A gorilla at the Santa Barbara Zoo died Oct. 30 after being anesthetized for a medical exam.
Max, age 34, had shown symptoms of suffering from neurological issues, and zoo veterinarian Dr. Karl Hill and a medical team decided to perform an intensive examination on him. During the exam, the team gave Max an echocardiogram, radiographs and blood and neurological tests. An anesthesiologist, cardiologist and neurologist that normally work with humans, along with several staff members from both the zoo and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, served on the team that treated Max.
“We’ve got really good human doctors in town and we wanted to do the exam as soon as possible. A human’s anatomy is similar to that of a gorilla,” Santa Barbara Zoo Marketing Director Wendy Campbell said. “Most of the team had done Max’s examinations before, and we felt like they were the best choice.”
The zoo does not plan to build a memorial to Max, but if patrons wish to leave flowers or other items at the exhibit, the zoo would encourage it, Campbell said.
“People get attached to animals that they come to see over and over again, and it’s tough not to have closure,” Campbell said.
Max was born in 1969 at the Dallas Zoo and was raised by humans. He lived in Topeka and Denver before coming to the Santa Barbara Zoo in 1996 as part of the Forest Edge’s Habitat exhibit. Max’s arrival at the zoo boosted attendance, Campbell said.
“At the time, it was our most expensive and elaborate exhibit,” Campbell said. “There was just something about Max, maybe because he was the first.”
Kivu and Goma, the zoo’s two male silverback gorillas, joined Max in 1997. The two silverbacks, now 12 years of age, remained with Max until they reached maturity.
General Curator Alan Varsik said the two began to intimidate Max, who had never shown an interest in developing social relationships, when they became increasingly rambunctious. To make Max more comfortable, the zoo separated him from the other gorillas and alternated the exhibit between the two gorillas and Max.
“He was pretty unique among gorillas in that he was so low-key and was not interested in vocalization or demonstrations,” Varsik said. “I think the other gorillas began to make him feel uncomfortable.”
Although Max was raised by people, he did not show a desire to form bonds with humans, either.
“I’ve worked around quite a few human-raised gorillas and his personality was still unique,” Varsik said. “He was not the most people-oriented gorilla.”
The zoo is continuing to work with other zoos and the American Zoological Society on its gorilla management program. Varsik said he is unsure whether another gorilla will be placed at the Santa Barbara Zoo due to potential problems in dynamics between the gorillas.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with the [American Zoo and Aquarium Association] to determine if another one comes,” Varsik said.