MOSES LAKE — Stephanie Moore’s friend didn’t think Moore would be interested in the case.
Moore and her friend are both certified nurse-anesthetists, and the friend had agreed to assist with an unusual surgery – monitoring anesthesia for a chimpanzee. In the end it fell through, but the friend mentioned it, “sort of in passing,” Moore said. Her friend didn’t think Moore would want to take the case, she said, “and I stopped her and said, ‘yeah,’” she would be interested.
So Moore was put in touch with the operators of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, which provides a home for chimpanzees that have been used in medical research or the entertainment industry. Currently the facility is home to seven chimpanzees, including Burrito, the only male.
Burrito has heart trouble, and that meant the veterinary surgeons needed a different kind of expertise. For a veterinarian, “it’s pretty much black and white. They (the animal patients) are either asleep or they’re not asleep,” Moore said. But a patient who’s not quite awake but not quite asleep is pretty common for a nurse-anesthetist, she said. “We really micromanage everything, and that was what Burrito needed.”
It wasn’t just Burrito’s heart condition. “They (sanctuary staff) noticed he had a black spot on his upper incisor.” A black spot could mean cancer, but the veterinarians that care for the animals couldn’t just schedule Burrito for a checkup.
Contact between humans and chimps at the sanctuary is limited, Moore said, in the belief the chimps shouldn’t be put on display. In addition, chimps are pretty big. And strong. “You don’t want them to grab you.”
Part of the surgical procedure was to keep human contact to a minimum. “The only people in the room with Burrito were the ones absolutely necessary.”
The chimps know when someone new comes in the sanctuary, Moore said, so the surgical team was asked to arrive before the day’s regular routine started. The first step for the handlers was to isolate Burrito, but “it took them a while to get him alone.” One of the female chimps was “curious and protective,” and didn’t want to leave him. In the end, the visitors were asked to go out to the play area, sit down and hold their feet up to the fence, so the female chimp could inspect their shoes. “And it worked.”
Burrito had some medicine administered before he came into the operating room. “He was not as big as I was anticipating,” Moore said, about 130 pounds. “But they’re all muscle.” They also have very long arms and legs. And sharp teeth. “I definitely feared his bite more than any human’s bite I’ve worried about,” she said. “His jaw – that’s a strong muscle that they’ve got.”
The anesthetist’s job is to keep the patient asleep, but the heart rate at acceptable levels. A person – or a chimpanzee – with heart disease might not be able to handle as much anesthesia, she said. “He did not tolerate a normal dose of anesthesia,” she added, and he required careful monitoring, since medicines that would’ve been available at a hospital weren’t at the sanctuary.
In terms of administering the medicine, Burrito was not all that different from her other patients, Moore said. He used the same anesthesia as humans. “The difference didn’t feel significant.”
But for the veterinary surgeons it was a different matter. Moore cited the insertion of Burrito’s breathing tube. “It was backwards for them, but normal for me.” The experience had a big impact on the vets. “Emotional,” she said. It had an impact on Moore, too, learning about an organization that was entirely new to her. “It was eye-opening that this exists out there, and they need all the help they can get.”
Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.