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Fort Worth Zoo Announces Successful Birth of Premature Gorilla Via Emergency Cesarean Section

A labor of love: Fort Worth Zoo staff and human medical specialists rally to save lives of female gorilla and premature baby

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – The Fort Worth Zoo is proud to announce the birth of a female gorilla successfully delivered via emergency cesarean at the Zoo on Jan. 5, 2024, after life-threatening complications impacted the health of the mother. This is the third gorilla birth in the Zoo’s 115-year history but the first gorilla to be born via cesarean section, requiring life-saving care for the mother and premature infant gorilla, involving medical experts from the human world.


One of the Zoo’s female gorillas, 33-year-old Sekani, was pregnant with her fourth offspring and had a routine pregnancy with an expected due date of early- to mid-February. On Jan. 3, zookeepers observed Sekani moving slowly and holding her head, as if she had a headache. Sekani was exhibiting symptoms of preeclampsia, a serious blood-pressure condition that can occur during pregnancy in both humans and primates. Following testing to support a preeclampsia diagnosis, Zoo veterinarians knew intervention was necessary. Because of the diagnosis, along with the prematurity of the baby gorilla, Zoo staff and veterinarians consulted with a local obstetrician and neonatologist and agreed that an emergency cesarean would need to take place to save Sekani and give her unborn baby the best opportunity for survival.

Primates are humans’ closest living relatives in the animal kingdom with many biological similarities. The Zoo veterinary team has consulted with physicians for humans in the past to seek advice on particular cases involving primates. The Zoo has a years-long relationship consulting with Jamie Walker Erwin, M.D., board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology, who quickly assembled a volunteer medical team to assist with the life-saving delivery procedure. On Jan. 5, the Fort Worth Zoo veterinary team, along with assistance from Dr. Erwin, Neonatologist Robert Ursprung, M.D., Dennis Occkiogrosso, CRNA, and supporting experts successfully performed Sekani’s cesarean and care of the premature female gorilla.


“Taking part in delivering Sekani’s infant via cesarean section was one of the highlights of my entire career as an OB-GYN,” said Dr. Erwin of the procedure. “It is an honor and privilege to assist with care for this endangered species and to share my expertise with the veterinary staff at the Fort Worth Zoo. I was amazed at how Sekani’s anatomy matched that of my human patients.”

The infant was born four to six weeks early and required immediate intervention. Dr. Ursprung assisted the Fort Worth Zoo team with resuscitation and stabilization, respiratory support, radiographs, and serial examinations of the premature gorilla. Throughout the last four weeks, he has provided volunteer consultations with Zoo staff to help optimize temperature regulation and nutritional strategy, including oral feeding.

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“It was incredible how similar this mother-infant pair was compared to what I see in the hospital for babies born under similar circumstances,” said Dr. Ursprung. “The baby needed critical respiratory support for a few hours post-delivery, but as she transitioned to life outside the womb, she stabilized quite nicely. She had so many features typical of a slightly premature human baby. The Zoo's care team was incredible. Their ability to adapt to the care needs of a medically fragile infant was amazing to watch.”

Fort Worth Zoo primate keepers, along with veterinary and nutrition staff, began around-the-clock care and feeding of the little gorilla while Sekani recovered from her procedure. Despite repeated attempts to reunite the mother and baby, Sekani showed little interest in caring for her baby. Though it’s hard to determine the exact reason why, Zoo experts suspect Sekani never experienced the necessary hormonal cues that come during natural and full-term birth, therefore resulting in disinterest in the baby. Zookeepers and staff continued constant care that included bottle feeding every two to three hours, ensuring appropriate temperature regulation, weight checks, monitoring of eliminations, and examinations, all while ensuring the infant was near the other gorillas to learn the smells, sounds and sights of the troop.

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After two weeks and several unsuccessful reunification attempts, staff made the critical decision to shift focus to training 24-year-old female gorilla Gracie to become a surrogate mother to the now-thriving baby. Gracie has two offspring of her own, including 1-year-old Bruno. Gracie is already trained to “present” her baby up to a protective mesh barrier so that keepers can give a newborn a visual examination. This trained behavior will be critical during her surrogacy as zookeepers will need to continue supplemental feedings with the infant. Zookeepers are hopeful Gracie will be an ideal surrogate mother, exhibiting maternal behaviors that will be necessary for the baby to thrive: holding and carrying of the infant, protection, cooperation with zookeepers during feeding time, and teaching the little one necessary social skills she needs to be a gorilla.

“Observing our staff and their continuous commitment to this baby and the subsequent surrogacy journey is a testament to their dedication to the animals in their care,” said Michael Fouraker, executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo. “It’s been incredibly inspiring to witness and we are all hopeful that we can continue to watch this little one grow.”


The Fort Worth Zoo team has affectionately named the female baby Jameela, which means “beautiful” in Swahili. However it holds an extra special meaning as it is also a nod to Dr. Jamie Erwin. Zoo experts are optimistic that Jameela will ultimately be an integrated member of the troop of seven (eight including her). The Fort Worth Zoo will continue to share updates on social media about Jameela and Gracie’s surrogacy journey.