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Wichita doctors help zoo deliver baby orangutan

September 26, 2018

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Doctors Laura Whisler and Janna Chibry awoke to calls around 4 a.m. the morning of Sept. 7.

As practicing OB-GYNs at Wichita’s College Hill Obstetrics and Gynecology, they’re used to being called in to deliver babies at all hours.

But that morning, instead of driving to a hospital, they rushed to the Sedgwick County Zoo, where a pregnant 36-year-old Sumatran orangutan, Daisy, was having dangerous birthing complications.

It’s common for zoos to keep non-veterinary doctors on call for emergency situations, but this was the first time in Sedgwick County Zoo history a great ape required a surgical C-section, the Wichita Eagle reported.

So who better to call than doctors who’ve safely delivered thousands of human babies?

The concept of zoos bringing in medical professionals from outside of the veterinary field to tend to animals is not uncommon, said Dr. Heather Arens, veterinary specialist at the zoo.

“We have to have this vast knowledge of all these zoo species,” Arens said, but the zoo doesn’t have an obstetrician.

“It’s great to have a specialist who’s trained in that and only that to be able to assist us with being able to perform a C-section, which they do every day.”

The Sedgwick County Zoo consulted with a local orthopedic surgeon about three years ago when its chimpanzee, Tammy, needed an arm amputation. It also consults with a local cardiologist and a dentist.

For five years, the zoo has had Whisler and Chibry on call whenever one of its apes about to go into labor — they’ve just never been needed until now.

The closest they ever came was when Whisler performed a fetal ultrasound on one of the zoo’s chimpanzees, she said.

“Difficult birth is unusual in great apes,” said Dr. Sandy Wilson, the zoo’s director of animal health. “By far, the majority of them give birth with no problems.”

That was not the case with Daisy the orangutan.

Daisy went into labor around 1 a.m. Sept. 7, but after a few hours “it kind of fizzled out,” Arens said. The delay was concerning, because apes typically birth their babies quickly, she said.

Medical staff is still trying to figure out what exactly went wrong, but Arens said Daisy “was in a critical position” and needed an immediate C-section to protect the health of both her and her baby.

That’s when they called the OB-GYNs.

Whisler and Chibry called each other on the drive over to the zoo that morning to prepare for the procedure at hand.

They’d already rescheduled about an hour and a half’s worth of appointments at their College Hill clinic.

But how do you deliver a baby orangutan? It’s not like they teach that in medical school.

Luckily orangutans are “strikingly similar to humans,” Chibry said.

Daisy the orangutan started receiving anesthesia around 5:55 a.m.

Whisler and Chibry had to compile the tools to perform a C-section in the zoo’s surgical suite when they arrived that morning.

“Most of our surgical packs are designed to do surgery on everything from frogs to elephants, so we don’t have specific packs for ape C-sections,” Wilson said.

“We have to re-sterilize them every 20 years,” Arens quipped.

It took about three minutes to deliver the orangutan baby, Whisler said, though “it takes a lot longer sewing back up than it does to deliver the baby.”

The procedure was done by 8:14 a.m. that day.

Chibry describes the experience as a “bucket-list thing I didn’t know was on my bucket list until now.”

Neither doctor told their human patients at College Hill OB-GYN what had happened that morning until the zoo released their names in a news release.

Now, both of them say everyone from patients, nurses and fellow doctors asks them about it.

Both ended up delivering human babies later that same day.

“I had a C-section that afternoon, and (the patient and I) were talking about it,” Chibry said. “I said, ‘Something cool, your son was born on the same day as the orangutan at the zoo,’ and then the anesthesiologist says, ‘Yeah, and you had the same doctor.’”

Zoo officials said this is likely the first ape C-section to be performed at the zoo.

Both Daisy and the female baby, which has since been named Lily, are “doing exceptionally well, given the circumstances,” Arens said.

Lily is the third baby for Daisy, as well as the third for 22-year-old father orangutan Panji.

The zoo described it as “an important birth for the Sumatran orangutan population,” as the apes are critically endangered in the wild.

There have been roughly 200 baby animals born at the Sedgwick County Zoo in 2018, including everything from penguins to geckos.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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