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Do Disney Gorillas Really Brush Their Teeth?

Dr. Mark Penning

by , Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

For 31-year-old Zawadi, life is good.

On most days, this 400-pound silverback relaxes near the waterfall on the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, casually chewing on his favorite Pennisetum grass and watching guests marvel at his presence.

Zawadi enjoys a relaxing breakfast.

With the sun warming his back, birds chirping in the distance – and a recent clean bill of health – he appears to not have a care in the world.

You see, gorillas are a lot like humans when it comes to their health. As we age, we both are prone to similar ailments like gum disease, arthritis and cardiac disease. But unlike humans, gorillas can’t actually talk to their doctors about what ails them. So, routine wellness exams are one of the main ways we prioritize the well-being of the gorillas in our care. These preventative health measures are performed by veterinarians, clinical technicians and other animal care experts using state-of-the-art equipment in our on-site facilities, and guests can watch step by step at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Maintaining Gorilla Health

Zawadi during a recent wellness exam at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.

Zawadi’s most recent exam included a computed tomography (CT) scan, which provides detailed images for our veterinarians to analyze and check for any abnormalities. Shortly after, he received a full dental exam, followed by a teeth cleaning. Finally, the care team trimmed his fingernails and removed a sneaky piece of grass found up his nose before they returned him a few hours later to the bachelor troop with a clean bill of health.

We are very fortunate to have an exceptionally dedicated team of animal care experts who invest a lot of time in building trust with these gorillas, which allows us to work this closely with them and develop animal-care techniques that benefit gorillas in managed care around the world.

Gino with his son, Flint.
Gino with his son, Flint.

Gino, the 41-year-old patriarch silverback of the family troop and fan favorite, is another remarkable example of the team’s dedication to lifelong care for gorillas. Through his trusted relationships with Disney’s animal care experts, Gino participates in his own care and is one of the first gorillas in the world to undergo cardiac ultrasounds without anesthesia. This provides a more accurate reading of his heart health, which is crucial to gorillas since they are prone to cardiac disease. These training methods have been adopted by dozens of other zoological facilities

Diet is Key

All of our gorillas – from baby Ada to the large and powerful members of our bachelor troop – receive a daily diet carefully curated by the Animal Nutrition Center at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park to encourage natural foraging behaviors that help keep their minds sharp and bodies strong. Even training sessions are accounted for in their diets, with special snacks to reward them for actively participating in their own care to maintain their overall health and well-being.

Baby Ada with her mom Azizi.
Baby Ada with her mom Azizi.

With any good snack can come dental issues – no matter how healthy the food – so a notable milestone in maintaining good oral hygiene for the gorillas in our care was developed through learned teeth-brushing behaviors. Like humans, gorillas are susceptible to dental disease, and catching gingivitis and other gum changes early can help preserve their teeth and promote longer life. Gino and his keepers worked together to perfect the teeth brushing techniques, and these same techniques and behaviors were then taught to Zawadi and the other gorillas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to help ensure their teeth and gums stay healthy.

Aging Gracefully

As more of the members of the troop begin to advance in age, we’ve begun to modify their barns and habitats to increase access and mobility. Similar to the bars you might see in bathrooms, ring-shaped hand grips have been installed to provide support and take pressure off of their knees when standing up or climbing down. Our animal keepers also are trained to monitor each animal for mobility changes, and this is made easier by the tight bonds they develop over the years and the amount of time they spend working together. Identifying potential arthritis and other geriatric concerns early allows us to immediately treat these issues as needed with medications, cold laser therapy, and, sometimes, even working with a physical therapist on stretches and exercises the gorillas can do to loosen and strengthen areas to increase their mobility.

Zawadi forages for food at Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail Presented by OFF!® Repellents at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.
Zawadi forages for food at Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail Presented by OFF!® Repellents at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.

Gorillas hold such a special place in my heart. As we acknowledge World Gorilla Day on Sept. 24, I’m so proud of the care and dedication our team provides to these intelligent and charismatic animals so they can live longer, healthier lives. We hope by doing this, we’re able to extend their lives and share their incredible stories with others.  

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