Orangutan OBGYN: One volunteer helps zoo babies

Dr. Dianne Sawyer (Courtesy Photo)

Dr. Dianne Sawyer (Courtesy Photo)
Dr. Dianne Sawyer (Courtesy Photo)
By Ashley Pereyra

For some people, volunteering your time can mean volunteering your profession. Dianne Sawyer, a medical consultant at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center and a retired OBGYN, volunteers at Cameron Park Zoo once a week.

However, she’s not feeding or cleaning up after animals. Sawyer is a part of a special training initiative for a 14-year-old female orangutan called May.

May was given a breeding recommendation by the Species Survival Plan program under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

It is hoped that May will conceive within the next two years, according to Terri Cox, the curator of exhibits and programs at Cameron Park Zoo.

“Zoo animals’ birth plans are managed with all of our animals,” Cox said. “Then, when we are ready for animals to breed, we can really prepare them to give the babies the best chance we can.”

May is being trained to be a proactive mother. May’s training began at the end of last year. Her training covers a broad spectrum.

She is being taught to bring the baby to the front of the enclosure, to give the baby to keepers, sit for a breast pump and to hold the baby up in case zoo keepers need to supplement the baby with bottles, Cox said.

“We want her to be very comfortable with all the aspects of maternal care,” Cox said. “And so we start now getting her used to all these procedures because it is better before she gets pregnant and she has all those other changes going on.”

Sawyer’s involvement is more specialized. In 2010, she retired from her OBGYN practice after 23 years. She said that changes in government involvement in medicine and the increased distance between the hospital to her home, which affected her reaction time to patients, contributed to this move.

Since her retirement, she has kept busy. Sawyer took up a medical consulting job at the Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. She has also been involved as a zoo medical volunteer.

This was the first time she has volunteered her skills as an OBGYN at the zoo. She performed successful sonograms on a gibbon and a chameleon.

Sawyer remembers the morning of the gibbon sonogram.

She had Cox bring the gibbon out of the zoo to receive the sonogram.

“About six o’clock in the morning, we took them over to where the ultrasound machine was,” Sawyer said. “Terri had the gibbon all wrapped up in a baby blanket. The security guard that was letting them in was kind of looking, like, ‘that’s an ugly baby.’”

For May, it will be a little different. Orangutans are bigger and stronger than gibbons. Sawyer is working to get May used to sitting and going through a regular sonogram. They want her to be awake during it.

“We haven’t actually given her a true sonogram yet,” Sawyer said. “What we’ve been doing is using a syringe cap and getting her used to the feel of having the gel on her abdomen and also training her to stay still long enough so we could do the sonogram.”

Sawyer will be an active part of the birthing plan team. During the pregnancy, she will monitor the growth and health of the baby. Sawyer said that the process will not be without its difficulties.

“Most of the time with women early in their pregnancy, their bladder is full so it acts as a window,” Sawyer said. “We really can’t convey that to May to keep her bladder full.”

Therefore, the first six to eight weeks of the pregnancy will not be monitored in this way. Once the amniotic sac, the place where the fetus develops, is full, Sawyer will be able to chart the baby’s progress. She will also be present at the birth of May’s baby.

Sawyer has been involved at Cameron Park Zoo since its opening in 1993. She has rotated on and off the board of directors for nearly 20 years and volunteered to clean cages and feed animals.

“I’ve always enjoyed zoos,” Sawyer said. “I think they are such an asset for the community. It’s something great for the whole family to do. I just enjoy working with them.”