Type Casting

Jill Moyse examines a blood-typing card used to learn and record blood types for great apes. More than 800 individual animals around the world have been documented since the project’s inception in 2006.

Enterprising Duo Helps Great Ape Caregivers Around the World

Some collaborative endeavors have roots in a single compassionate act, but end up impacting animal populations across international borders.

In 2005, Mumbali, a female western lowland gorilla at Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA), became ill and required dialysis and a blood transfusion. Finding a suitable donor proved frustrating. Her full sister was also sick, her mother recently had given birth and her half-sisters were too young to be donors. Veterinarians targeted the larger, unrelated silverback male, Kwan, as a potential donor—fortunately, his blood type matched. However, despite this vigilance and his donation, Mumbali succumbed to her advancing illness despite the transfusion.

In mourning the loss, RCAA Assistant Lead Keeper Jill Moyse was surprised by the lack of published literature on great ape blood types—key data for treatment when transfusions are needed. She sought the advice of Kathryn Gamble, D.V.M., the zoo’s Dr. Lester E. Fisher Director of Veterinary Medicine.

“Jill was frustrated and wanted to make a difference,” recalls Gamble. “I told her, ‘Then I need your help. I’ve wanted to do something about this for 15 years.”

The two launched their great ape blood-typing project the next year. Eldon Biologicals, a Danish manufacturer of human blood-typing cards, donated hundreds to the effort. Although the small cards—embedded with dried antibodies that reveal A, B or O blood types when mixed with water and small blood samples—were created for humans, they also work for gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos. These primate species also have ABO blood types—different from humans but given the same names.

Cards were sent throughout North America to veterinarians at institutions participating in Species Survival Plans® for the four species. European Endangered Species Program participants followed along with sanctuaries in Africa. Vets performing routine medical checkups were asked to include the card test. Due to international regulations on shipping blood samples, cards that couldn’t be mailed from overseas were photographed, and the images sent by email. Moyse and Gamble secured a small grant to provide cameras to sanctuaries stretched for those resources.

“We worked together like Batman and Robin to figure it all out,” says Gamble.

Ultimately, the project resulted in two published papers in zoo and genetics journals and a growing database of blood types currently filled with more than 800 cards. Gamble and Moyse continue to receive inquiries from veterinarians worldwide. Thank-you cards too.

“We received a letter from a veterinarian at a sanctuary in Africa who’d participated in the project in 2007,” says Moyse. “They were able to do a blood transfusion on one of their chimpanzees using what they’d learned about matching donors and recipients, to save an animal. To think this all came from something really bad—a gorilla dying—and ended up saving lives is really fulfilling.”

It’s just one example of the benefits that come from science and care working hand in hand. By encouraging our experts to come together, Lincoln Park Zoo has boosted care for animals living in Chicago—and around the world.


Craig Keller • Published March 26, 2013


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