Veterinary Care: Gorillas in the Congo

Last month, I was able to experience something that was truly a dream come true. For my entire career, I’ve longed to travel to the home country of a species I care for at the Detroit Zoo, and contribute directly to the health and welfare of that species. In October, I travelled to the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), which is located in the Kasugho region of North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

GRACE is the world’s only facility that cares for highly endangered Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri) that have been rescued by wildlife authorities after being illegally captured by poachers and traders. Grauer’s gorillas are endemic to this region and only 5,000 remain in the wild. There are currently 14 gorillas being cared for at GRACE, ranging from 3-14 years of age. At GRACE, a dedicated Congolese staff provides daily care, including a diet that includes local fruits and vegetation training for important animal management behaviors and treatment for medical problems. Caretakers also monitor the group while they enjoy a 24-acre forest, which is the largest gorilla enclosure in the world. The Detroit Zoo entered into partnership with GRACE in 2014, and as the Chair of GRACE’s Board, Detroit Zoological Society CEO and Executive Director Ron Kagan has provided and facilitated important support to the project. Most recently, he secured funding for a new night house enclosure that is currently under construction.

I traveled to the Congo with three staff members from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including a veterinarian who led the team, a veterinary technician and a husbandry expert. Our goal for the eight days at GRACE was to perform examinations on 12 of the 14 gorillas – this has never been done before anywhere in the world, and it was important that we do all we could during these exams to learn about the health problems they may face.

The objectives were to conduct physical wellness exams to make sure the gorillas are healthy and to build capacity within the GRACE staff. Most orphaned gorillas suffer from malnutrition and are in poor shape when they first come into human care, and examinations under anesthesia allow a thorough exam to be performed and blood to be collected for testing. During the procedures we worked closely with staff members to demonstrate techniques and discuss observations. The team also transported several diagnostic tools to the site for the exams. A veterinarian from Gorilla Doctors in Rwanda brought a portable X-ray machine and took images of several animals that have had orthopedic injuries in the past. The veterinarian at Disney was able to secure the loan of a portable dental X-ray unit that we used to take radiographs of the teeth to ensure that normal adult teeth are forming below the visible baby teeth. A recently donated ultrasound machine was used to perform cardiac exams on the gorillas as well. With all of these diagnostics being performed, it was especially important that we work efficiently as a team – we discussed our exam plans and responsibilities before each procedure, and worked very well together. During the afternoons, we provided lectures to the staff at GRACE, and shared information about dental health, heart disease and training for important behaviors that allow care to be provided. The staff is very appreciative of opportunities for learning and improvement, and was a very attentive and interactive audience.

In all, my trip to GRACE was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The people at GRACE were very welcoming and gracious and greeted us with a ceremony that included a traditional song and dance prepared just for our team. We were able to observe the gorillas in their forest enclosure, which is the closest I’ve come to seeing them in the wild, and a very special experience. It was wonderful to work with a group of people so committed to the care of these amazing animals. Everyone had to work very hard to allow these health checks to happen, and at the end of week, we celebrated with a party and shared the very American dessert “s’mores” with the staff. I am very thankful to the Detroit Zoological Society for providing me with the opportunity to travel to the Congo, and honored to be able to serve the people and gorillas of GRACE.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the chief veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.

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