All about bananas, orangutans and ultrasound… (Day 667)

Orangutan medical training ultrasound bannanas

Today’s Diary Entry is sponsored by Eickemeyer

One of the things that I miss in life is surprises, its usually extremely rarely that I am surprised and today I got an amazing surprise. I’ve been out working with a zoo vet again today (I know I’ve not finished yesterday’s diary yet but I am so thrilled by this I must write it now), we had several patients today including a camel, a pair of sea lions, a rhea, a Mara, a Lama, loads of birds, and the continuation of medical training for the orangutans!

So to give a little bit of a background as medical training is a term you may not be familiar with, usually with zoo (or wild animals) it is extremely dangerous to work with them unless you sedate or anaesthetise them. This is stressful for the animal (and the vet!) and so alternative ways of managing common procedures have been developed. The leading method here is through medical training – this is all reward based and can be teaching a elephant to place their foot on a special stool to trim the toe nails through to getting a sea-lion to open their mouth. In all its normally a win-win situation both for animals, the vets and their keepers.

Now a few months back it was noticed that some orangutans may have been up to some naughtiness and be pregnant. A urine test – a human test is actually used here as they are so similar to humans – came back positive. So over the past 4 weeks the zoo vets have been trying to train a orangutan for ultrasound to allow them to check on the status of the baby. This was going well with the orangutan coming to the bars and staying still. Then the orangutan allowed the ultrasound probe to be placed and moved on their abdomen.

Then there was a problem, now ultrasound doesn’t work through air, this is why a ultrasound gel is used to conduct the sound waves from the probe into (and back from) the body. However the orangutan does not like the ultrasound gel, the minute that it touched her she sprinted away to clean it off! This had been going on for a week or so…

Last night I did some reading, there was very little in scientific documentation available – though I did learn about the Great Ape Heart Project which is really cool – and the only potential solution I found was actually in a newspaper report from 4 years ago.

Apparently the solution was bananas… No not to feed to the orangutan… But to use instead of the ultrasound gel. To me this seemed pretty stupid, and so this morning when we were discussing patients for the day I was a little hesitant to mention it however did so to some strange looks.

When we arrived at the orangutan house there were more strange looks from the keepers, however they found us a banana… And then I got asked just what was supposed to be done with it, now the newspaper didn’t really go into much detail so I kinda improvised here and the next thing I know the zoo vet was trying to ultrasound themselves using a slightly mushed up banana. I was pretty surprised to see it working with a grainy black and white image appearing on the ultrasound machine.

So with it working on humans, the next stage was to start the training session. Now I was expecting it to take quite a few sessions to get the orangutan used to having the banana on their belly. This was going well so the vet tried a little on the probe, letting the orangutan taste it before moving to their belly. When using banana you don’t need to use that much on the probe (no where near like loading it up with gel). I was holding the ultrasound machine at this point, and when the first ultrasound images from the orangutans at this zoo started to appear using banana conducting gel I was shocked.

Then I was amazed as the vet continued and then the baby orangutan appeared (It looked like a head to me). Continuing we looked at more – the fetus was too large at this point to fit on the ultrasound machine so we saw loads of bits rather than an entire fetal orangutan however it was still really really cool! My arms were aching from holding the ultrasound yet I didn’t want to move in case it scared her.

It was like a magic spell, I was not expecting to even see the ultrasound working when I started this morning, yet here I was one of the first people in the world to see this first ultrasound of this (hopefully) soon to be baby orangutan! I was even one of the first people in the zoo to see medical training for orangutan ultrasound working, and was even more lucky to be part of the team effort that made it happen!

Some days are just priceless, this is one of them!!!

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