When we conduct our annual physical examinations on the gorilla orphans, they are big enough now that in order to sedate them they must be injected with a flying dart.  Needless to say, they do not much appreciate this procedure, and they have long memories.  They remember not only what the darting equipment look like, and the sound of the CO2 as it pushes the dart down the barrel, they also remember exactly WHO sent the projectile into their hindquarters!  They learn to stay away from said person, especially when a dart barrel is visible. They learn to not present appropriate parts of their bodies, or to hide behind a caretaker or another gorilla.  This makes it increasingly difficult for us Gorilla Doctors to accurately send a dart into the animal in question!

Dr. Magda, Sandy and I decided to try to desensitize the gorilla orphans to the look and sound of the dart pistol.  The goal was to make the dart equipment (and shooter!) into something fun and interesting.   After all, we have all the annual examinations to complete in the next month or so.

Gorillas love raisins.  And they don’t often get them in their daily meals.  This was the perfect ammunition – something they only get during our friendly darting sessions.  Dr. Magda and Sandy headed to Kinigi for the first session, loaded with raisins and good will.

Dr. Magda prepared the darting equipment, loaded the barrel with yummy raisins, and headed out to greet the gorillas.  Remember that Pinga just had her annual examination a few weeks ago, and she was still quite unhappy with Dr. Magda and the darting equipment (even though her nose was MUCH better now!).  When the group saw the darting equipment there was initially much caution, with annoyed grunts directed at Dr. Magda.  Pinga was especially concerned, and kept a long distance between herself and Dr. Magda! 

Everybody kept their distance at first!

The first shot caused some flinching and running, but curiosity got the best of several individuals when they noticed the raisins!  Ntabwoba was one of the first to come forward and reap the harvest!  Others followed his lead, except Pinga…

Over the course of the next 30 minutes most of the gorillas became accustomed to the look and sound of the raisins being fired into the enclosure.  Always a little flinching, but in the end, Ntabwoba even held out his hand to try to catch the raisins as they flew from the barrel!  Not a bad outcome!  Sandy even noted that this session was a wonderfully enriching experience for the group – their minds were very active, trying to figure out what this was all about!

Pinga stayed back though, which is not unexpected.  This was the first day of our attempt at reconciliation after all, and she was most recently the recipient of a flying dart.  But as we continue these sessions she will come to realize that it is not necessarily something to be concerned about when we Gorilla Doctors arrive with our equipment!

So why do we take the time for this type of activity?  Anything we can do to decrease the stress and anxiety of a medical examination is good – anesthesia is always best when the animal is as calm as possible.  The other important aspect is that when animals are distrustful, it may take over an hour to get an opportunity to send the flying dart to the appropriate animal.  An hour of everyone being upset, and an hour that could have been spent addressing the animal’s medical need.  So 30 minutes every other week doing this sort of activity with the gorilla orphans is not only fun for us, and for them, but is also an important exercise to make the next medical intervention go well.

Here are a couple of video clips showing the initial reactions, and then at the end of the session, the anticipation of a yummy treat when the raisins were fired into the yard!

Help the Gorilla Doctors.