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Pete and Sapphire sit closely together on their island.

Soon our siamangs Sapphire and Pete will not be on their island as Sapphire undergoes surgery.

Despite the exuberant chorus often heard from her island, siamang Sapphire has been feeling the effects of an ongoing health issue lately. Our animal care team, which regularly monitors the quality of life for any sick or geriatric animal residents, has formed a plan for her care, which includes major surgery.

In 2019, Sapphire began showing signs that she was uncomfortable, in addition to being lethargic and uninterested in food. A definitive diagnosis wasn’t made at the time, but our veterinarians believed it was likely a reproductive disease such as endometriosis or cysts. These disorders are common issues for older female siamangs that have never been pregnant before. A recent CT scan confirmed that there are abnormalities within her reproductive tract. At 43 years old, Sapphire has already surpassed the average lifespan of siamangs in human care (about 40 years old).

Sapphire is given pain medication to help through these episodes, which recently began increasing in intensity and frequency. Our animal and veterinary departments recently met to assess Sapphire’s quality of life if she underwent exploratory surgery, with the possibility of a hysterectomy— a surgery that would remove her uterus— versus if she did not have the surgery. After considering all the factors involved, surgery was decided to be the best option for her.

This procedure will allow our veterinary staff to determine where and how far the disease has spread. In the best-case scenario, the disease has only affected her uterus, which can be removed. It is possible, however, that multiple organs are affected, and the lesions are inoperable.

Dr. Jeffrey Christiansen of Superior Veterinary Surgical Solutions and Animal Specialty and Emergency Hospital in Rockledge will help the Zoo’s veterinarians with the surgery. He is board certified in veterinary surgery and has performed several procedures on our zoo animals, including kangaroos, an ostrich and a lemur as well as multiple procedures on our Florida black bear Brody in the past.

While our veterinary team routinely performs surgeries, board-certified colleagues are brought in to collaborate for bigger procedures when time is of the essence and the possibility of complications is higher.

Pete, Sapphire’s 44-year-old mate, will be with Sapphire throughout this process. Lesser apes like siamangs become very bonded to each other, said Lauren Hinson, the Zoo’s director of animal programs. Because Pete and Sapphire have lived together for about 37 years, it would be extremely stressful for them to be separated.

“We always try and look at the individual history of the animals and also the natural history before making decisions like this,” Lauren said.

The day of the surgery, which is tentatively scheduled for late January, both siamangs will be sedated in their night house, placed in secure carriers and moved to our animal hospital. Special hospital stalls will be set up for Pete and Sapphire with vines, places to perch and other items for their comfort.

This is considered major abdominal surgery, and all surgery has risks. Our animal care team has had to consider the possibility that Sapphire does not survive this high-risk surgery and the potential affect this would have on Pete.

In this scenario, to make sure Pete has a companion, he may need to move to another facility, or the Zoo may need to add another gibbon species to siamang island. The siamang species survival plan (SSP) coordinator has been contacted to help identify a possible next home for Pete. SSPs are designed to manage the populations of animals within AZA-accredited zoos to ensure they are healthy and genetically diverse.

We know how much our visitors love Sapphire and Pete, who have called the Zoo home for almost 25 years. It’s difficult for all our Zoo family, especially our keepers, when one of our animal residents is sick. We hope through this surgery, we can give Sapphire a better quality of life and more time with Pete on their island.