Riverside Discovery Center finds inventive way to treat chimpanzee

Sarah spends her days basking in the sun, watching Scooter, who she helped raise, run around and shout at people who come to visit them. She is always animated and inquisitive, and interested in the antics of others. So when she began having trouble breathing about a month ago and was wheezing and coughing most of the day, everyone knew something was wrong.

Her nose was constantly running and she didn’t look, or act, quite like herself.

A visit from the doctor confirmed she was having several upper respiratory issues and was prescribed antibiotics.

When Sarah, a chimpanzee at the Riverside Discovery Center (RDC), came down with an upper respiratory illness, staff had to find a way to get her to take her medicine. Humans and chimpanzees share 99.4 percent of the their DNA. And neither of us like to take our medicine.

Sarah and Scooter are typically separated at meal times, so everyone thought getting Sarah her much needed medicine would be an easy task. The keepers soon learned that chimpanzees can be just as difficult as humans when they are sick.

“Normally, when we have to medicate the chimpanzees, we will put it in their food,” said Jen Mitchell, education curator. “We usually try to put it in their juice.”

The bitter taste of the medicine was not pleasant to Sarah.

“She could still taste it (the medicine) and she didn’t like her juice anymore,” Mitchell said. “So we thought, okay, we’ll put it in her favorite things.”

They tried Jello and yogurt, but the bitter taste still came through. They tried freezing the juice into Popsicles and placing it into a green mixture that resembled Jello.

“She spit it out and smeared it everywhere,” Mitchell said. “Then she started refusing everything, food and drinks.”

Staff got in touch with Griff’s Compounding Center for some advice. Griff’s tried several different formulas until, finally they found a solution that worked.

“Sarah is trained to present her ear if it is needed to get an ear massage,” Mitchell said. “We had the antibiotic put into a topical solution and we rubbed it into her ear.”

It finally worked. Sarah began to recover from her illness and she was phased off the antibiotic.

Although staff were frustrated at times because Sarah wouldn’t take her medicine, they took it in stride and continued searching for a way that Sarah would accept. Mitchell said she wouldn’t enjoy a bitter medicine either.

“What can I say, she’s an older lady and she knows what she likes,” Mitchell said.

On Monday, Sarah was pant-hooting and smiling at visitors. She enjoyed watching Scooter run back and forth inside his enclosure, running along with a keeper, who was outside the enclosure. She made faces at visitors and seemingly posed for the camera. When she had amused herself enough, Sarah stretched out at her usual place atop the jungle gym and took a nap in the warm November sun.

Weather permitting, Riverside Discovery Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.