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Gorillas get their flu shots, too

Hello everyone, my name is Courtney Meyer, and I am a member of the gorilla care team here at Zoo Atlanta. It’s officially our favorite time of year again: flu shot season, and the gorillas participate!

One of the most popular questions I get while giving a Keeper Talk about these amazing and intelligent animals is, “How do you train a gorilla?” All of the animals are trained to participate in their own care using positive reinforcement. These are behaviors that, with positive reinforcement, allow animal care professionals to give the animals the care they need. With that, a typical training session would be to maintain these behaviors; for example, a keeper might ask the gorilla Charlie to present his shoulder, so that when Charlie presses his shoulder against the barrier, he gets a reward! Rewards are typically higher-value foods such as grapes, apples or bananas. Grapes being a favorite, of course! A gorilla presenting his or her shoulder willingly is the first step to making sure they get their flu shots.

Flu shots are important not only for us, but also for these great apes. Since they are so closely related to us, they are more likely to get the same illnesses as we do, or even can get them from us. There is a catch, though! Something like the common cold might make us feel “icky,” but it can be extremely detrimental to a gorilla. It works both ways. Some diseases we get can affect them greatly, while others that might be miniscule to them are scary for us. This is why all primate caregivers here at the Zoo wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), usually gloves and a face mask to help lessen the chance of these diseases transmitting. Furthermore, the flu vaccine the gorillas get is identical to one a human would receive. Flu shots are just another preventative way for us to make sure the gorillas stay happy and healthy.

Now someone might ask, “Do any of the gorillas like getting their flu shot?” I do not think anyone, including humans, enjoys getting injections. Giving a gorilla a flu vaccine is very similar to taking your child to the pediatrician for the annual check-up. Some gorillas do not really mind it because they know it is short and quick and they get a treat at the end! Others take a little longer to train, but they know they will get a great treat afterwards and eventually they allow us to administer the shot.

Thank you for taking the time to read about one way we make sure the animals stay healthy! Hope you have enjoyed this segment of #KeeperStories. Until next time, make sure you also get your annual flu shot!
Courtney Meyer
Keeper I, Primates

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