March 2017

Kumbuka can’t hear you — that was confirmed thanks to a basic hearing test. What’s anything but basic about Kumbuka is that she’s a gorilla living at a Florida zoo, and she had her hearing tested with tools typically used for babies. Soon after her arrival at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2014, zookeepers surmised that Kumbuka was having trouble hearing. Two surefire signs: the 21-year old western lowland gorilla wasn’t responding to her name and needed someone to stand in  view to announce their presence.

gorillaChristine Cook, a paediatric audiologist, tested the animal’s hearing using the same device used to measure hearing in babies. A hand-held probe was placed in Kumbuka’s ear, sending a signal to the inner ear, with the hope that the ear would send a signal back, much like sonar. When the signal is not returned, hearing loss is apparent. As you can imagine, Kumbuka was a once-in-a-lifetime patient for Cook. “This is the first time a gorilla has been tested for hearing,” she said in a statement. “Walking up to her for the first time, it took my breath away. Theoretically, we thought we would get the same results as we do with babies, and everything ran smoothly.” The information will help zookeepers determine future care for Kumbuka, who knows some hand signals. “The diagnosis is profound hearing loss,” said Drew Horlbeck, MD, a paediatric otologist. “Unfortunately, we can’t restore her hearing as we do in children. But this diagnosis will help the zookeepers care for the gorilla and work on improving her quality of life.”