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Lincoln Park Zoo builds blood type database for apes

After years training Kwan gorillis particularly good patient for blood draws.

After years of training, Kwan the gorilla is a particularly good patient for blood draws.

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If a dog, cat, llama or ferret needs a blood transfusion, veterinarians can easily access information about matching blood types.

That wasn't the case until recently for those caring for great apes. For four years, two Lincoln Park Zoo employees meticulously built a blood type database -- the first of its kind -- for bonobos, orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas worldwide.

The project was born out of frustration at the lack of basic information about the apes' blood types, which led to difficulty transfusing blood.

"If my cat was sick, I could get a blood transfusion and I would expect that quality of care," said Dr. Kathryn Gamble, Lincoln Park Zoo's director of veterinary services. "We couldn't do this in the way I could do it for a dog or cat."

Starting in 2006, Gamble and Jill Moyse, the zoo's assistant lead keeper, collected typed blood from about 700 animals around the world.

Previously, there was no record of which animals had which blood types, so if a great ape needed a transfusion, another of the massive beasts would need to be sedated in an attempt to find a match.

No animal was sedated solely to participate in the Lincoln Park Zoo's project. The blood was collected during different procedures or well-being checks.

Ape blood types have similar names to human types -- A, B, AB or O -- but blood between humans and apes, or different species of apes, cannot be transfused. The project for the first time identified the different blood groups for the different animals.

Apes needing emergency blood can learn through the Lincoln Park Zoo of available donors within hours of that zoo's location. And matching blood can be drawn ahead of surgery in case it's needed, similar to having blood on reserve during human surgeries.

The database isn't the only innovative bloodwork happening at the zoo. Since 2006, Moyse and Gamble have been training silverback gorilla Kwan to allow them to draw his blood without sedation.

After years of practice, Kwan can put his arm in a blood sleeve, patiently wait as Nair for Men depilatory is applied to remove a patch of thick hair and allow a caretaker to insert a butterfly needle in his vein for as long as a minute.

The rich rewards for his behavior include tomatoes, Jell-O, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and juice.

"Kwan is very eager to train," Moyse said. "This helps in his care because he can't tell us when he is feeling sick and the best way to monitor health is through their blood."



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