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Great Ape Heart Project wins Research Award

The Great Ape Heart Project based at Zoo Atlanta has received the prestigious 2020 Research Award with Top Honors from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Announced during the morning of September 16, 2020, the award recognizes achievements in advancing scientific research among accredited zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S.

Launched in 2010, the Great Ape Heart Project is the world’s first coordinated clinical approach targeting cardiovascular disease in all four non-human great ape taxa – gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos – living in zoological environments. The disease is a primary cause of mortality among great apes in zoos but, until recently, had been a poorly understood area of zoological veterinary care. Its examination requires advanced understanding of diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of affected individuals, as well as adaptation of techniques already in use in humans and domestic animals.

“We are thrilled and honored to see the Great Ape Heart Project recognized by our professional peers in AZA,” said Raymond B. King, President and CEO. “Scientific research has long been a hallmark of excellence for Zoo Atlanta, so it is extremely meaningful to see this work recognized in such a high-profile way.”

A four-time recipient of the distinguished National Leadership Grant, including a 2019 award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Great Ape Heart Project represents the future of veterinary research in zoos. Over the past 10 years, the project has produced and continues to populate a central ape-health database that includes more than 90% of the individual great apes in AZA institutions, as well as 10 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. The Great Ape Heart Project research and database are managed by Zoo Atlanta’s Marietta Danforth, PhD, and primary grant collaborators include Karen Terio, DVM, PhD, DACVP of the College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rita McManamon, DVM of the College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Georgia.

“The Great Ape Heart Project was started to address a critical need within the zoological community, but it has since evolved in both scope and capability,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Deputy Director at Zoo Atlanta and Director of the Great Ape Heart Project. “The project is an amazing example of the power of inquiry and partnership, and it continues to open up new opportunities for collaboration on a national and international level as we work toward the common goal of improving the health of all great apes in human care.”

Data collected by the Great Ape Heart Project is used for more than just research. Information from the project database also aids in real-time consultation on individual great ape cases, providing a vital service that benefits zoos throughout AZA and internationally. As such, the project has become a model for subsequent multi-institutional networks to address health needs in zoological settings.

All four great ape taxa are endangered or critically endangered in the wild. Great apes are a longtime area of excellence for Zoo Atlanta, which is home to some of North America’s largest populations of gorillas and orangutans. In 2009, Zoo Atlanta became the first zoological organization in the world to obtain voluntary blood pressure readings from a gorilla. Voluntary procedures such as blood pressure checks and cardiac ultrasounds reduce the frequency of anesthetic events while providing cardiovascular data that is not influenced by anesthetic drugs, thus providing unique and accurate diagnostic procedures that are safer for the apes in human care.

A 2018 study published in the science journal FACETS named Zoo Atlanta one of the top 10 research zoos in the U.S. Learn more about research at Zoo Atlanta here. Visit the Great Ape Heart Project webpage for more information on the initiative.

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