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Amid medical mystery, Como Zoo gorillas returning to public view

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Alice holds her baby Nyati at the Como Zoo's behind-the-scenes habitat.
Alice holds her baby Nyati at the Como Zoo's Gorilla Forest behind-the-scenes habitat space Tuesday. Alice is being treated for a skin-picking medical disorder.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The gorilla family at Como Zoo welcomed a new member in 2017, a baby born to Alice, one of the troop's adult females. 

But most visitors have not seen little Nyati. Zookeepers say that's about to change — they've made progress on a medical mystery.

Nyati's parents, and the rest of the six-member family troop at Como, are returning to their public space in the outdoor Gorilla Forest exhibit for the first time in two years as early as Wednesday.

Nyati's mother and father — Alice and Schroeder — and three other gorillas have been, in zoo parlance, "off exhibit" for more than 18 months. They've been kept in a behind-the-scenes enclosure about the size of a basketball court.

Gorillas Alice, Nyati and Schroeder eat in the behind-the-scenes habitat.
Alice, baby Nyati and Schroeder eat inside the Como Zoo's Gorilla Forest behind-the-scenes habitat space Tuesday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Alice, a 17-year-old female moved to Como from Miami in 2013. She's had two babies in St. Paul. The first died shortly after birth in 2014.

Nyati is doing well, but her mom's health is another story. A warning here: The rest of this story may leave you queasy. 

About the time Alice delivered Nyati, she started picking at herself, pulling out her hair and tearing big, open sores on her legs and torso.

"Gorillas in the wild, in captivity, everywhere will get wounds. And they'll pick at the wounds to help keep them clean," said zookeeper Allison Jungheim. 

The outdoor area in Como Zoo's Gorilla Forest.
The gorilla family troop will be moved to their outdoor area in the Gorilla Forest after living in the behind-the-scenes space for more than a year.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Zoo staff have instead been trying to figure out what prompted the problem. 

They've had some clues. Alice walked with a limp for a while, traced via a CT scan to a torn calf muscle that likely predated her pregnancy. It isn't clear how she got that, but her picking started in the same area. She also suffered a collapsed lung, possibly related to her pregnancy.

The picking left parts of her body covered with weeping sores. Some zoo staff said it looked like raw ground beef.

University of Minnesota veterinary professor Micky Trent tried to solve the puzzle. Zoo staff removed wood mulch from the floor of the gorilla day room, thinking it might have prompted an allergic reaction.  

Dr. Micky Trent
Micky Trent is a large animal veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"We put her on antihistamine, steroids, after she had the baby. They didn't give us any good response," Trent said. "So we moved on to trying some drugs that are used in people with the same problem. We didn't see any dramatic improvement right away. But what we found was that when we tried to take her off that, she got worse."

Complicating matters, Alice is still nursing, so the zoo had to consider the health of her baby as they weighed what medication they might try. Skin scrapings didn't turn up any bacterial cause. And although the gorillas groom each other, the other gorillas didn't seem to be part of Alice's problem.

Meanwhile, Nyati was thriving, and Alice was proving a much better mother the second time around. A procedure to fix her lung restored her health for the most part. Her leg seemed to be improving, even with an infant occasionally wrapped around it. 

But her postpartum habit had become an unmanageable mess. Gorilla troops are complex and interconnected — if zookeepers isolated Alice and her baby, there was no telling what might happen when the troop was reunited. So, zoo staff decided their only alternative was to just keep all six of them in close confinement, watched intensely by zookeepers.

Scabs are seen along the side of Alice's body.
Scabs from Alice's skin-picking medical disorder are seen along the side of her body.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

They also brought in experts affiliated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Hugh Bailey, from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, is on the behavior advisory group for the gorilla species survival plan. That's the collective that manages more than 300 gorillas in zoos across North America. 

Bailey said Alice's ailments didn't seem to stem from problems with her family, her pregnancy or any other easily identifiable causes.

"She feeds like normal. She moves around like normal. She rests at a normal amount. It's just in her downtime when she's resting and not sleeping, that she will pick," Bailey said.

Zookeepers don't think captivity is a root cause, although the condition has been reported in other zoo gorillas. Bailey said other gorillas have picked at surgical scars for years, but none of the other Como animals have the problem. 

Alice likely would have died in the wild, or been left behind by her troop because of her leg injury, zookeepers say. Even minor skin lesions could have spurred dangerous infections outside of veterinary care.

Schroeder, a 33-year-old male silverback gorilla, chews on a branch.
Schroeder, a 33-year-old male silverback gorilla, chews on a branch. Schroeder was recommended as a breeding partner for Alice.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"Gorillas actually live longer in captivity than in the wild," said Jungheim, the Como zookeeper.

In the end, zoo staff have settled on a mix of medications safe for nursing mothers and therapy. Over many months, they used food puzzles and other activities to occupy Alice's attention every couple of hours. The picking has subsided, although it hasn't entirely gone away. A ring of scabs still circles her torso.

Zoo staff are hoping as soon Wednesday to take a final step by letting Como's family troop join the zoo's three bachelors outside in the $11 million Gorilla Forest exhibit for the first time since 2017.

Zookeepers hope a little fresh air, and maybe some people watching, may help clear up what's been ailing Alice.