Riverbanks Zoo gorilla ultrasound confirms historic pregnancy on schedule for May

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Riverbanks Zoo will make history this May when it welcomes its first baby gorilla.

Western Lowland Gorillas have been a popular exhibit at the zoo since 2001, but never before has a gorilla been bred or raised at the zoo. Macy, an 11-year-old gorilla at Riverbanks, is changing that.

We recently went inside the gorilla's "bedroom" to watch as keepers and veterinarians did their weekly ultrasound with Macy.

"How do we train a gorilla to actually participate in their own ultrasound?" John Davis, mammals curator at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, said. "It's pretty amazing and remarkable."

Davis says Macy's interaction with the keepers who perform the ultrasound is built on trust, relationship and months of planning. Her ultrasounds are really an extension of the interactions keepers have with the gorillas at the zoo on a regular basis.

"It's a very gradual process, two steps forward, one step back. You have to work very, very gradually," Davis said. "You don't want to scare them."

Simply put, Davis says it's consistent and positive reinforcement of behavior that allows them to walk alongside Macy.

"It takes some practice and some repetition, and really a strong relation between the animal and the zoo keeper," Davis said.

That played out early on in the ultrasound process when Macy let keepers shave a small part of her belly.

"Her belly is really quite hairy, and ultrasound doesn't go well through hair," Martha Webber, a senior veterinarian at Riverbanks Zoo, said. "So we had to take a few steps back and train her to allow us to shave part of her abdomen."

The shaving was captured on cellphone video and showed Macy didn't seem to mind at all as trainers reassured her with treats. Macy also didn't seem to mind our cameras capturing some of her check-ups.

"Basically we want to get a look at their whole body, twice a day, in the morning and evening, just to get an assessment," Emily Guertin, a senior keeper at Riverbanks, said.

Every day the keepers make sure all five gorillas at Riverbanks are healthy. While they perform those daily assessments, keepers use a device that makes a clicking noise to affirm positive responses from the gorillas. Keepers say that clicking noise is called a bridge. It's part of the language formed between man and ape.

"That's letting Macy know she's doing the correct behavior that we're asking for," Guertin said.

Once Macy lets her keepers know she's okay on the outside, they start the ultrasound process of her check-up. Webber watches the ultrasound closely, while keepers move the ultrasound device around on Macy's belly.

"We want to confirm that we still have a beating heart, that everything looks healthy inside," Webber said.

That's not always easy given the space keepers have to work and the location of the infant, but just moments into the ultrasound our cameras were rolling on it captured a special sound.

"Actually I think there we've got a heartbeat. Yup! Hold her right there," said Webber.

It was a moment that had our hearts racing too. "So right here you can see, the heart beating," Webber said as she pointed to the screen. Then Webber captured a clearer image of the infant.

"These kinds of brighter white blocks, that's going to be the rib or spine. Here's the heart right here, so we've got the baby kind of arched over," Webber said.

Veterinarians and zookeepers say seeing the infant on ultrasound never get old.

"It's a real celebration every week," said Davis. "We knew it was in there, we knew it was alive, but to see that heartbeat. It was really special and something that we've been working towards. There's little moments of celebration along the way."

You could call them "baby steps" as the team looks to having an infant in Gorilla basecamp sooner than later. One of the amazing things we've learned in this process are the similarities between a female human pregnancy and a gorilla pregnancy.

Macy will carry her infant for a little more than eight months. She was in human birth control prior to her pregnancy, and keepers confirmed her pregnancy with a pregnancy test that can be bought at a drug store. Macy's currently on prenatal vitamins and they are monitoring her diet closely.

All of this leads to the question - why have an infant at Riverbanks and why now? Macy's pregnancy is actually part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Gorilla Species Survival Plan.

With just 150,000 to 200,000 Western Lowland Gorillas left in the wild, keepers see this infant as part of ensuring the life of the species for years to come.

It's one of many reasons why we're launching this new WIS series "Beyond the Banks."

We'll bring you stories about Macy's pregnancy, conservation, and what's next for the zoo right here on WIS as we get closer to history being made at Riverbanks.

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