December 14, 2015

By Peggy Hoppe
Zoological Manager, Great Apes

You know the drill—it’s time for vaccinations, and the kid starts screaming at the sight of the needle or dramatically overreacts the moment shots are over and the lollipop isn’t yet in the mouth.

It's no wonder most children are scared of getting shots—and it doesn't help that they have to get shots so often. In fact, many little ones rack up more than 20 vaccinations by the time they're 4 years old.

But what happens if the baby is an orangutan? Recently Zoo medical and animal staff found out when it was time for baby Ginger to get her polio, tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccinations.

Southwest Pediatrics and St. Luke’s Pediatric Care Center generously donated the vaccines to the Zoo Animal Health Department to be administered by Staff Veterinarian Dr. Matt Kinney.

“These vaccines are exactly like those given to young humans,” said Dr. Kinney. He added that the reason primates need to be protected against dangerous respiratory diseases like diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) is because of reverse zoonoses. That is the transmission of these diseases from humans to exotic animals. “Great apes who have any contact with humans should get routine vaccinations just as human babies do,” he added.

However, it should be noted that there is nothing routine about Ginger: 45-year-old orangutan Merah’s delivery of baby Ginger was historic and significant not only because there are only 4,500 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild but because Merah became the oldest mom to deliver and raise a baby among all accredited U.S. zoos.

Protecting this precious baby is paramount, and vaccinating babies without anesthesia is the best course. So the Zoo’s Animal Health and Jungle of the Apes teams prepared carefully for the big day.

The story began nine months ago with Jungle of the Apes Keepers Dawn Boyer, Kim Emerson, Nathan Fox, Cali Strickland and Spencer Wilson working hard to make the session with the doctor uneventful.  

Keeper Kim Emerson says the team began by building trust. “For example, I simply worked to get Ginger to leave Merah to train with me. This also involved Merah trusting us enough to allow Ginger to leave and be near us. Training an infant was no easy task; her attention span is very short! I needed to make staying with me more rewarding than discovering all of her surroundings and being with mom.”

Kim used a variety of rewards, but since at that time, Ginger was very new to solid foods, almost anything was novel and rewarding. Her favorite foods quickly became grapes, bananas, seasonal fruits and pureed baby foods. Later she developed a taste for avocados.

Kim employed targeting—getting Ginger to focus on a target pole and perform some action. She used a target pole to get Ginger to put her arm through the mesh so Dr. Kinney could touch it. Kim discovered using her hand as a target worked better because Ginger would stay at her station because she liked to hold Kim’s hand.

The other Jungle of the Apes Keepers worked with Merah, who stayed at her marker routinely. “Merah was very trusting and allowed us to work with Ginger,” Kim recalled. The keepers began bringing Dr. Kinney to the habitat weekly. Merah was wary of the good doctor, but after four visits, Dr. Kinney felt comfortable trying to vaccinate Ginger. 

“Ginger was a champ while Dr. Kinney drew up the vaccine; however, Merah did not want Dr. Kinney anywhere near Ginger with that needle,” Kim said. “Ginger targeted to my hand and even allowed Dr. Kinney to touch her. But each time he would approach with the syringe, Merah would grab Ginger.”

A week later, the teams tried again. Ginger held out her arm and dutifully targeted Kim’s hand.  Merah remained at her station. Dr. Kinney administered the injection. Ginger didn’t pull her arm back but did squirm and call out for mom. Merah came to her rescue, but by that time, Dr. Kinney had finished.

After being consoled by Merah for a few minutes, Ginger came back over and targeted again and moments later enjoyed her favorite treat—avocados.

“We monitored closely for signs of any adverse reaction or soreness and found none,” said Dr. Kinney. 

So Ginger, the beautiful baby orangutan who turned one on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, has now survived a rite of passage so familiar to all of us—she’s been vaccinated against multiple dangerous diseases and will be getting measles and mumps vaccinations soon.  

Get out the avocados!

Photos by Jane Padfield