KeraJaan, lovingly referred to as KJ, raised his long arms and pressed his chest against the cage while a Cameron Park Zoo primate keeper used a small machine to check his heart.
When Laura Klutts turned to explain the process of monitoring and improving cardio health in great apes, the orangutan let Klutts know he was not amused her attention had strayed from him. KJ adjusted his position and offered a few growl-like noises, causing the room full of zoo professionals to laugh.
Klutts said, “chest,” prompting KJ to once again raise his arms and press his chest against the cage, allowing the primate keeper to continue the echocardiogram.
Then, to his delight, KJ received a spoonful of his favorite treat: cooked oatmeal mixed with Greek yogurt.
The demonstration was part of the zoo’s two, one-day Great Ape Cardiac Health Workshops that attracted 45 great ape experts and zoo professionals from 26 institutions across the United States and Great Britain.
The Cameron Park Zoo partnered with Zoo Atlanta to establish an extensive training program in 2015 for monitoring cardiovascular health in orangutans. The zoo expanded year’s training program in partnership with Zoo Atlanta’s Great Ape Heart Project to include all the great ape species: orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.
The Cameron Park Zoo and Zoo Atlanta were the first two zoos in the United States to succeed in training male orangutans to consistently provide voluntary blood pressure readings using a device called a “Tough Cuff,” said Terri Cox, curator of programs and exhibits at Cameron Park Zoo. The Cameron Park Zoo is now the only zoo in the country that has all of four of its adult orangutans participating in voluntary finger and Tough Cuff blood pressure measurements, voluntary blood draws and heart ultrasounds, Cox said.
The orangutans do not realize many of the activities performed by the trainers are efforts to learn more about the animals’ heart, body and overall health, said Lynn Yakubinis, a Zoo Atlanta senior primate keeper.
“I like to think of it as we’re asking them, we’re not telling them,” Yakubinis said. “So when you approach the session, we’re asking them. If they don’t want to do it, no big deal. We’ll go do something else. … They know that they could walk away. They don’t have to do it if they don’t want to. They could just leave. So it’s all voluntary. It’s positive. They really enjoy it.
“And you’ll see when we walk into a building with our bucket of treats they all come to the front of their enclosures. They all want to do it. It’s fun. Sometimes some of them will do it without even getting a treat. They just want that interaction and it’s fun for them.”
Trainers use positive reinforcement to get the orangutans to perform various tasks, whether it is turning to one side, laying down, sticking out their tongue or showing their teeth, Klutts said.
“The reward is good enough and the relationship is good enough with their trainer that they trust us to do those behaviors with them,” she said.
As Klutts demonstrated with KJ, his son, 15-month-old Razak started to pull at his 240-pound father for attention. The zoo keepers eventually asked Mei, the mother, to take Razak away so KJ could focus.
“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in great apes, just like in human beings,” Cox said. “It was really important to us to make this a free workshop. All the participants have to pay for is getting here and the hotel. That’s our contribution to great ape conservation. It’s one of our many contributions.”
The zoo’s workshop focused on voluntary blood draws and on blood pressure readings using arm and finger methods.
“The goal is to improve for the entire taxon,” she said. “We want each individuals’ health to be its best. But if we can make an impact on all the species it’s awesome.”