In April 2010, Jury, one of Perth Zoo’s Javan Gibbons, was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. Just as with humans, it can be managed with insulin. But how do you get a gibbon to take his medicine?
Perth Zoo is one of only six institutions in the world successfully breeding Javan Gibbons. The three Javan Gibbons born at the Zoo since 2005 were all sired by 26-year-old Jury. Being a gibbon, Jury is usually very active, swinging from branch to branch and rope to rope around his island home. However, when he started to show lethargy in 2010, combined with weight loss and excessive water drinking, keepers became concerned. Blood and urine tests later confirmed he had Type-2 diabetes.
Type-2 diabetes is a chronic condition that is often the result of genetic and/or lifestyle factors. Our bodies need to convert glucose (sugar) from food into energy to work properly. The way we do this is with insulin which our bodies produce naturally.
Insulin helps convert the glucose into energy. People with diabetes are unable to produce enough insulin – or sometimes any at all – for this to happen. The result of this is that glucose is carried in the blood and patients require regular insulin injections as well as careful diet management to stay healthy.
Leaving Jury’s diabetes untreated could have resulted in him going into a diabetic coma with fatal consequences so keepers needed to find a way to administer insulin on a regular basis. While people who suffer from diabetes can inject insulin themselves, giving insulin to Jury was a much more involved process; one that took two years to perfect.
Initially Jury was given oral medication but despite the efforts of keepers and veterinary staff, it wasn’t as successful as hoped and Jury’s glucose and ketone levels (ketone is produced from fat as an alternative fuel source when glucose isn’t available) didn’t lower enough. That meant moving on to plan B and preparing Jury for routine insulin injections.
Keepers often train animals to present certain parts of their bodies for them to examine. It reduces the need for general anaesthetic and gives the keepers a chance to check the animal’s health and body condition. To do this they use positive reinforcement. This means every time the animal completes the correct behaviour, they’re rewarded with a food treat thereby ‘positively reinforcing’ the behaviour. This method has been used with many animals in the Zoo including wombats, Sun Bears, Red Pandas and gibbons.
Jury was kept on oral medication while keepers trained him to receive injections. His training began in October 2010. Jury required insulin administered via injections into his upper thigh. He would have to have one injection every day, so this training was important for his continued wellbeing.
Keepers conducted four short, positive sessions a day. They encouraged Jury into the night quarters where he sat with his thigh against the mesh. Here the keepers could reach certain parts of his body while giving him food to keep him in position.
It was important to take the training slowly. At first all the keepers wanted Jury to do was perch on a bar and position his thigh correctly. From there they would touch his thigh with their finger and a blunt syringe before moving on to administer the injection.
Detailed records were kept of every session including the length and success of each, showing them at what point they could progress to the next level. This was also important for consistency amongst trainers. Finally, in July 2011, Jury was ready for his first insulin injection, which went perfectly.
Keepers and veterinary staff were elated by the success of Jury’s training. The dedication of the staff to the training regime and Jury’s adoption of his new treatment delivered the result they were hoping for.
In January 2012, Jury underwent a health check at the Zoo’s veterinary department while under a general anaesthetic. This revealed his diabetes was under control. His blood glucose readings were in a normal range, he’d gained weight and his overall condition had improved. Staff couldn’t have hoped for a better result.
Jury’s urine is still tested regularly and daily insulin injections continue to be a part of his life but the improvements to his health have been exceptional.
You can see Jury with his gibbon family on one of the islands in the Main Lake.