BioPark staff, visitors heartbroken over apes who died from bacterial infection

Albuquerque News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s something zookeepers at the ABQ BioPark haven’t dealt with before: an outbreak of a bacterial infection in the popular ape exhibit that has already turned deadly. Zoo visitors News 13 spoke with shared their memories of Huerfanita, the 48-year-old western lowland gorilla who died over the weekend after battling the infection. Zookeepers said it’s been tough grieving the loss but also trying to keep the other apes alive and well.

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Smiles are slowly returning to the faces of some of the BioPark staff after seeing a few of the orangutans looking more like themselves, even playing on the swings. It’s nice to see, especially since the orangutans, siamangs, and gorillas have been battling the shigella bacterial infection for weeks. The infection causes them to be sluggish, suffer from diarrhea, vomiting, and fevers. It’s also highly contagious.

The entire Ape Walk has been closed to visitors while the animals undergo treatment, including Hasani, the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla who is in critical condition. But zoo staff said they’re optimistic. “We continue to see progress. It’s just taking him longer than it has the others,” said BioPark director, Stephanie Stowell.

They’re also coping with the deaths of two cherished primates that died from the infection: Brian the 32-year-old siamang, who is remembered for his early morning duets with his mate Johoor and Huerfanita, a 48-year-old lowland gorilla. Her loss is heartbreaking for longtime visitors.

“She was a little sweetheart,” recalled zoo visitor Luis Yapor. “I remember one time we went to the playroom we put our heads against the glass and she just put her hand towards us.” Huerfanita came to the BioPark in the 1970s as an orphan. She spent some time at the Bronx Zoo before coming back to the BioPark to help other orphaned gorillas – even giving birth to eight gorillas of her own. She was known for carrying around a teddy bear and blowing kisses to guests.

“I would see her sitting there, she would always have her one hand up or she would be clapping,” said another zoo visitor, Melissa Warren. “Very responsive so it’s sad.”

The BioPark said the community’s love and support during this time have been a tremendous help. “So for them to be hearing and seeing from the community how much these animals meant and also to be hearing from the community how much they – the zookeepers and the veterinary team who are caring for the animals right now – how much that means to our community that’s really helping them get through a tough time,” said Stowell.

It’s still unclear how the animals got sick. The BioPark said the bacteria could have been present in one of the primates’ feces or a member of the BioPark staff could have been asymptomatic and brought it in or from contaminated food tossed into the exhibit by a visitor. The BioPark is working with the state Department of Health to find out. The BioPark said since some of the gorillas and orangutans are feeling better, they might reopen the exhibit as early as Tuesday.

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