02/06/2012 02:12 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

Sally, Sumatran Orangutan Living At The Denver Zoo, Has Life-Saving Surgery Performed By Denver Doctors (PHOTOS)

University of Colorado doctors had an unexpected patient on their operating table last summer -- a 44-year-old orangutan named Sally from the Denver Zoo. Sally was suffering from anemia and had a large infected tumor in her uterus, so Denver Zoo veterinarians called local doctors for help.

9News reports that early in 2011, Denver Zoo veterinarians noticed that Sally, the eldest Denver Zoo orangutan, was not her normal upbeat, spirited self and was showing signs of anemia. After a series of tests, the zoo vets discovered that the beloved Sumatran orangutan had a large benign tumor in her abdomen and within several days she was no longer able to urinate or defecate on her own. Emergency surgery was deemed necessary and "Team Sally," a group of seven doctors, several veterinarians and members of the Denver Zoo staff, was formed to help save Sally's life.


Team Sally and the Denver Zoo understood how risky and complicated this surgery was -- the doctors had never worked together as a team, none of them were all that familiar with endangered great apes' anatomy and none had performed surgery on an orangutan before, according to The Denver Post. But that didn't stop this team, reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist, Ruben Alvero told The Denver Post:

This was a patient in need, and just like any other patient, there was something wrong and we weren't sure what it was and we knew it needed to be addressed quickly. We felt strongly we had an obligation to the patient.

But the surgery, which one doctor called, "nerve-wracking" and "inspiring," proved to be a success and last month Sally returned to the zoo and was back to being observed with awe by Denver Zoo patrons.

"It's just amazing to be with these majestic animals, it's almost indescribable," said Dr. Lawrence Hergott to CU Medicine Today. Dr. Hergott is the CU cardiology professor who organizes members of the team of doctors that help with medical care for orangutans and gorillas.

This was not the first time Sally or The Denver Zoo sought help from experts outside of veterinary medicine. In 2008, Sally, who was 41-years-old at the time but still considered geriatric for an orangutan, had a developed a significant wound in an area on her upper left thigh and an adjacent area on her abdomen which was repaired by a team of consultants, Denver Zoo documented in their annual report from 2008.

Sumatran Orangutans are a critically endangered species with only around 9,000 left in the wild and although there are international efforts to protect the remainder of the species, experts believe that orangutans could be extinct in the wild within a decade, according to the Denver Zoo website.