Bonobo Saved by Partnering Zoo and Human Veterinary Teams


These everyday heroes in Milwaukee saved a bonobo, one of the great ape species.Doctors and veterinarians teamed up at the Milwaukee County Zoo for a life-saving surgery on Qasai, a 4 1/2-year old endangered bonobo.

“Our bonobo keepers noticed Qasai was spending a lot more time on his mom,” said Patricia Kahn, curator of primates and small mammals. Initially, they thought his symptoms could have been from an ear infection or a toothache. After all, though bonobos share about 98 percent of the same genetics as us, they can’t tell us what’s wrong.

“He was pulling at the side of his mouth and tapping the side of his face, and he even had a little bit of a head tilt,” said senior staff veterinarian Dr. Pamela Govett.

Dr. Govett and Kahn are two members of the team that eventually diagnosed Qasai with lesions on his brain and a potentially deadly abscess by using identical testing equipment as for humans.

The only real solution would require assistance from human neurosurgeons. After all, a bonobo brain is about the same as ours.

The operation took place on March 7 at the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Animal Health Center.

Dr. Wade Mueller is a professor of neurosurgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a neurosurgeon at Froedtert. Bonobos aren’t his usual patients, but this was a special case. In all, a team of  30 medical professionals from the veterinary and the human side participated.

Qasai required post surgical flushing and draining of the abscesses, and has been on a regiment of antibiotics, the same drugs a human would take. The young ape has already begun to bounce back, and has been hanging out with a 7-year old named Nadine, who has been keeping the social animal company.

“This is the first case I’m aware of in which we have diagnosed it early, and thanks to the outpouring of love and support from the medical community, we came together and saved Qasai’s life,” Dr. Govett said. “He’s very lucky.” This is what zoo veterinarians do.

(Reminds me of my recent conversation with Dr. Lester Fisher, one of the first veterinarians to serve as a zoo director, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. I spoke with Dr. Fisher on his 100th birthday. He supported the notion of zoo hospitals, and veterinarians specializing in zoo medicine)