The veterinarians at the Woodland Park Zoo had grown increasingly alarmed.
Vip – known also as The Big Guy or Vippers – was an alpha male gorilla with a sinus infection. The vets had given him antibiotics for months, but he remained congested.
The zoo then did something somewhat unusual: They called Dr. Greg Davis, a sinus surgeon at UW Medical Center, and asked him to examine Vip. Davis, who has performed more than a thousand surgeries on humans, had never operated on an animal before, but he agreed.
Arriving at the zoo, Davis walked down a narrow corridor to where the lowland gorilla family lives – in a space apart from the view of zoo visitors. There, Vip, 35, lives with his wife, girlfriend and three of his daughters. They are, by all accounts, a happy family.
“Walking to the gorilla staging area, the first thing is the smell, the gorilla odor,” Davis said. “I had never smelled this before.” He described it as acidic and skunk-like, the kind of smell that lingers in your nostrils.
The trainers then beckoned Vip, who weighs 425 pounds, to approach the cage. They told Vip to open his mouth so Davis could look beyond his looming fangs and into his cavernous mouth. “That was the extent of the physical,” Davis said.
Davis ordered a scan of his head, which indicated that he needed surgery – soon. It was clear from the scan that the infection was eroding his skull bones and pushing into the soft tissue of his face.
Davis worked with presidents of instrument companies to fly equipment directly to the zoo, where the operation would take place. The equipment couldn’t be used on humans again – but it would be possible to use equipment that had been used on cadavers for surgery courses.
Vip went into surgery on a Monday in late August. He was attended by the zoo team and Davis, his surgical scrub tech, nurse and otolaryngology resident.
They placed him on a hospital bed and covered him with a sea foam green blanket. Vip was sedated, and his mouth gaped wide. His large, limp hand was wrapped with pink gauze to hold in an IV.
“It was really one of the hardest sinus surgeries though because of the amount of inflammation,” Davis said. “With inflammation comes extra bleeding.”
Then there was the smell. “Constantly you smell Vip,” Davis said.
And the enormous fangs, inches from where he was operating.
“Every time I would look down to put my instruments in his nostrils, I would also see his fangs.”
Vip responded well after surgery. But days later, he was lethargic again. The gorilla wasn’t eating well, and one of his daughters was hassling him.
Dr. Darin Collins, the lead veterinarian at the Woodland Park Zoo, assured Davis that gorillas are resilient animals – he was confident he would be all right.
Vip’s keepers stayed with him overnight, giving him critical antibiotics and chronicling what he ate and how he behaved.
“He wouldn’t have survived without them,” Davis said of the zoo team.
On the fifth day after surgery, Davis stopped by the zoo to visit Vip.
“I walked into the gorilla area and sat down on the small stool and didn’t make eye contact, just like I always do,” Davis said. Vip pounded his greeting on the cage as usual.
“I said, ‘Hey Vip, how are you?’ And then all of a sudden he threw a lot of straw at me. I laughed and thought that was kind of funny.”
But one of Vip’s keepers knew what that meant. “Uh-oh,” she said.
“Within half a second, I was covered in this hot sticky material that I realized was Vip’s feces,” Davis said. “I had to laugh. I was just so happy that he was feeling good enough to express himself.”