Professor David Cahill carried out the first emergency operation of its kind in Britain when the mother gorilla’s life was at risk from a condition suffered by about two per cent of pregnant women.
The procedure was a complete success and the baby western lowland gorilla is “doing well” after arriving earlier this month at Bristol Zoo, weighing 2lbs 10oz.
News of the historic delivery of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla has been kept under wraps over the past 11 days as vets fought to help the baby breath independently.
The youngster, who has not yet been named, had to undergo emergency resuscitation and intensive care in the aftermath of the operation.
She is being nursed round the clock by a small team of experienced gorilla keepers and is getting “skin-to-skin” contact, a technique used on human newborns, to help her develop.
Vets at Bristol Zoo turned to Professor Cahill, who has delivered hundreds of human babies by caesarean, when the mother gorilla, Kera, showed signs of life-threatening pre-eclampsia.
Professor Cahill, a professor in reproductive medicine and medical education at Bristol University and gynaecologist at the city’s St Michael”s Hospital, said:
“Along with having my own children, this is probably one of the biggest achievements of my life and something I will certainly never forget.”
Kera, who became one of only a handful of gorillas to have undergone a caesarean, is being closely monitored by the zoo’s veterinary team as she recovers.
“Having been involved with the care of these gorillas over the years, with some trepidation and excitement, we were invited to the zoo to assess the well-being of Kera, because she was in late pregnancy and showed some signs of being unwell,” added Professor Cahill.
“Following our assessment, we considered that Kera might have pre-eclampsia, a condition that humans get, and that the only way to treat it was by delivery.
“We also thought that the baby in her uterus was showing signs of being very unwell and in need of delivery.
“My colleague from St Michael”s Hospital, Dr Aamna Ali, and I prepared for this extraordinary caesarean section and delivered a little girl gorilla.
“I have since been back to visit Kera and the baby gorilla, it was wonderful to see them both doing so well.”
Zoo vet Rowena Killick, who helped during the delivery and the baby gorilla’s immediate after care, explained how the mother and baby were in good hands.
“This was a very challenging operation and we are immensely grateful for the expert help we received which meant we were able to give care at the very highest level,” she said.
“The baby needed some intensive care immediately after birth and it is still very early days, but we are cautiously optimistic and will be keeping a very close eye on both her and Kera.”
Bristol Zoo’s Gorilla Island is home to a family of seven of the critically endangered primates now found only in the remote forests of Cameroon and neighbouring states in the wild. The zoo’s resident silverback is called Jack and it is his son Komale who fathered the new baby who is not on public show.
John Partridge, senior curator of animals at the zoo, described how they had turned to Professor Cahill when Kera became poorly.
“The birth of any gorilla is a rare and exciting event but the birth of a baby gorilla by caesarean section is even more unusual,” he said.
“It wasn”t a decision that we took lightly. Kera was becoming quite poorly and we needed to act fast in order to give the best possible treatment to mother and baby and to avoid the possibility of losing the baby.”
A small team of keepers are using some of the techniques seen in NHS maternity units to help the baby progress.
Lynsey Bugg, curator of mammals, is one of team of providing round the clock care for the infant. She said: “The first few days were critical for the baby, it was vital that she was kept warm and began taking small amounts of formula milk.
“We started ‘skin-to-skin’ contact – a process used with human newborn babies – and she responded well to this and is getting stronger and more alert each day.”