Doctors, vets work together to save orangutan

9:46 AM, Feb 5, 2012   |    comments
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Veterinarians with the Denver Zoo contacted CU after performing several tests on Sally, a Sumatran orangutan. This particular type of primate is considered critically endangered, with just a few thousand of them still living in the wild. Sally is 44-years-old. Her mother lived to be 53, so the expectation is that Sally will enjoy a long life, too.

About a year ago, Sally started to show signs of anemia. After a series of tests and biopsies, zoo vets determined there was a tumor (possibly a fibroid tumor) causing Sally a great deal of pain. Within a couple of days, she was unable to urinate or defecate and emergency surgery was necessary.

Team Sally was formed with seven human doctors, three veterinarians and several members of the Denver Zoo staff.

"The veterinarian team at the zoo was very clear. They had run out of options in order to help this orangutan have the best quality of life she possibly could," Dr. Monique Spillman, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at CU, said.

The surgery would take place at the Denver Zoo. Veterinarian Diana Boon was impressed by the cooperation and support.

"We had so many people that were willing to donate their time, we had medications donated, we had all the surgery and anesthesia and the time from the physicians," Boon said.

The zoo vets knew this would be a risky and complicated procedure.

"Great apes are very similar in anatomy to humans. This is a very similar problem that's seen in women and to be able to practice our best medicine for all the animals at the zoo we really want to have this fantastic relationship with the specialists in this case," Boon said.

As a senior fellow within the OB-GYN department, Julia Embry was asked to help find some anatomy references for the surgeons. After finding little information online she called her dad and brother, both of whom are veterinarians. While unable to provide any additional information, they did suggest that Team Sally do a research report after the surgery to give vets around the country this much needed information.

The surgery lasted six hours. The tumor turned out to be the size of a large cantaloupe and was filled with infection. It had also wrapped itself around the bowel. Fortunately, doctors were able to remove it without taking Sally's uterus or bowel. One of the biggest dangers they faced was blood loss.

"There's not a blood bank for the orangutan, so that would be a case where in order to get blood, we would have had to find her closest relative in another zoo in order to transfuse," Spillman said.

To prevent blood loss, surgeons used tools that allowed them to put a clamp on the blood vessel so it wasn't able to bleed. The instruments they used are made by a company in Boulder called Covidien. The company donated the equipment for this procedure.

"Bloodless surgery using electro surgical instruments has never been done in the vet community. We will be writing that up as article to describe our successful use of this to cut down on the loss of blood in the case," Spillman said.

Within days of surgery, Sally was back to her normal behaviors. Her keeper, Cindy Cossaboon was thrilled

"She's pretty special, she's one of those few individuals that I can't even express. It's just a pleasure to work with her," she said.

About six weeks after the surgery, the doctors from the University of Colorado went to the zoo to see Sally. They didn't meet her before the procedure because zoo vets say she's so smart, they didn't want her see the new faces before the anesthesia was administered on surgery day, since that might cause extra anxiety.

What was remarkable to the human doctors was her reaction to them weeks later.

"It was very interesting, it was almost like she knew us, and recognized us even thought she had never met us before. And we were able to save her life. I mean that was a really, a really cool thing," Embry said.

To learn more about the equipment used in this procedure go to

To learn more about the University of Colorado go to

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