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Fort Worth Zoo welcomes baby gorilla after a historic birth

News
Article

Jameela was successfully delivered by emergency cesarean section after complications arose that threatened the life of the mother

Jameela was born via Caesarean section on January 5, 2024, at the Fort Worth Zoo (Images courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo)

Jameela was born via Caesarean section on January 5, 2024, at the Fort Worth Zoo (Images courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo)

The Fort Worth Zoo shared that on January 5, 2024, it welcomed Jameela, a female baby gorilla. She is the third baby gorilla to be born at the zoo but has become the first to be born via Caesarean section (C-section). The team had to switch to the C-section after Jameela’s mother Sekani had life-threatening complications during the birth.

According to an organizational release,1 Sekani, a 33-year-old gorilla, was pregnant with her fourth offspring, Jameela, with an expected due date of early to mid-February. However, on January 3, 2024, zookeepers noticed she was moving slowly and holding her head as if she had a headache. The zookeepers believed she was exhibiting symptoms of preeclampsia, a blood pressure condition that can occur during pregnancy of both primates and humans and performed tests that confirmed their suspicions. The team knew that they needed to intervene but of the diagnosis and the birth of a premature baby, they reached out to a local obstetrician and neonatologist, who agreed that an emergency C-section was needed to save Sekani and give her baby a chance of survival.

Jamie Walker Erwin, MD, board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology who has worked with the zoo to consult on cases since 2016, was called to help with Sekani. Erwin assembled a team of volunteer medical professionals to assist with the delivery process and on January 5, 2024, the team successfully performed the C-section and immediate care to a premature Jameela.

Jamie Walker Erwin, MD, board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, holding baby Jameela.

Jamie Walker Erwin, MD, board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, holding baby Jameela.

"Taking part in delivering Sekani’s infant via cesarean section was one of the highlights of my entire career as an OB-GYN. It is an honor and privilege to assist with care for this endangered species and to share my expertise with the veterinary staff at the Fort Worth Zoo. I was amazed at how Sekani’s anatomy matched that of my human patients," expressed Erwin.1

Because she was born 4-6 weeks early and required immediate intervention, the Zoo brought in Robert Ursprung, MD, neonatologist and national director of quality and safety for neonatology. Ursprung helped the zoo’s team with resuscitation and stabilization, radiographs, serial examinations, and respiratory support and provided consultations with the staff to help optimize the nutritional strategy, including oral feedings, and temperature guidelines.

The primate keepers at the zoo and the veterinary and nutrition staff worked around the clock to care for and feed Jameela while her mother recovered from the procedure. However, after multiple attempts to reunite the mother and baby, Sekani showed little interest in caring for the baby. The team at the zoo is not entirely sure what caused this, but experts suspect it’s because she never experienced the necessary hormonal cues she would have if she had a natural and full-term birth.1 Regardless, the team continued to provide the constant care the baby needed including bottle feeding every 2-3 hours, weight checks, monitoring eliminations, and ensuring she was near other gorillas to learn the smells, sights, and sounds of the troop.

Robert Ursprung, MD, Neonatologist and National Director of Quality and Safety for Neonatology, holding Jameela.

Robert Ursprung, MD, Neonatologist and National Director of Quality and Safety for Neonatology, holding Jameela.

"It was incredible how similar this mother-infant pair was compared to what I see in the hospital for babies born under similar circumstances. The baby needed critical respiratory support for a few hours post-delivery, but as she transitioned to life outside the womb, she stabilized quite nicely. She had so many features typical of a slightly premature human baby. The Zoo's care team was incredible. Their ability to adapt to the care needs of a medically fragile infant was amazing to watch," said Ursprung.1

The team continued to try to reunify Jameela and Sekani but after 2 weeks, the team decided it was time to make a crucial decision of training Gracie, a 24-year-old female gorilla, to become a surrogate mother. Gracie has 2 offspring of her own, including a 1-year-old named male named Bruno. The team is hopeful that Gracie will be a good surrogate mother because she has been trained already to “present” her baby to zookeepers through a mesh barrier so they can get a visual examination of the baby as well as she has exhibited maternal behaviors that would be crucial to Jameela’s survival.

“Observing our staff and their continuous commitment to this baby and the subsequent surrogacy journey is a testament to their dedication to the animals in their care,” said Michael Fouraker, executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo. “It’s been incredibly inspiring to witness, and we are all hopeful that we can continue to watch this little one grow.”

Fort Worth Zoo is not the first to utilize human medical professionals to deliver a gorilla through C-section. In 2016, the Louisville Zoo welcomed a baby gorilla via emergency C-section performed by James W. Forrester, MD, and Robert C. Zoller, MD, however, the mother of this infant did not make it due to complications.2 Then 2017, the Philadelphia Zoo brought in Rebekah McCurdy, MD, MPH, to assist in the emergency C-section, despite being 28 weeks pregnant herself, and the mother and baby gorilla were reunited after the birth and have been inseparable.3

The Zoo decided to name her Jameela which means beautiful in Swahili, but also serves as a tribute to Erwin. The zoo team is optimistic that she will integrate into the zoo’s troop of 7 gorillas, 8 including Jameela, and will continue to update the public through social media about Jameela and Gracie’s surrogacy journey.

Reference

  1. Meet Jameela. News release. Fort Worth Zoo. Accessed February 19, 2024. https://www.fortworthzoo.org/premature-gorilla
  2. Kemnitz R. Gorilla baby infant via cesarean. Louisville Zoo. Published March 15, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2024. https://louisvillezoo.org/mr2016-03-15/
  3. Yong E. How a Philly ob-gyn ended up delivering a baby gorilla. The Altantic. Published online June 14, 2017. Accessed February 19, 2024. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/how-to-deliver-a-baby-gorilla/530235/
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