Creating Healthy Smiles, One Smile At A Time

Monthly Archives: August 2015


I read a great article which brought a big smile to my face. Combining two of my fascinations, gorilla’s and teeth, it discusses the challenges zookeepers face in preventing cavities in gorilla’s teeth. Apparently, unlike their ‘free brethren’ that roam the jungles, gorillas in zoos tend to get cavities (I had no idea), partly because they live up to 20 years longer, and also because of their diet (must be all the candy getting thrown into the cages).

400 pound gorillas are also afraid of toothbrushes and have to be desensitized to using them.  Zookeepers have various techniques  (mostly bribery by giving grapes and popcorn) for introducing the toothbrush.  If necessary, gorilla dentists will place fillings or even the occasional root canal.

Titled “How to brush a Gorilla’s teeth“, it’s a great read.  Here it is in it’s entirety.

gorillaEven 400-pound silverbacks will fear a toothbrush. ‘‘You have to desensitize them,’’ says Jodi Carrigan, the lead keeper of primates at Zoo Atlanta, which is home to the largest collection of gorillas in North America. At first, place the toothbrush at a safe distance, somewhere out of reach but visible. Every day, inch it closer until you can hold the brush in your hand while you teach the gorilla to open its mouth. To do this, reward it with grapes, slices of apple, popcorn or juice (Crystal Light is an ape favorite). The first time an animal completes the desired behavior, ‘‘jackpot’’ it, offering 10 grapes instead of one. ‘‘Then they’re like, ‘Oh, whatever I just did I should do it again,’ ’’ Carrigan says.

Wild gorillas eat mostly plants and have fewer dental problems than more omnivorous species like chimpanzees, which consume fruits, nuts and animal protein much as cavity-riddled humans do. Scientists have found that animals undergo distinct morphological changes in captivity; some species grow larger skulls, for example, while others get more cavities. Captive gorillas live as much as 20 years longer than their wild counterparts too, reinforcing the need for a basic dental-hygiene regimen. At Zoo Atlanta, willing gorillas have their teeth brushed several times a week, and dentists are on call to drill out decay and perform the occasional root canal.gorilladentist

After a gorilla holds its mouth open on cue, introduce the brush. ‘‘Start with the incisors,’’ Carrigan says. ‘‘Slowly work your way back to the canines and then the molars.’’ Don’t force it. Keep extra toothbrushes at the ready: They will be grabbed, tossed, chomped on. Use only fluoride-free toothpaste; training a gorilla to spit is not worth the trouble. Some apes accept brushing within days; others resist for months.

Carrigan encourages the gorillas in so-called motherese, the same cooing, high-pitched intonation she uses with her own small children. In fact, when her children started getting their milk teeth at around 8 months, she schooled them to obediently open their mouths too. ‘‘I used the gorilla training method,’’ she says. ‘‘Now my kids are really good at brushing.’’

by Malia Wallan (New York Times Sunday Magazine, 8/16/2015)