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Stories of Connections with Animals & Humans

Gorilla Doctors

Gorilla Doctors

Meet the Gorilla Doctors, a group of veterinarians that are providing health care and saving the lives of critically-endangered mountain gorillas.  Recently I had the pleasure of attending a speaking session of passionate Kirsten V.K. Gilardi, Co-Director of Gorilla Doctors, founded at UC Davis.  Here is their story.

The Gorilla Doctors began as the realization of a dream of American gorilla researcher Dian Fossey who dedicated her life to studying and protecting the remaining (and declining) mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  Gorillas were being killed outright by poachers, suffering from injuries caused by snares, and succumbing to illnesses that Fossey suspected were being transmitted by humans. (Pictured above, a doctor holds a gorilla’s hand as a medical intervention is underway.)

Through a partnership with Morris Animal Foundation that began in 1984, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) was born and Dr. James Foster was the first official gorilla doctor.  During the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the years of armed conflict that followed, Dr. Foster tirelessly advocated for the protection of the mountain gorillas caught in the crossfire.

At his death in 1997, Dr. Mike Cranfield took the reins and expanded the program to include gorillas living in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as orphaned gorillas.  AND, because human illnesses affect gorillas, the program began providing health care for people working in and living near the gorilla habitat. That’s right, health care.

In 2009, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project partnered with the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, and formed today’s Gorilla Doctors.

Enter One Health Initiative, supported by Gorilla Doctors.  One Health recognizes the inextricable link between human health (including mental health via the human-animal bond phenomenon), animal health, and ecosystem health, and thus promotes the health and well-being of all species.  How?  By enhancing cooperation and collaboration between physicians, veterinarians, and other scientific health and environmental professionals.

Yes, they collaborate.  Headed by our own UC Davis, a team of veterinarians have come together internationally to give direct, truly hands-on care where exam rooms are literally in the wild.  Gorilla Doctors continues to bring UC Davis medical residents, veterinary students and graduate students to Rwanda to contribute to human health initiatives and research.

At this point in Kirsten’s talk, her audience knew this was about much more than saving animals, this was a recognition of how all beings are linked, and engaging in that universal connection in a humanitarian way.  Her compassion for these gorillas threaded her voice as she wove the gorilla doctors’ story.

The Gorilla Doctors’ veterinary team regularly monitors the health of gorilla groups to ensure the early detection of disease and injury.  Each family group of gorillas has a name, each member of the group is also named.  Guided by stark photos that brought tears of joy, we listened and watched, enthralled by each animal’s Human-ness.

When gorillas suffer from human-induced or life-threatening trauma or disease, the team stages medical interventions to save their lives.  While circumstances vary for each case, generally animals suffering from infectious disease are darted with antibiotics and injured animals are anesthetized and treated in the forest.  Working with veterinarians in the Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, doctors remove snares from gorilla’s limbs and treat sick gorillas with medicine.

And then there are the orphans.  As a result of poaching and the illegal trade of wild animals, Gorilla Doctors treat and care for confiscated gorilla orphans. Frightened and scared, the infants relax quickly in the arms of field veterinarians, recognizing safety even as orphans.  Gorilla Doctors assist all three governments – Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo – by providing emergency and quarantine care for all gorillas from the moment they are rescued until their transfer to a long-term care facility.

Gorilla Doctors mentors veterinary students and employs veterinarians in those countries, provides health care for the locals, and helps them be sustainable. By studying disease outbreaks and pathogens in wildlife, doctors in Uganda are learning how to prevent the emergence of potentially dead pathogens in wildlife that could affect people.  The Gorilla Conservation Employee Health Program provide health screenings and follow-up care for hundreds of rangers, porters and others who work in the national parks where the gorillas live.

Cross training veterinarians at the California National Primate Research Center, African veterinarians are becoming more educated in not only veterinary skills but conservation medicine.  By training and mentoring current and future African veterinarians, Africans are taking responsibility for their continent’s conservation challenges.  Gorilla Doctors envision a future when Africans are the primary stewards of the gorillas’ health.

Gorilla Doctors is a remarkable story of an international collaborative response to a human-animal-environmental challenge with huge socio-beneficial payback.  Each dollar of support translates directly into gorilla lives saved.

Gorilla Doctors

PO Box 356

Davis, California 95617

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