Newborn gorilla at Bristol Zoo Gardens has died

A baby western lowland gorilla, who was born at Bristol Zoo Gardens a week ago today, has died.

The baby, a girl, was delivered by emergency caesarean section on Thursday 5 September due to her mum, Kala, having a low-lying placenta, which blocked the birth canal - preventing the baby from being born naturally.

Despite keepers and in-house vets closing the Zoo’s Gorilla House to give mum and baby the space and time to bond, the baby sadly died during the early hours of this morning (Thursday 12 September). 

The first-time mum and her newborn, who weighed just over 1.5kg (3.5lbs) at birth, were returned to the Gorilla House shortly after the caesarean, however in the week following her birth the baby had not been observed frequently suckling.

“This is an extremely sad time for everyone at the Zoo”, said Lynsey Bugg, curator of mammals at Bristol Zoo Gardens.

“Since the birth we had been monitoring the health of mum and baby closely. A caesarean is a major operation, so we were expecting them to require some recovery time.  

“Initial interactions looked very positive with Kala carrying and protecting her baby.  However it soon became clear that the baby wasn’t feeding as well or as often as we would expect.”

Staff from the Zoo’s in-house vet team made the decision to step-in and give the baby 24 hours of supportive care which meant anaesthetising Kala a second time in order to temporarily remove the baby.   The vets also used this opportunity to give Kala further medication and nutrients to help her heal and build-up her strength. Once given back to Kala, the baby showed positive signs and more frequent feeding was observed, but unfortunately this was not enough for her to pull through.  

Bristol Zoo staff vet, Rowena Killick, said: “Stepping in to give the baby supportive care meant anaesthetising Kala again. Anaesthetising an animal, especially when it is already weak, always carries risk and this wasn’t something we were comfortable to put Kala through a third time.

“We intervened as much as we felt appropriate but this has to be balanced with the opportunity for the gorillas to exhibit their natural behaviours. We gave both mum and baby additional support during the early days, but it was important we allowed Kala the chance to be a mum.”

The emergency caesarean section was performed a few hours after Kala went into labour naturally on Thursday 5 September. Vets monitoring the situation found that Kala’s placenta was low-lying and was stopping the baby from being delivered naturally. 

“We made the decision to anaesthetise Kala and immediately take her to our on-site veterinary clinic for assessment. There she was given an ultrasound and examination, the results of which indicated an emergency caesarean was needed in order to safely deliver the baby”, Rowena explained.

“It wasn’t a decision we took lightly but we needed to act fast in order to avoid the possibility of losing either mother or baby.”

The baby’s birth was the third time a gorilla has been born by caesarean at Bristol Zoo Gardens, and one of just a handful of instances of it having occurred worldwide.

The procedure was carried out by Jo Trinder, consultant in obstetrics and maternal medicine, and Rachna Bahl, consultant in obstetrics and intrapartum care, from University Hospitals Bristol, who were both assisted by the zoo’s in-house vet team.

The baby needed some intensive care immediately after birth and skin-to-skin contact with one of the gorilla keepers to help keep her warm.

The Zoo’s vet team was led by head vet Michelle Barrows and as well as Rowena included vet Sara Shopland, veterinary nurse Teresa Horspool, and volunteer vet nurse and BZG ranger Emily Barnes.

Latifa Khenissi, a veterinary anaesthetist from Langford Vets, the clinical arm of Bristol University Vet School, also assisted.

The delivery went ahead after Nic Hayward, European specialist in veterinary diagnostic imaging, carried out an ultrasound scan that enabled vets to diagnose the issue with the placenta.

Bristol Zoo’s senior curator of animals, John Partridge, said: “The loss of any animal is hugely sad, especially that of a critically endangered species.

“As difficult as it is, there comes a time when you have to allow the animals to be animals. Our mammal team is hugely experienced in the breeding and care of western lowland gorillas, but we can’t always protect them from natural causes.

“The rest of our gorilla troop are doing well and our priority is now to ensure that Kala continues to recover and is closely monitored.

This wasn’t the first time staff at Bristol Zoo had been involved in an emergency caesarean procedure on a gorilla. In 2016 a female gorilla, called Afia, was born by caesarean after her mother, Kera, showed symptoms of potentially life-threatening pre-eclampsia.

Afia had to be hand-raised behind-the-scenes by keepers for the first eight months of her life because her mother was too unwell following the operation to care for her. Afia is now fully integrated into Bristol Zoo’s gorilla family and is a thriving member of the troop.

Bristol Zoo has been caring for gorillas since 1930. The Zoo plays a significant role in the coordinated European Endangered Species Breeding Programme, runs a conservation programme in Equatorial Guinea in Africa, raises significant funds for gorilla conservation in the wild and has pioneered fertility treatment for gorillas.

Bristol Zoo Gardens is a conservation and education charity and relies on the generous support of the public not only to fund its important work in the zoo, but also its vital conservation and research projects spanning five continents.

For more information on Bristol Zoo Gardens visit: www.bristolzoo.org.uk or follow Bristol Zoo on social media.

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