Taronga zoo paediatrics


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Thirty-odd years ago, the vets at Taronga Zoo in Sydney rang our Hospital for help with a four-month-old chimpanzee, who was not showing the normal lively activity expected, and was too weak to ‘hang on’ to her mother as chimp infants do at that age. The mother was experienced and had not previously had abnormal babies. Coincidentally, she died only recently, no doubt a very great-great-grandmother.

Why I was chosen to go, I'm not sure, but our neurologist was miffed, especially as his previous offer to help out with ataxic flamingos had been rejected. As the mother would never have allowed us near the infant, she was sedated and the infant then brought back to the research animal house at the hospital. The infant appeared weak and lethargic, but with tendon reflexes present and greater muscle tone than a human baby. She fed slowly and appeared quite pale, but we lacked a ‘normal’ for comparison. We could not make a clinical diagnosis, but took blood for multiple tests. The infant was then reunited with the mother, after the latter was again sedated.

Our haematologist rang me with news of hypersegmented neutrophils and other features of severe hypothyroidism, confirmed with thyroid function tests. The name on the request form was Fay Chimp, but the pathologist took some convincing that the blood was not of human origin. This true story had a sad ending. The mother was so excited to have her infant returned that she accidentally killed her. However, we would not have been able to treat the infant without keeping her apart from her family. Adult chimps, even in zoos, need to be treated with great respect. Biting off a human hand offering thyroxine would be easy for them.