Cardiologist helps with animals at the zoo

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While Dr. Jerome Lacy has practiced medicine as a cardiologist for close to five decades, in recent years he’s branched out to treat the hearts of other mammals residing at the Louisville Zoo. 

Lacy, 75, who was born in Salyersville and moved away in the third grade, practices cardiology in Louisville, though in recent years he’s cut back his hours and considers himself semi-retired.

Roughly 10 years ago the Louisville Zoo contacted him about being a consultant for them, helping treat mammals on a volunteer basis. Lacy said he spends most of his time with woolly monkeys and gorillas, who share some similar heart diseases with humans.

“Woolly monkeys and gorillas need exams and treatment for blood pressure,” Lacy explained. “So we do exams on them. I’ll do an echo to determine if hypertension has weakened the heart, and if needed, we prescribe meds.”

Lacy said the Louisville Zoo does a “superior” job taking care of their animals, or as he called them, the “ambassadors” of their species. 

“They have a human OBGYN come in when an animal is pregnant, and they have a urologist,” Lacy said. “The veterinarians at the Louisville Zoo do a superior job taking care of these animals.”

Lacy said they’ll do ultrasounds and EKGs on the animals, all while they are aestheticized. 

“I’m having a blast doing it and I have the time now that I’m semi-retired,” Lacy said. 

While generally the extra hairy patients are put under before Lacy and the other medical professionals come in, he said they have had one close call.

“We had a big gorilla down and doing an ultrasound of his heart, and the dentist is cleaning his teeth, and all of the sudden, he just sits right up on the table and looks me in the face,” Lacy remembered. “I just froze and somehow none of us reacted. I couldn’t react because I was frozen in place, but the zoo guy so calmly went back to the anesthetic and turned it up. He laid back down and we continued with what we were doing, but it was 15 seconds of sheer panic.”

Before he starts examining the animals, Lacy said they zoo’s staff uses a blow gun dart with anesthetic to get the patients ready to move out of their cages, then they are put on gurneys and wheeled over to the zoo hospital, where they are intubated and given gas anesthesia.

“They don’t go willingly,” Lacy noted. “The woolly monkeys are so smart they know what we’re there for and they start swinging around. They go to the back of the cage and try to use the rope to deflect the darts.”

Lacy emphasized how important it is to treat these animals, though.

“The zoo looks at these animals as they’re ambassadors for their jungle, and by them being here people pay more attention to their preservation. It’s a worthwhile thing to have for the human race. It’s fascinating to be up close and personal with them, and it’s adding a quality of life to everyone’s life since we treat them for diseases.”

He said he was treating several 25-pound woolly monkeys from South America for high blood pressure.

“I had more than one on meds that I would prescribe for a 250-pound man and we could barely control it with that,” Lacy said.

He explained that gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys are genetically very close to humans, so he treats them very similarly. That being said, he has examined a grizzly bear, too.

“I’ve done a lot of things in cardiology, even working on trials with artificial hearts, and that was fun, but this is at least as much if not more fun,” Lacy said. 

The Louisville Zoo's Senior Staff Veterinarian Zoli Gyimesi, DVM, told the Independent, "The Louisville Zoo is fortunate to have a network of healthcare professionals that assist on an as-needed basis.  In the event a non-human primate requires specialized care, it is common for us to reach out to human healthcare specialists since the anatomy and physiology of monkeys and apes is so similar to humans.  Dr. Lacy has been a great resource assisting with the medical management of the Zoo’s primates, particularly the woolly monkeys, a species that has a propensity for cardiovascular disease, including hypertension."

Since moving away in third grade, Lacy always comes in to visit family in Salyersville at least once a year, noting that he has a lot of relatives in the Mortimer, Rice, and Cooper families. His parents were Windsor and Helen Adams Lacy.

Photo from Kyle Shepherd, media and public relations manager for the Louisville Zoo.