotes exercise.

However, geriatric care must include end-of-life decisions. Winston may die a natural death one day like Ozzie, a gorilla who died at Zoo Atlanta two years ago at 61, or Colo, who was 60 when he died at Ohio’s Columbus Zoo in 2017.

But if his quality of life decreases, if he stops interacting with the troop and his caregivers or begins to suffer, similar to human care ends. Even in California, with its medical aid in dying law, euthanasia remains illegal for people. This is an option for Winston.

This is a privilege of veterinary medicine, Dr. Kinney said. It also carries a great responsibility.

When the doctors, specialists and caregivers of Winstons conclude, after extensive discussion, that a painless death is better than a shortened life, it is a calm process, Dr. Kinney said. After an overdose of anesthesia, he said, within a few minutes, there was cardiopulmonary arrest.

About 350 gorillas and 930 great apes in total, including bonobos, orangutans and chimpanzees live in US zoos, said Dr. Danforth. No matter how well they are cared for, some animal rights activists and primatologists argue that they do not belong in zoos.

But even the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose position is that wild animals belong in the wild, acknowledged in an email that zoos like San Diego’s, which is recognized by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, meets high standards of animal care.

Winston had high quality years, Dr. Kinney said. The gorilla has also become a beloved media personality. San Diego will mourn his loss, whenever and however it happens.

For now, we want to make sure that Winston lives a good life, which he did, Dr. Kinney said. We have a good understanding of what makes Winston Winston.

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