“Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey.” – Malcom De Chazal
Our primate relatives have always fascinated me. Chimpanzees and humans share a little over 98 percent of our respective DNA sequences. Our “cousins” have been the subject of light-hearted children’s books like “Curious George.” And they have been the subjects of science fiction movie classics like “King Kong” and the dystopian series based on the novel “Planet of the Apes.” President Ronald Reagan famously starred with a chimpanzee in “Bedtime for Bonzo,” although research now shows entertainment has terrible implications for chimpanzee welfare.
Like many of us, my introduction to chimpanzees and apes was during a kindergarten field trip to Lincoln Park Zoo. I loved it as a child, and as an adult I brought my son to see the lions, polar bears and gorillas.
Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the jewels of our city. It serves as a great institution for families to enjoy during the summer and the winter season’s “ZooLights” is a popular winter holiday tradition.
What is not too well-known is the level of great care the animals receive from the zoo’s veterinarians. Dr. Kathryn Gamble leads the team of veterinarians that cares for the animals. She is not only a great clinician, but also at the forefront of innovations in primate care.
Gamble also leads another unique team, the zoo’s Animal Health Council. It is composed of local consultants who are specialists in medical and veterinary disciplines. I am one of the cardiology members of the council, which also includes an ophthalmologist, a dentist, a dermatologist, an oral surgeon, a gynecologist, and many others.
With the veterinary team, we participate in the wellness examinations on the great apes. Of course, the apes are sedated while we examine them, which is a little different than my usual patient. But, as I perform ultrasound tests on their hearts, it is amazing to see that they are indistinguishable from those of humans!
Historically, we humans have used the data gathered from animal research to understand human diseases. For example, blood typing was initially performed on primates to pave the way to do it in humans. Dr. Gamble believes that the results of human research should be used for improving animal health. The zoo, for example, has partnered with a medical instrument company to understand arrhythmias and sudden death in primates.
The median life expectancy for chimpanzees in accredited North American zoos is during the third decade of life. Often, chimpanzees die of heart disease. Coronary artery disease is the main culprit in heart related human deaths, but chimpanzees seem to die from scarring or fibrosis of the heart.
Several years ago, zoo staff noticed one of the chimpanzees was not as active as she had been. At an examination, we confirmed that she presented with heart disease. Fortunately, by starting commonly prescribed human heart medications, we got her back to her usual self after only a few days.
Note: On March 13, the zoo will host its popular after hours “Wine and Wildlife” program. This installment is titled “Great and Small, Our Vets Care for All.” The event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the zoo’s Cafe Brauer. Admission: $14-$17. I encourage you to come out and meet Dr. Gamble and staff.
Dr. Alan Jackson is a cardiologist and chief medical officer at Roseland Community Hospital and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago. He also is a member of the Sun-Times board of directors.