It started with a murmur and ended with cheers: Karen the orangutan made veterinary and medical history by becoming the first orangutan to undergo open-heart surgery.
  • 1990s
  • present

When two-year-old Karen went in for her check up, Zoo veterinarians heard a heart murmur. Further tests showed a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of her heart, a birth defect that is found in human children too. It needed to be fixed, but open-heart surgery had never been done on a zoo animal before, as far as anyone could determine.

The necessary procedure is a fairly common operation on human babies, and since ape and human hearts are almost identical, the “fix” seemed doable. Two world-famous cardiac surgeons, Dr. Stuart Jamieson and Dr. Jolene Kriett, performed the seven-hour procedure, which was a true community effort. A surgery team from UCSD Medical Center volunteered their time alongside Zoo veterinarians.  All together, more than 100 people including surgeons, anesthesiologists, radiologists, respiratory therapists, nurses, and laboratory specialists volunteered their time to help the young ape.

The surgery made headlines. Karen’s story touched people, and she received get-well cards from all over the world. After a long, carefully monitored recovery, Karen returned to the orangutan habitat, where she continued to grow and thrive. She’s there today, and if you visit, you’ll know her by her signature move: rolling from spot to spot instead of walking!

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