He took his shot like a man

Little Joe and gorilla zoo-mates get their dose of human flu vaccine

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 4, 2010

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Little Joe didn’t even flinch.

When the zookeeper in the surgical mask showed him the needle, Joe gave her a nonchalant look, glancing up and down. When she asked for his shoulder, he rotated slowly, munching on granola in a show of teenage toughness and indifference. By the time he stopped chewing and stared at his arm, the shot was already over.

“Goooood boy,’’ cooed Brandi Baitchman, who administered the shot. “Nice job!’’

That was how it went when Joe, the best-known gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo, got his H1N1 vaccination yesterday. Not so different from a person, but without the paperwork and tiny bandage.

“We couldn’t really give him a Band-Aid, because he’d eat it,’’ Baitchman said after Joe had sauntered off to the far reaches of the gorilla habitat at the zoo’s Tropical Forest, an indoor enclave kept at 72 degrees.

The zoo vaccinates each of its six Western Lowland gorillas annually against the flu, using vaccine donated from human hospitals. This year, the primates are getting both the standard flu shot - to be administered next week, courtesy of Children’s Hospital - and the H1N1 vaccine.

“Gorillas share over 98 percent genetic homology to humans, so they’re susceptible to the same diseases, the same viruses that humans are, so we often use human developed vaccines to protect them against the same diseases,’’ said Dr. Eric Baitchman, director of veterinary services for Zoo New England, which oversees the Franklin Park and Stone zoos.

Baitchman, Brandi’s husband, toted the H1N1 vaccines, donated by Quincy Medical Center, in a soft cooler bag, pulling out a package containing five syringes with individual doses. He inserted the needle into the syringe and handed it to his wife, who opened the training door at the edge of the glass-enclosed habitat to reveal a screen of steel mesh. Joe was already waiting.

“Hi buddy, what’s up?’’ Brandi Baitchman said, leading him through a series of commands, over the rush of a manmade waterfall and the periodic caw of an ibis. “Can I see your belly?’’ she said. “Can I see your foot?’’ Each time he comlpied she gave Joe bits of a crumbled oats-and-honey granola bar. In between each move, she told him to keep his hands on the enclosure’s bars, and Joe obliged.

It looked like a typical animal-training routine, but it wasn’t for show. Each of the practiced behaviors has a medical purpose that allows the zookeepers and veterinarians to monitor and maintain the health of Joe and the other gorillas without needing to tranquilize them first.

About once a month, Joe gets a saline injection as a practice shot for his annual vaccines. He does his medical tricks in full view of zoo visitors, at the caged training door, while the other gorillas in the habitat perform their routines in their private sleeping quarters. Because Joe is the dominant one, he controls the training door, which is associated with treats - in this case, the crushed granola bar - not normally included in the regular diet of fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber monkey chow.

While Joe went through the medical routine, Kira, a 10-year-old female, sat nearby and gaped. Across the way, Joe’s nephew Okie - born just a few months behind him, in 1993, at the Bronx Zoo - crossed his arms and leaned against a rock wall, looking sullen.

Joe, a particularly social gorilla, turns 17 Saturday and will be feted at 10:30 a.m. with a party and a birthday cake fashioned from monkey chow, as the zoo does for all of its gorillas. They live in a three-year-old, $2.3 million habitat erected after Joe made a high-profile escape in 2003, attacking and injuring a teenager and a toddler and alarming the neighborhood before he was captured.

The gorillas have enjoyed good health, the Baitchmans said, save for the occasional cold, when they show typically human symptoms: runny nose, cough, low energy. “The boys tend to be really mopey,’’ Brandi said.

The flu vaccines are typically administered in the fall. They were delayed this year until a sufficient supply could be produced for people. At Franklin Park, the annual rite is at once more and less dramatic than the human version.

Just before the shot, Joe flashed his rear end at Baitchman when she asked for his left foot, before completing the trick. Then he took the shot without a hitch.

Jeannine Jackle, an assistant curator, looked impressed. “I volunteered at an H1N1 clinic a couple times this past month,’’ she said. “These guys are so much better at taking the shots.’’