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Kansas City Zoo celebrates innovative procedure that saved gorilla's life

Gorilla blood transfusion likely 7th in the world
Curtis the gorilla
Posted at 2:00 PM, Sep 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-05 17:09:28-04

KANSAS CITY, MO — A rare and innovative procedure at the Kansas City Zoo saved the life of one of their resident gorillas.

Zoo staff say it was truly a team effort, and one that will go down in the record books. It was only the seventh time in the world that a gorilla-to-gorilla blood transfusion has been performed.

It all started this spring, when zoo staff noticed one of their two male gorillas, Curtis, wasn't acting like himself.

"They noticed he wasn’t eating as well, and he was kind of hunched over every now and then, and seemed like he might have some abdominal discomfort," veterinarian Kirk Suedmeyer recalled.

A basic exam indicated the great ape was anemic, or losing blood, but zoo staff didn't know why.

The only way to tell for sure was to do a CT scan, but that's one diagnostic tool the zoo doesn't have. So, they had to anesthetize him, put him in the back of a van, and transport him to a human imaging facility more than 30 minutes away.

"Yes, we do go through the side door and the room is not scheduled for a human patient. And it is thoroughly cleaned after we're there," Suedmeyer confirmed.

Curtis the gorilla 2

The scan they performed there showed Curtis had a large hemorrhage, or blood clot, in his abdomen, along with another hemorrhage in his left kidney.

His situation was life-threatening, and Curtis' options were limited.

"You cannot transfuse human blood into a great ape and vice versa, they have different blood groups than we do. And we do not have a gorilla blood bank," Suedmeyer said.

But, the Zoo did have a suitable match in his younger brother, Charlie.

So, in an innovative and extremely rare procedure, they performed a gorilla-to-gorilla blood transfusion.

The entire procedure from start to finish took about 14 hours, and Curtis received 10 bags of blood, almost half a gallon.

Thankfully, between the blood transfusion and medications used to contain the hemorrhage, the procedure was a success, saving Curtis' life.

Curtis spent time in recovery, during which he was closely monitored, and 60 days later, he was was ready to return to the gorilla exhibit, much to the apparent relief of Charlie.

"He definitely seemed like he missed him quite a bit. That was the first time they’ve ever been a part, really, for an extended period. So, after 25 years, I think he was just feeling a bit lonely," said animal care manager Josh Murray.

Murray added that normally, one wouldn't find two adult male apes living in the same troop in the wild. But, Charlie and Curtis, both in their mid-twenties, are brothers who've grown up together in captivity, including their time at the Denver Zoo before being transferred to Kansas City.

So, was there a warm welcome, and did Curtis show Charlie just how much he appreciated his brother's life-saving gift?

"I don’t think there’s a lot of hugging and thanking and 'thank you, I owe you my life.' I don’t think that occurred, no," Suedmeyer said with a laugh.

Although Charlie and Curtis don't understand the significance of what the zoo was able to do, staff members certainly do, and said they're thrilled this turned out to be an animal tale with a happy ending.