We Treated Koko!







Many of you have heard that Koko, the lowland gorilla that could use sign language, has died.  What you might not know is that in 2012, Dr. Howard Gittelman of Animal Medical of New City helped to save her life.


Had Toy Lodged In Her Stomach


In 2012, Koko the gorilla was suffering from chronic stomach upset and a lack of appetite.  Her handlers discovered that she had inadvertently swallowed one of her toys and that it was lodged in her stomach.  Cases like these can be treated by surgically opening up the patient, removing the foreign body, and sewing things back up again, but recovery from surgery on the digestive tract is painful and sometimes complicated. Koko’s handlers were determined to avoid the risk of surgery and to remove the toy using an endoscope, a tool with a camera and a small snare, that can snake down the throat of a lightly anesthetized patient and grab a foreign body.  Unfortunately the team had tried and failed at the procedure twice.  What Koko’s medical team needed was a veterinarian experienced with endoscopic removal of foreign bodies.  Enter Dr. Howard Gittelman.


Betty White Found Howard Gittelman and Introduced Him To Koko’s Team


Dr. Howard Gittleman acquired an endoscope for Animal Medical in 2010 and had been using it for more than two years to safely remove foreign bodies from cats and dogs and to non-invasively biopsy suspicious masses.   Excited by his success rate, he wrote a blog about it on his website which was read by Betty White, the woman of Golden Girl’s fame and a big advocate of Koko.  Sensing that she had found someone who could help, White passed the article onto Koko’s medical team who read it and contacted Gittelman. Subsequent to a phone discussion about Koko and Gittelman’s experience, Howard was flown out to California to assist in the third endoscopic attempt to remove the ball from Koko’s stomach.


Endoscope Customized For Koko


In addition to Gittleman, Koko’s surgical team consisted of a human anesthesiologist, 4 nurse anesthetists, a human gastroenterologist, a veterinary clinical pathologist, the San Francisco zoo veterinarian, and a veterinary internal medicine specialist.  Also on hand was a representative from the manufacturer of an endoscope that had been customized specifically for Koko and the removal of the object. Under the watchful eye of Gittelman and the other members of the team, the foreign body was retrieved in less than an hour. Because the procedure didn’t require the cutting of any tissue, Koko’s recovery was quick and robust.


Koko Provided Insight Into The Complexity of Other Species


Koko was one of the first animals to help humanity understand that we are not alone in our ability to be self reflective, to feel grief, love, express empathy, and to communicate these complex emotions and thoughts to others.  It is because of animals like Koko that humans have come to more fully appreciate the diversity of life and to see it from outside the prejudices of our own perspective.  Interesting, she was quite at peace with her own mortality.  When asked what death meant to her, Koko signed, “A comfortable hole”.

Have your own thoughts about animal intelligence?  Please share in the comments section located at the very bottom of the post.


Watch Koko describe her feelings towards babies and motherhood.

Howard Gittelman’s Story Makes Local News


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If your pet has not responded to previous medical treatment, we may be able to help.  We have extensive experience providing second opinions on the following kinds of cases:

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