One Health Team

How Do We Care for the Gorillas?

Young Koko responds to a question about how to use a stethoscope.

Koko and Ndume, our resident gorillas, have a comprehensive wellness program including proper diet and nutrition, and a team of veterinary and medical specialists. The team includes veterinarians with specific expertise in the care of gorillas in zoological gardens and in nature . Other veterinarians are included on the team because they have relevant clinical skills and live near the Gorilla Foundation’s research facility. We also have a renowned team of human specialists from Stanford University Medical Center to consult and treat the gorillas should the need arise. Gorillas are biologically so similar to humans that collaboration and cooperation involving physicians, veterinarians, and other health professionals is especially important to Koko and Ndume’s wellbeing.

In addition to the gorillas’ health-care team, we currently have 5 full-time caregiver/researchers and one night-monitor. The gorillas have, at a minimum, one caregiver with them at all times. All of the caregiver/researchers are college educated, and bring a lot of empathy and specialized sensitivity to the job. Several of the caregivers help with behavioral training with Ndume and Koko to enable us to do close-up health exams of the gorillas without the need for anesthesia. We are participants in the Great Ape Heart Project, headquartered at Zoo Atlanta, a collaborative project to monitor heart health in the great ape species (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos).

Drs. Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn have been providing continuous care and companionship with Koko over the past 41 years. They continue to go inside Koko’s enclosure five days/week to interact with her, conduct research, diagnostic work, chart work (see photo at right, with Koko pointing to an “emotion chart”), and provide physical therapy when needed. Dr. Cohn photographs and videotapes each session while Penny communicates with Koko through sign language and talking to her in English. This “together time” allows for hands-on assessment of her physical and mental states through close examination and Koko’s self-reporting.