Last year, the Kansas City Zoo announced the extraordinary procedure that had saved one gorilla’s life – a blood transfusion from Charlie to his critically-ill brother Curtis. In the ensuing months, Curtis received additional life-saving procedures that included another blood transfusion from his younger sibling and the removal of a kidney. Today, we share the heartbreaking news that 28-year-old Curtis was euthanized Oct. 1 due to congestive heart failure.
Curtis and Charlie, both male Western lowland gorillas, arrived in Kansas City in March 2020. In February 2021, however, Curtis presented concerning symptoms including vomiting, abdominal discomfort, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Curtis was anesthetized and a CT scan was performed at a local facility. This revealed a very large retroperitoneal hemorrhage (blood in his abdomen) stemming from hemorrhage in his left kidney that was putting extreme pressure on the organ. This combination was causing a life-threatening condition that is also seen in humans. Often, as it was in this case, the cause is unknown. Unfortunately, treatment for gorillas isn’t quite as clear-cut as it is in humans. It was determined that the only option was to anesthetize his brother Charlie and obtain enough blood to transfuse Curtis. The logistics were not easy, but Curtis received just under a half-gallon of blood from Charlie and was given numerous medications to contain the hemorrhage, increase blood production, and keep him from becoming infected. Both gorillas recovered well, and Curtis responded positively. Curtis was reunited with his brother in the Zoo’s gorilla habitat. Though the troop contracted SARSCoV2 last fall, including Curtis, all animals recovered uneventfully with supportive care.
Several months later, though, Curtis presented similar symptoms and veterinary staff determined that the only chance to save him was a nephrectomy, or removal of the affected kidney. Charlie was again immobilized to provide blood to transfuse his brother. Without it, Curtis would certainly have died during the intricate 7-hour surgery. An incredible team of specialists assembled in less than 48 hours and the affected kidney was successfully removed. It was found to be 3-4 times the size of a normal gorilla kidney and there was no doubt that it had to be removed. Following surgery, Curtis recovered slowly but surely, regaining his appetite and eventually, his playfulness.
Throughout Curtis’ ordeal, he was under the dedicated care of Zoo staff including the veterinary health team as well as the gorilla troop’s animal care specialists. In addition, local, national, and international medical and veterinary doctors consulted on the case, providing expertise, loaning medical equipment, and even helping to perform surgery.
According to his care specialists, Curtis won the hearts of everyone that met him. He was beloved for his easy-going and inquisitive nature. Even on days he didn’t feel his best, Curtis remained gentle and trusting of those trying to help him, and he always had a “happy grumble” for his visitors.
He excelled at training, from simple things like showing his hands and feet so they could be checked to brushing his teeth. Enrichment is an important part of animal care so that their minds and bodies remain healthy. One of Curtis’ favorite forms of enrichment was painting. He would very deliberately pick his colors, which almost always included green. His love of green didn’t include peas, though. Despite being a good eater, he detested that particular vegetable and would deliberately flick the pods away.
While the entire Zoo family mourns the loss of Curtis, we take comfort knowing that not only was he an extraordinary gorilla, but the groundbreaking care that he received at the Kansas City Zoo will help many other animals in the future. To our knowledge, Curtis was the first great ape to have had two blood transfusions and to live with only one kidney. His life is a testament to the excellent care he received, and all that was learned from his situation will be passed on to other facilities.
Curtis gave his illness a great fight and will be dearly missed by his Zoo family.