Giving Bonobos A Hand

The world’s largest group of captive bonobos lives in Milwaukee. Sometimes, they break each other’s fingers. Dr. James Sanger is there to fix them.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Illustrations by Kevin Lawler.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Illustrations by Kevin Lawler.

Additional reporting by Daniel Simmons.

If Kitty had understood him, Dr. James Sanger would’ve offered some postoperative instructions.

Don’t bother bandaging the open wound that covers almost all of the bottom of your foot.

And by all means, lick the wound. A lot. Don’t spare the saliva.

Unorthodox advice? Yes. But Kitty was an unorthodox patient.

At the time of the surgery, she was in her late 50s or early 60s – birth records are somewhat murky – making her the oldest bonobo living in the United States, and likely the world. She came to Sanger because of an infected bite wound on her toe.

Kitty was also blind, nearly deaf and unable to place weight on her foot, which had a softball-sized bulge that nearly covered the heavily calloused sole.

“On her X-ray, this is a bad sign – there’s gas,” Sanger says, pointing to Kitty’s toe on film. “Bacteria are multiplying, and as a byproduct, they’re putting that out. Bacteria are going to start to get in the bloodstream.”

Sanger knows his stuff, and not just for bonobos. In fact, they’re not even his main patients. He’s a respected surgeon for humans, a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and chief of plastic surgery for the Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center. He even operated on Mayor Tom Barrett’s hand after it was broken in a bloody assault at the 2009 State Fair.

But for more than two decades, Sanger has also been on call for apes at the Milwaukee County Zoo, fixing mangled hands and feet that, left untreated, likely would spawn the serious consequences of an infection, possibly even death.

Sanger, in scrubs and a surgical mask, worked for an hour on the anesthetized Kitty’s foot, removing the calloused skin flap around the infected bulge and flushing the wound. It was red and raw and ghastly, but he left the wound unbandaged.

Long before treating Kitty, Sanger had been amazed to learn that animals have remarkable powers of self-healing, which enable them to recover within days from injuries that would lay up humans for weeks. One specific thing he’d learned about the hairy patients: Their saliva contains special wound-healing properties.

“In the wild, over millions of years, these animals have evolved a system that enables them to treat their injuries,” he says. “Humans have lost that. We have evolved a bit in the wrong way. We are not as tough.”

Kitty spent the days after surgery licking her wound. Sanger visited her daily, “making the rounds” as he would with a human patient. She recovered from the infection and rejoined her bonobo community.

“She was like everybody’s grandmother,” says Roberta Wallace, the zoo’s senior veterinarian. “So, when there was a lot of discord in the group and if somebody had to calm down, they’d go with Kitty, and she’d kind of make everything right.”

Sanger performed Kitty’s surgery back in 2011. When she died in 2013, it wasn’t because of the wound, but due to reasons associated more with her old age.

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‘Giving Bonobos a Hand’ appears in the March 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the March issue on newsstands beginning Feb. 29.

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