Critically endangered gorilla delivered by emergency c-section after life-threatening medical complications

The birth of a newborn gorilla took a dramatic turn recently when life-threatening complications impacted the health of the mother — until staff acted fast to perform an emergency surgery that saved the lives of both the mother and child.

The Fort Worth Zoo, in Texas, had been expecting a new arrival: 33-year-old western lowland gorilla Sekani was pregnant with her fourth offspring. She had a routine pregnancy, and was due to give birth in early-to-mid-February.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

But on January 3, things suddenly took a grave turn. According to a press release from the zoo, Sekani began exhibiting unusual symptoms, including slow movement and holding her head. Medical tests supported a diagnosis of preeclampsia, a serious blood-pressure condition.

Zoo staff knew the lives of both Sekani and her unborn baby were in danger. After consulting with a local obstetrician and neonatologist, they decided that an emergency caesarean section would give them the best chance of survival.

C-sections, in which the baby is delivered through an incision in the mother’s abdomen, are fairly common in human births but rarely performed on gorillas. But given our reproductive biological similarities, the procedure is much the same, and the zoo consulted with Dr. Jamie Walker Erwin, a local obstetrician and gynecologist.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

Dr. Erwin assembled a team to perform the surgery, which included an anesthesiologist, a neonatologist, the Fort Worth Zoo veterinary team and several other supporting experts.

“Taking part in delivering Sekani’s infant via cesarean section was one of the highlights of my entire career as an OB-GYN,” Dr. Erwin said. “It is an honor and privilege to assist with care for this endangered species and to share my expertise with the veterinary staff at the Fort Worth Zoo. I was amazed at how Sekani’s anatomy matched that of my human patients.”

The c-section was a success, but the baby gorilla was born 4-6 weeks premature and the team had to act quickly to save its life, and were immediately on hand with resuscitation, stabilization and respiratory support. Over the next few weeks, they carefully monitored the baby’s health.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

Neonatologist Dr. Robert Ursprung worked with the staff to optimize temperature regulation and nutritional strategy, and zookeepers gave her round-the-clock care and feeding.

Despite the unusual and dramatic circumstances of her birth, the newborn gorilla’s health stabilized and she is now doing well.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

“It was incredible how similar this mother-infant pair was compared to what I see in the hospital for babies born under similar circumstances,” Dr. Ursprung said in the press release. “The baby needed critical respiratory support for a few hours post-delivery, but as she transitioned to life outside the womb, she stabilized quite nicely. She had so many features typical of a slightly premature human baby.” 

“The Zoo’s care team was incredible. Their ability to adapt to the care needs of a medically fragile infant was amazing to watch.”

The newborn, a female, has been named “Jameela,” which means “beautiful” in Swahili and is also a tribute to Dr. Jamie Erwin.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

Meanwhile, Sekani was recovering from her procedure. When both mom and baby were feeling better, zoo staff attempted to reintroduce Sekani with Jameela; unfortunately she showed no interest in caring for her baby. Though the exact reason is unclear, zoo experts believe that Sekani never experienced the necessary hormonal cues that would’ve come from a natural birth.

After two weeks of unsuccessful reunification attempts, the zoo shifted their focus to finding a surrogate, and trained Gracie, a 24-year-old gorilla and mother of two, to take in the newborn as her own. Zookeepers are hopeful that Gracie will be an ideal surrogate mother for Jameela who will carry and protect the newborn and teacher her the necessary social skills of their species.

Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

Jameela’s birth is a remarkable story and also great news for her species: western lowland gorillas are a critically endangered species, with a rapidly decreasing population: Native to Africa’s Congo Basin, they have been threatened by illegal poaching, habitat loss and disease. Each new birth is vital to the survival of the species.

The newborn’s arrival marks only the third gorilla birth in the Fort Worth Zoo’s 115-year history, and is the first to be born via cesarean section.

Wow, what a truly remarkable birth story — thank you to all the medical professionals who teamed up to deliver this beautiful baby by c-section, saving the lives of both the mother and child!

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