Heart to Heart

It’s the time of year when we’re all thinking about hearts—and not just because Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. It’s also American Heart Month, a time to reflect on the proper care of the organ that keeps us moving.

Cardiac checkups are a routine part of veterinary care at Lincoln Park Zoo, with animals throughout the zoo getting a careful listen as part of their regular exams. But one group is especially vulnerable to cardiac issues and receives extra attention as a result. That would be the great apes—which includes humans.

The zoo’s veterinary experts have long consulted with medical cardiologists as part of their care regimen. But in recent years they’ve taken a state-of-the-art approach to understanding heart disease in great apes. As part of their routine exams, nearly all the chimpanzees in Regenstein Center for African Apes have received an internal electrocardiogram (EKG) recorders.

In the past, EKG readings—a record of the heart’s electrical activity—were limited to what could be gathered when the chimpanzees were sedated during their annual exams. As you can imagine, that’s a limited view. Now these new trackers, donated by Medtronics, constantly measure heart activity. The chimpanzees share the data with our veterinary team via the simple wave of a reader held by a keeper on the other side of the glass during voluntary operant-conditioning sessions.

Animal care staff take an EKG reading on chimpanzee Kibali.

Animal care staff take an EKG reading on chimpanzee Kibali.

Whether the chimpanzees are active or asleep, eating or playing with their family, we can have a constant record of their heart activity. This is true for animals we know to have heart problems, like 50-year-old female Vicky, but also for youngsters with healthy hearts, like 14-year-old Chuckie. Indeed, the healthy animals are helping to build a baseline for what’s normal, to give our veterinarians a better idea to know when problems may be developing.

It’s an exciting development in animal care—and one that reminds us all of the vital importance of regular check-ups. So take American Heart Month to heart and know the zoo’s veterinarians are doing the same.

Kevin Bell

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Heart-y Treats for American Heart Month
The chimpanzees enjoyed some heart-shaped enrichment at Regenstein Center for African Apes. It’s a prelude to Valentine’s Day, sure, but it’s also a worthy tribute to American Heart Month, which is taking place now.

Much like people, great apes are also vulnerable to heart disease as they age. Fortunately, Lincoln Park Zoo’s animal care experts are at the cutting edge of treating and monitoring cardiac issues. Nearly all the chimpanzees at the zoo have received internal EKG devices, enabling veterinarians to routinely monitor cardiac activity—and consider options for early intervention.


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