Topeka Zoo orangutan takes road trip to Stormont Vail to ensure healthy heart

What do you do when an orangutan needs a CT scan? Topeka's Stormont Vail made him an appointment.
Updated: Feb. 2, 2023 at 9:59 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Like many families, radiologist Dr. Ken Fearn and his children enjoy visiting the Topeka Zoo, including the orangutans. He said they’ve even stopped in to see the new baby, Udara.

So imagine the excitement when he learned Udara’s dad Mawas would become his patient at Stormont Vail.

Topeka Zoo animal curator Shanna Simpson said Mawas isn’t ill, but they wanted to give him some extra preventative care.

“Mawas is an older orangutan. He’s in his 30s, and orangutans in zoos and in the wild typically have a lot of cardiac issues. It’s the number one cause of death in orangutans,” she explained. “We really want to be sure that his heart is healthy and if he is going to have issues, that we catch it early so we can help him with medication.”

Simpson said doing that meant getting Mawas an exam a bit beyond what the zoo could do on site.

“Orangutans have what’s called an air sac, and it is used for vocalizing. It is very hard to see through that,” she said. “We have ultrasound equipment here at the zoo, we have radiograph equipment here, we have a really great state-of-the-art hospital here, but we needed just that one extra thing to get through that air sac.”

The Topeka Zoo reached out to Stormont Vail, who agreed to assist. A few weeks ago, Mawas was put under anesthesia and taken to the hospital for a CT scan.

Simpson said it was an intense process, starting with giving Mawas an injection in his enclosure, then taking him to the zoo’s animal hospital for additional preparation, before loading him into a van to take to the hospital.

There, hospital staff, extra security, and an entourage of zoo staff, including zoo veterinarian Dr. Shirly Llizo, carried Mawas through a side entrance right into the radiology department and into the CT scanning room. The hospital had additional sanitation measures in place, including an added drape on the scanner table,

Dr. Fearn said the preparation is what took extra time. The scanning process itself, he said, was basically the same as a human, though he did do a little research on the anatomy.

“The head and neck were very different,” he said. “Our skull has very little muscle on it and surprisingly his was inches thick and the skull itself was much smaller. I didn’t expect that. Also, in his neck, it was very interesting, there was a big air sac on the front and the whole thing was full of air - which looks very terrifying for a human radiologist!”

Dr. Fearn and Dr. Llizo will review the scans to see if Mawas shows any cause for concern. All involved say it’s another example of working together to give the animals the best care possible.

“It’s really amazing the partnerships we have with our community. It’s so wonderful. Everybody just jumps up to help us,” Simpson said.

“It’s nice being able to go to the zoo and see these animals and know that we’re there to be help out when we need to,” Dr. Fearn said.

As for whether the experience will earn Dr. Fearn any extra ‘cool points’ with his kids, he laughs.

“I’m their dad. They don’t think I’m cool!” he said.

Stormont has partnered with the zoo in the past for tests on animals, including a gorilla, a black bear, and a tortoise. They even scanned the fetlocks on a giraffe who passed away, to aid in research that could help other giraffes.