Joey the chimp, 53, goes in for his routine physical at the Sacramento Zoo

Sacramento Zoo and UC Davis veterinarians do a routine physical exam on Joey, a 53-year-old chimp, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016.
Sacramento Zoo and UC Davis veterinarians do a routine physical exam on Joey, a 53-year-old chimp, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

Snatched from the wilds of Africa when he was a baby, Joey the chimpanzee has grown old at the Sacramento Zoo.

At 53, he has lived more than a decade longer than the typical chimp in captivity. His human equivalent would be a man 75 to 80 years old.

As with humans, health concerns rise as animals grow old. Joey is at risk for heart problems. Cheli, the zoo’s Sumatran orangutan, is 44 and takes arthritis medication. Goody, 18, is a reticulated giraffe who receives lidocaine patches for pain in her joints.

The zoo in Land Park is in a better position than most facilities of its size to care for aging animals. Not only does it have a fully equipped hospital on its grounds, it has a partnership with UC Davis, which boasts one of the finest veterinary programs in the world.

Most of the zoo’s animals, from birds to frogs to kangaroos, get a full medical exam every year, including X-rays and blood work. Chimps, because of concerns about placing them under anesthesia for extended periods of time, get head-to-toe examinations every other year.

On Tuesday, it was Joey’s turn.

Under fluorescent lights in the hospital’s treatment room, as members of the public watched from behind a window, a team that included the zoo’s chief veterinarian, Raymund Wack, and four cardiology specialists from UC Davis hovered over their patient.

Joey, carried into the room in an orange sling and knocked out by anesthesia, lay his back on an exam table as vets and technicians inserted a breathing tube into his throat, exposing his massive teeth and tongue. The team, up to a dozen people at times, connected intravenous tubes to his hairy arms, which hung limply at his sides, to deliver fluids. They covered him with a special warming blanket to maintain his body temperature.

“What is wrong with the monkey?” a little girl bundled in her father’s arms asked as she observed the buzz of activity through the window.

“They’re making him feel better,” her dad replied.

Chimpanzees are genetically similar to humans, and like humans, they are at risk for developing heart disease later in life. Veterinarians employ some of the same tests that physicians use on people to check for issues such as heart murmurs, valve abnormalities and cardiomyopathy in chimps and other species. If caught early, such conditions can be treated with surgeries and medications.

On Tuesday, as Joey lay still, technicians pressed a device to his chest that created a fuzzy image of his beating heart, which the veterinarians studied on a nearby computer monitor. The echocardiogram would help them detect signs of heart disease. Monitors attached to Joey’s chest showed his heart’s electrical activity, in spikes and dips on another screen.

The team worked quietly, speaking mostly in whispers. They maneuvered Joey’s 120-pound body gently and efficiently, calling “one-two-three!” before they lifted him, and placing him on his side at one point with his massive, leathery hands next to his face.

Following the cardiac evaluation, Wack pronounced Joey’s heart strong for a chimp his age. “He has a very slight leaky valve,” or murmur, which is a minor problem, Wack said. “But other than that, his heart looks completely normal.”

Joey’s medical team also used a portable X-ray machine to take pictures of his torso, legs and arms. They checked his body for suspicious lumps or bumps, and drew blood that will be evaluated for signs of liver or kidney issues, among other things. They opened his mouth wide and performed a dental exam. Leslie Field, the zoo’s supervisor of mammals, trimmed his fingernails and toenails.

After about two hours, Joey was finished with his exam and cleared to return to his den, which he shares with four other chimps: Dougie, Pablo, Amelia and Maria. He would be separated from them until he was fully awake and recovered from anesthesia, Field said.

Field admitted to being a bit anxious about Joey, who came to the zoo at a time when chimps routinely were taken from the wild, a practice no longer considered ethical. Some animals have trouble recovering from an anesthetic, she noted.

“I’ve known Joey since 1979, so of course I’m worried,” she said.

She and others kept close watch on him as he rested on a bed of coffee sacks and blankets.

In the early afternoon, a few hours after the exam ended, Joey wobbled up to a sitting position, ate some mashed yams and took a nap.

By Wednesday, his caretakers hoped, the elder statesman would be back with his crew, entertaining spectators and enjoying extra helpings of leafy vegetables along with his Centrum Silver vitamins.

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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