What If……… Say Please
Kathy Cappa & Marilyn McCormick
Cincinnati Zoo Cincinnati, OH
Henry Doorly Zoo Omaha, NE
Electro ejaculation has long been used on exotic species to obtain semen for conservation and artificial reproduction techniques. These attempts proved futile, due to low volume and sperm counts.
“What if” viable semen collection could be obtained from gorillas upon request? In 1992, Corrine Brown, D.V.M., and Naida Loskutoff, Ph.D., reproductive physiologist, began discussing the “what ifs” out loud. , In 1993, a proposal for Dr. Brown to attempt to obtain semen from gorillas through behavior training was written. Training involved a verbal request followed by a reward and verbal praise (“Good Boy!”) when the behavior was performed correctly. In this case, the reward was “Skittles” candy (“Skittles” are low fat and low calorie and can be quickly chewed).
Of our two male gorillas, Motuba – Tubby (DOB – 23 Jan ’85) and Mosuba – Mo (DOB – 23 Oct ’83), it was thought that Mo was the more easy-going subject. This was realized when he became part of the program in March’94.
(Mo and his brother Macombo II or Mac are the first surviving twin gorillas in the Western Hemisphere, and were born at the Columbus Zoo. Parents were Bridgette of Omaha, who was on breeding loan, and Oscar of the Columbus Zoo.)
Training initially was 3 days a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) for 10 minutes in the morning. This was eventually decreased to 2 days.
As the sessions progressed, sperm was able to be collected. After the “washout phase,” the sperm counts increased from 20% to 80%.
Freezing techniques for the sperm were perfected by Naida L. and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. These 0.25 ml straws were then placed into liquid nitrogen for storage (cryopreservation). Artificial reproductive techniques could now be explored. This was a first in the history of gorilla conservation.
When the decision was made to attempt an IVF or test tube pregnancy, frozen sperm was shipped to the Cincinnati Zoo, our partners in the project. The hope was for Mo to donate fresh sperm on the specified Sunday for the project. Corrine B. would then fly the new contribution to the Cincinnati Zoo, but Mo said “Never on Sunday!!!”
Consequently, the preshipped frozen sperm was thawed and used.
The Cincinnati Zoo is fortunate to have an excellent research team at CREW, our Center for Reproduction of Endangered Wildlife. At the time of this project, CREW was under the direction of Dr. Betsy Dresser. We had had much success with in vitro fertilization in hoofed mammals and cats. What if we could use this same knowledge and procedure to help gorillas? We were happy to be a part of the team that would make this happen! With the help of grants from the Institute of Museum Services and the Josephine Schell Russell Charitable Trust, scientists from CREW, along with human infertility specialists and zoo staff from both Cincinnati and Omaha, began their mission.
Due to time limits, I will not go into too many scientific details. I do have a poster, which I will explain if anyone has any further questions about CREW or all the people involved in this project. Please feel free to see me afterwards.
What kind of female would be chosen to be mother of this baby? Previous attempts by other researchers had used non-reproductive females. We chose a proven breeder. Matahari (nicknamed Rosie at birth due to pink spots on her fingers and toes) was born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1974. Between the ages of 7 and 14, she gave birth to a total of 6 infants; 3 males and 3 females. One infant died 6 days after birth, 4 currently reside at other zoos, and one, Ndume, is with Koko at The Gorilla Foundation.
The in vitro project was done in 1995, when Rosie was 21 years of age. To prepare for the procedure, first morning urine samples were collected for several months. Rosie was housed separately during this time, but was allowed to go out with a group every other day for short periods.
The urine was monitored for the presence of blood to determine Rosie’s menstrual cycle. On March 10, 1995 (day 3 other menstrual cycle), hormone treatments were begun for the purpose of superovulation (makes the female produce more eggs). The treatments were administered by blow dart from day 3 through day 10. On March 19, 1995 (cycle day 12), anesthesia was induced (after 12 and 24 hour food and water withdrawal) and 12 eggs were recovered and placed in culture dishes (egg recovery is done by puncturing the ovarian follicles with a needle and suctioning out the contents).
Now, what if…. 6 hours after oocyte recovery, a thawed sperm sample is added to each of the oocytes (Mosuba’s frozen semen samples had been shipped to Cincinnati at an earlier date)? The result was 8 excellent embryos. Five of these were frozen and 3 were placed in culture until transfer the following day. On March 21, 1995, anesthesia was again induced, and 3 embryos were loaded into a catheter and transferred non-surgically into Rosie’s uterus. Progesterone was then administered orally for 12 weeks post-transfer to ensure that pregnancy, if successful, was maintained. Now it was time to wait.
It was turning out to be an exciting year! Not only were we keeping our fingers crossed for Rosie, but our other 5 adult female gorillas would also give birth in 1995. We would have a record in gorilla births for any one zoo in any one year (By the way, the father of the other five born that year is Chaka, who was on loan from Philadelphia. He was obviously very successful at this job, and was returned to his home zoo this past April.)
On July 8, 1995, an ultrasound was performed on Rosie and pregnancy was confirmed. The first test tube baby gorilla was on its way! The gestation period for a gorilla is 8-1/2 to 9 months, and if all went well, she would arrive in December.
Summer went by, and watching all those other little babies kept us all busy. They all remained with their mothers and were a big attraction when out on exhibit. Everything with Rosie seemed to be just fine. Then, on October 9, 1995, at 29 weeks of pregnancy and 2 months before her due date, Rosie gave birth to a live female infant. Delivery was unassisted and normal maternal behavior was exhibited, but because the infant was premature, it was removed and taken to the zoo nursery for hand-raising under intensive care.
Average normal birth weight for a baby gorilla is about 5 pounds. This baby weighed only 1.37 kg., or about 3 pounds. She had to be placed in an incubator and cared for 24 hours a day. What if she didn’t make it? Again, we kept our fingers crossed. She was named “Timu,” a Swahili word meaning “team” for all the people who worked together to make her possible and the many others who would help with her care now that she was here. Human doctors as well as veterinarians were consulted and the dedicated people in the nursery put in many extra hours to help her in her fight. Her growth and development was slow, but eventually she gained strength and things were looking up for baby Timu.
She made her debut to the public on January 23, 1996, on the Good Morning America show. We’ll take a look at that tape right now (about four minutes long).
Timu continued to do well in the nursery and was later introduced to an infant bonobo who was also staying there temporarily. This enabled her to socialize with another ape. Later, another gorilla (also born in 1995) was placed in the nursery due to illness. This male, Kijito, would eventually accompany Timu back to Omaha.
We know that some animal research has been used to help humans. What if human research could help wild animals? Timu is proof that it can. She gives us hope for the future survival other species, and the courage to continue our research to help others.
Timu and Kijito departed Cincinnati in August 1996. Now I’m sure you are as anxious as I am to see what they’ve been up to since their arrival in Omaha, so I’ll turn it back over to Marilyn, and she can fill us in on the progress to date.
After surviving many hurdles, Timu (now 10-1/2 months) and her male cousin, Kijito (DOB 10 June ’95) were westward bound. They arrived on August 23rd, 1996, and were greeted with many “ooooh’s” and “aaaah’s”!
Kijito started his antics upon arrival in Omaha by running through the airplane hangar with his diaper half off! The next day, nursery keepers and volunteers began the daily routine of weighing, feeding, cleaning and playtime! Timu became a very adorable “black bundle of fur.”
These infants quickly learned the routine! Once the Nursery door was unlocked, out they would come. Kijito would bring his blanket with him. After he had his hug, it was onto the scales, where the words “sit” and “stay” were given (he weighed in at 19 pounds). He would then be given his glass of milk, which he would hold himself.
Timu was cautious, but not afraid other new surroundings. She waited for you to come to her in the first few months. She had not mastered walking upright. After she had received her hugs, she was then weighed (she weighed in at 14 pounds). Timu was still drinking her milk from a baby bottle, but she quickly progressed to using a glass. With their milk mustaches, who would have made a better milk ad?
Timu was allowed to have time away from the energetic Kijito for afternoon naps and hopefully, a quiet night. This lasted only two months. Neither liked the idea of being separated. As Timu became more agile and could tolerate rough-housing, they were allowed to be together 24 hours a day.
Volunteers (all docents) would spend time with these special primates. Timu would snuggle up on your lap and just sit. Kijito would circle the room, pulling on Timu’s arm or leg as he made his rounds. He would also bite her if the time was right!
Enrichment items varied over the year that these two primates resided in the nursery. Examples: Boxes, barrels, shredded paper, potting soil, leaves, newspapers, as well as a small swimming pool. Food was also used for enrichment. Examples: cooked rice, spaghetti (cooked and uncooked), Gatorade ice cubes, sunflower seeds and Cheerios.
Each volunteer would have a different way of sharing time with Timu and Kijito. If two people were in the room, Timu became very active – she knew that someone else was entertaining Kijito!
In January of 1997, the gorilla keepers began coming to the nursery to spend time with Timu and Kijito. This eventually led to the gorillas going to the Gorilla House two to six hours a day. Finally, on September 4th, 1997, Timu and Kijito made the big transition to the “Big House.”
Timu and Kijito are “in training” now also. Skittles and licorice were initially given as the reward for the proper response. But Kijito was stealing Timu’s treats! Now, Kool-Aid from a squirt bottle is given. Whether “training” is for animal management, or for semen collection teamwork can produce many benefits.
Example: Timu is Swahili for teamwork!
(Marilyn Bellinger and Donetta Hookstra assisted with the compiling of information from the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.)
Brown, C.S., Laskutoff, N.M., A Training Program for Noninvasive Semen
Collection in Captive Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). ZOO BIOLOGY 17:143-151(1998).
Pope, C.E., Dresser, B.L., Chin, N., Liu, J., Loskutoff, N., Behnke, E., Brown C., McRae, M.A., Sinoway, C., Campbell, M., Cameron, K., Owens, 0., Johnson, C., Evans, R., Cedars, M. Birth of a western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) following in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PRIMATOLOGY 41(3): 247-260.