Leading with Heart for Chimpanzee Health

As our closest biological relatives, the chimps deal with many of the same health concerns we humans do. When it comes to heart health, Chimp Haven’s dedicated care staff is here with plenty of juice, patience, and humor to guide the chimps to participate in their own care.

When it comes to heart health, the best patients are those who actively and eagerly participate in their own care – and just like with humans, not all chimp patients are created equal.

Maxi, for example, is a heart healthcare whiz. When Animal Care Coordinator Ellen Brady-McGaughey requests an electrocardiogram (EKG) heart reading, 35-year-old Maxi is quick to oblige, eagerly placing two fingers in just the right spots on a portable device.
Other chimps, like 55-year-old Julius, are not as interested. As one of the sanctuary’s oldest residents, Julius would (understandably!) rather hang out with his Golden Oldie buddies in his play yard than sit for an EKG reading. But for an elderly chimp like Julius, heart health is one of the most essential components of the medical care provided at Chimp Haven.

When rambunctious young Carlee is not in the treetops, she’s learning to hold still for an EKG reading with her trainer, a practice that will help keep her healthy for years to come.

Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death for human adults and chimpanzee alike, and with a large geriatric population, the Chimp Haven team explores every avenue to provide the chimps a long, happy, and healthy life at sanctuary.

By inviting the chimps to participate in EKG training, they can monitor the chimps’ heart health without the need for sedation, which often becomes more difficult on the chimps as they age.

Although Chimp Haven uses the same KardiaMobile EKG devices advertised for humans, the process of getting a reading for a chimp isn’t quite as simple.

“Chimps are like kids; it’s really hard for them to stay still,” said Rebekah Lewis, Chimp Haven Behaviorist. “And staying still is exactly what’s required to get a solid EKG reading to evaluate heart function using the KardiaMobile device. The device requires the patient to steady two fingers on a reading pad for at least 30 seconds. I’ve tried it myself, and even as an adult putting my fingers in there and holding perfectly still for 30 seconds or even a minute feels like forever. So that’s one of our obstacles.”

It’s a challenge Chimp Haven staff take on enthusiastically, meeting with their chimp training partners every week and celebrating each step the chimps take toward learning the new behaviors. They provide juice, belly scratches, and plenty of praise as the chimps learn to approach, touch, and then hold their fingers correctly on the EKG device.

Maxi participating in her heart health exam with a tasty sugar-free juice reward.

Some chimps, like Maxi, catch on within days, while other chimps need a little more practice. Regardless of their learning style, staff work together to brainstorm and adjust the chimps’ training sessions. The sanctuary’s maintenance team has also gotten in on the action, creating custom training equipment that includes a special juice holder for the chimps.

“Cardiac disease is common across all great ape species, so the information we’re collecting at Chimp Haven has the potential to help chimps everywhere,” shared Chimpanzee Training Program Supervisor Jordan Garbarino. “Not only can we make our chimps’ lives better, but we can contribute to the crucial work being done to understand heart health in all great apes.”

As more chimps are trained to participate in EKG readings, a broader picture of their health will emerge, allowing their care team to provide preventative care, detect cardiac health issues earlier, and ensure they live long and happy lives at sanctuary.

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