Animal experts at Paignton Zoo have been battling around the clock to save a sick primate.

Keepers, vets and vet nurses responded swiftly when female orang utan Gambira was taken ill suddenly and sat with her long into the night after emergency surgery.

They found she had an infection of her air sac (a large pouch in the throat, thought to be used for vocalisation and connected to the respiratory system). The condition is known as air saccultis, and can be fatal. The team gave her a general anaesthetic and operated, making holes in the wall of her throat sac to drain off more than a litre of fluid.

Paignton Zoo vet Joanna Reynard: “One day, keepers noted that Gambira was quiet and not eating much, so she was given some symptomatic treatment. The next day she was still quiet and we started her on antibiotics. We monitored her over the day and became increasingly concerned, so we decided we needed to do an emergency health check.

“We got all our equipment to the orang-utan house, including our radiography equipment. It became apparent she was extremely sick - she was coughing up pus, it was a pretty stressful situation for everyone, we had to replace the tracheal tube when it became full of discharge. Everyone was working hard to save her life. 

“We gave her fluids and intravenous antibiotics and took radiographs which showed a chest infection in addition to our clinical exam which showed infection of her air sac. We performed emergency surgery to make drainage holes in her air sacs and must have removed 1.5 to 2 litres of pus in total.”

Gambira, who is 22, was very unwell that night - keepers and vets stayed with her until late. Vets Jo Reynard and Christa van Wessem carried out the surgical procedure, nurse Sonya Gadhia kept her alive under anaesthesia and keepers Chris Peterson and Alex Perry got everything ready in the Ape House. Curator Nic Dunn was still with her at 10.00 o’clock that night, along with members of his team.

Jo: “She has been improving slowly but steadily since then. A second short procedure was performed to flush the air sacs a week later and there was much less fluid. She will need further radiographs to make sure her chest infection has cleared.  She may need further treatment in the future or she could recover 100%, time will tell. We’ll continue to monitor her. This was a great team effort by everyone!”

Gambira has had her follow-up radiographs, which showed her lungs and sinuses to be clear of infection. The air sac infection had also resolved. Jo again: “One drainage hole has been left in place and will be there for another 6 to 8 weeks before the body closes this naturally.”

“There were days when she didn’t want to get out of bed or take her meds!” commented Anne Lunt, one of the keepers closest to Gambira. “She is getting lots of one to one attention. We’re going to be keeping a very close eye on her.”

Senior Head Keeper of Mammals Rob Rouse said: “The fact that she is recovering is great news - I’m sure a large part of this is down to everyone’s dedication and hard work - as well as Gambi’s stubbornness and determination!”

Zoo spokesperson Phil Knowling said: “Air saculitis can be fatal - we almost lost her, she was very close to death. What shines through at these difficult times is the dedication and care of the keepers and the vet team. Gambira was born at Paignton Zoo - I remember first seeing her as a babe in arms. She’s a very special character.”

Her illness has hit the whole group, with other animals showing changes in behaviour that suggest concern. The group is made up of female Mali, aged 23, and daughter Tatau (6), female Chinta (29) and daughter Natalia (5) and unrelated male Wousan, who is nearly 11.

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