For months, Stuart Weiner, MD, and a fellow had been waiting in anticipation for the arrival of Philadelphia Zoo’s newest addition – a baby gorilla. An expert in maternal fetal medicine, Dr. Weiner has helped thousands of women deliver babies, many of whom had high risk pregnancies. But Honi would have been Dr. Weiner’s first gorilla.
The Zoo has veterinarians who can work on anything from tarantulas to rhinos in facilities that are as advanced and well stocked as any hospital surgical suite. While non-human primates like Honi have physiology that makes birth much easier than in humans, because there are many anatomic and physiologic similarities between women and other great apes, like gorillas and orangutans, the zoo invites a cadre of human and veterinary doctors and specialists to be on-call and provide consultation to the zoo’s veterinary staff if needed in the event of an emergency.
Dr. Weiner was first invited to participate as the on-call obstetrician seven years ago, for the birth of the Philadelphia Zoo’s orangutan named Tua, and her baby Batu. But no doctors or vets were necessary! Tua simply made a nest for herself burrowed a bit out of sight, and came out some time later with Batu.
It’s the small but important differences in the shape of the pelvic bones that make birthing so much easier for non-human primates. During delivery, human babies contort and twist in the uterus, with the help of a mother’s contractions, in order to maneuver through the pelvic bones and down the birth canal. The pelvis of a gorilla, is a more tubular and straight passageway. Unless Honi’s baby was breech, or had other issues, the baby would have no problem coming out.
Dr. Weiner sees the experience of being on-call for the zoo as an opportunity to help obstetric fellows in training appreciate the unique challenges that women face during labor. Rebekah Mccurdy is a second year fellow who went with Dr. Weiner to the zoo for their first meeting with Honi.
“When we received the call that Honi was expecting, I was delighted to meet with her and the team in anticipation of the birth. Going behind the scenes to spend ’facetime’ with her to build a relationship, should complications occur, was unlike any experience I’ve had before. She became my first non-human patient.” said Dr. Mccurdy.
More than the educational component, getting that rare and inside look into the life and birth of a gorilla was an honor. “I love the zoo,” said Dr. Weiner.