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Statement from the ABQ BioPark Concerning Apes

Some of our primates are off exhibit and under care for a bacterial infection.

Aug. 13, 2021 (Updated Sept. 2, 2021) – Some of our gorillas, orangutans and siamangs may be temporarily off exhibit while they are under care for a serious bacterial infection. We understand you may have questions about why you may not be able to see these species playing in their public habitats at this time. Please review the information below. We will continue to provide updates as we learn more and their treatment continues.

Where are the ABQ BioParks gorillas, orangutans, siamangs and chimpanzees?

Our gorillas, orangutans and siamangs have been experiencing illness and may be temporarily off exhibit. Tests have concluded that they are experiencing symptoms of Shigella, a bacterial infection that is resulting in gastroenteritis. Two chimpanzees are showing symptoms similar to those of a Shigella infection and remain indoors and under watch until lab test results are complete.

Why are some of the apes inside?

Some of our animals are staying in their indoor spaces so that the ABQ BioPark’s veterinary team and professional primate keepers can keep a close eye on them and make sure that they are getting the medication, fluids, and food they need, as well as their favorite treats to help keep them as comfortable as possible. The majority of our apes have been responding well to treatment and are now on the mend; most of the orangutans and gorillas are choosing to spend time in their outdoor habitats.

How many of the BioParks apes are affected?

The ABQ BioPark has seven gorillas, four orangutans and two siamangs. Not all of them have demonstrated symptoms, but many of them have and are at different phases in the treatment and recovery process. We will continue to provide updates as the situation evolves.

What are the symptoms and impact of shigellosis?

Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramping. Some apes have only exhibited mild symptoms. To date, one siamang named Brian, one siamang named Johore and one geriatric gorilla named Huerfanita have died as a result of this infection.

Underlying conditions and age can affect an ape’s ability to recover from shigellosis. Both Brian and Huerfanita had underlying age-related health conditions that made it difficult for them to recover. Johore’s body was working double time to feed and care for her infant Rue; this likely played a role in the challenges she faced fighting shigellosis.

Is this illness COVID?

No. A PCR test for COVID was performed and found that this is an unrelated illness. It is a bacterial infection, not a virus.

When did they get sick?

On Sunday, August 8, Kojo, a male western lowland gorilla, was thought to have an isolated case of gastrointestinal distress, which quickly cleared with treatment. Soon after, Rubi, a female orangutan, started to show signs of an upset stomach. On Wednesday, August 11, Hasani, another male gorilla, started to show symptoms. A connection was suspected and quarantine started. By Friday, August 13, Brian the siamang also began to show symptoms. Currently, two chimpanzees—21-year-old female Rainey and 6-year-old male Desi—are showing symptoms similar to those of a Shigella infection. The BioPark is waiting for results from lab tests to confirm the cause of their illness. Those chimps remain indoors to be closely monitored by the animal care team.

When will zoo visitors be able to see these animals again?

We do not have a timeline. Once they are feeling better, they will have the choice to remain inside or explore their outside habitats. We hope this will be soon—we miss seeing them out playing too.

Can humans get this infection?

Yes. Symptoms tend to be more mild in human cases than in apes, but our animal and staff safety is our top priority. Our primate keepers are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and taking precautions for their safety. Because the infection is transmitted through feces, there is no danger to zoo guests.

Can other animals get this infection?

Only humans and non-human primates.

What is the current status of the BioPark’s Apes?

All four orangutans are feeling better and choosing to spend time outdoors. All but one of the gorillas are also feeling well enough to venture outdoors and resume normal levels of activity. Hasani, a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla, had severe symptoms but is showing slow improvement while staying indoors. Siamangs Eerie and Rue are under close watch while chimpanzees are receiving precautionary treatment.

How did the apes contract Shigella?

While we may never know, there are several possibilities. It’s possible that an ape at the BioPark was an asymptomatic chronic carrier of the bacteria and began to shed it for unknown reasons. It’s also possible that the bacteria came from an asymptomatic member of the BioPark staff, but this is highly unlikely. Also unlikely is the possibility that the bacteria were introduced through food in an ape’s regular meal. The bacteria could also have been introduced on contaminated food that a guest threw into an ape exhibit.

The BioPark worked with several agencies, including the New Mexico Department of Health, to potentially narrow down the initial source of the bacteria at the BioPark. Results are inconclusive.    

Shigella bacteria is spread through contact with feces or by ingesting contaminated food or water.

How is the spread of Shigella being controlled?

Once the BioPark’s veterinary team suspected that an unknown infection was spreading among the apes, quarantine protocols were put in place.

All humans who enter our primate buildings wear full PPE including suits, booties, masks and gloves. Zookeepers have added more specific and intense cleaning to our standard regimen to target the Shigella bacteria. Bedding materials are changed several times a day.

What does treatment look like?

Supportive care for apes includes fluids and antibiotics. Caretakers monitor the animals’ activity levels, eating, drinking and stools to determine appropriate care. Some animals have received IV treatment due to the severity of their symptoms. This treatment requires sedation.

Apes and humans respond very differently to a Shigella infection. Human symptoms are often mild and infections usually run their course without antibiotics. Apes, on the other hand, are more susceptible to severe gastrointestinal infections that can spread to other organs. Non-human ape GI tracts are much longer and more developed than that of a human. This allows healthy apes to extract as many nutrients as possible from their herbivorous diet. It also provides more surface area for the Shiga toxin (produced by the Shigella bacteria) to be absorbed. Antibiotics must also travel a longer distance through an ape’s GI tract to reach infected areas.

Once the bacteria are eliminated, apes may continue to be affected by the levels of Shiga toxin that have built up in their bodies. After recovery, the BioPark will continue to test most animals for Shigella bacteria on a weekly basis for many months.

Why is it so difficult to eliminate the Shigella bacteria?

Shigellosis is much more infectious than many other bacteria-related illnesses, and the complexity of great apes’ gastrointestinal systems makes it difficult to quickly eliminate all of the bacteria from an animal’s body. Shigella is extremely difficult to eradicate, and the BioPark might be dealing with this outbreak for weeks or months. In fact, it could take up to a year to clear the environment and all animals of the bacteria.

What kind of expertise does the BioPark have to deal with an infection like this?

The BioPark’s team of two veterinarians and two vet techs has more than 59 years of combined experience, with 39 of those years in zoo settings. BioPark Head Veterinarian Dr. Carol Bradford is one of only 209 board certified zoo veterinarians in North America.

The BioPark team has also consulted with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the US Department of Agriculture, New Mexico Department of Health and Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, as well as experts in epidemiology and infectious diseases. As a member of AZA, the BioPark has access to the medical expertise and records from zoo veterinarians around the world.

While Shigella infections are known, they are not common in zoos. Only a few cases have occurred in the last decade. Everything we learn about the disease’s progression and our animals’ responses is being documented and shared with other animal and disease professionals to guide decision-making in the future. Shigella can also impact wild gorillas, making this information extremely valuable for worldwide conservation efforts.