He who knows the most about King Kong

Author: Yu Yang; Translator: Riley Peng @Animal Dialogue

First published on Animal Dialogue, June 3rd, 2016


Introduction: September 24th, 2017 was the first World Gorilla Day. Previous to this, only a few countries had established gorilla days. Currently, all the gorilla populations in the world are endangered, and we hope that World Gorilla Day will bring more people to care about gorillas.

Now, let’s learn more about gorillas through this interview with gorilla expert Dr. Chris Whittier!

Interviewee Profile
Chris Whittier: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, PhD in Biology, assistant research professor, and one of the founders of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Master’s program for Conservation Medicine. Dr. Whittier is also the mentor of two members of Animal Dialogue, and we would like to dedicate this article to him.


A Winding Road of Wildlife Conservation

Dr. Whittier uses “evolutionary” to describe his journey pursuing a career in wildlife conservation. Born in rural New Hampshire, his childhood in forests and the wild brewed in him deep love and respect for nature. At the same time, he has always been interested in animals, especially primates like gorillas. This interest has persisted for more than 40 years. Although he is a veterinarian now, he thought what all veterinarians do is taking care of animals when he was younger. Compared to being a veterinarian, he desired more to become a biologist.


Nevertheless, right before college, he temporarily forgot his interest in wildlife and nature, and chose to major in engineering and architecture. In his senior year in high school, he picked up a magazine at the barber’s shop while getting his hair done. In the magazine, he saw an article about Dian Fossey’s gorilla research called “The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey.” This article revived his childhood love for gorillas and other wildlife. As a result, he took his biology classes in college seriously, but still hadn’t really considered veterinarian a future career option until reading about modern veterinary technologies on another magazine. The Time Magazine article, “When Guinea Pigs Become Patients: Ailing animals now rate treatments developed for their masters,” ignited Dr. Whittier’s passion for conservation biology and veterinary studies. By conducting wildlife disease research, he could both protect individual animals and preserve animals on the species level.

The July 2010 issue of Journal of Wildlife Diseases used a cover photo taken by Dr. Whittier.

The Most Complicated Field Surgery

After completing his degree in veterinary medicine, Dr. Whittier went to Africa to study gorillas. The researchers mostly stay in Rwanda, but the gorilla habitats are located in the intersection between the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, distributed among these three countries. Dr. Whittier’s base had two young veterinary students still receiving veterinary training. One day, they received a message asking for help: a gorilla had injured himself by falling into a trap. That was around 2006. Because of the recent civil unrest, Congo’s tourism industry was not very developed, making it difficult to enter Congo and reach the habitat of the injured gorilla. After a long and strenuous hike, they finally saw the injured gorilla. But, wait a second, it’s two, not one, gorillas! The hand of one was still tangled up in iron wire, while the skin of another gorilla’s palm had almost been completely peeled up, its skeleton exposed in the air.

You can see Sebagabo’s wound. He was the gorilla who lost his palm after the surgery.

After a thoughtful discussion, Dr. Whittier and his friend decided to first treat the gorilla with a lighter injury, because if they waited too long to attend to the wound might cause his condition to exacerbate, while the other gorilla’s palm certainly needed to be amputated. Luckily, the surgery was successful, and the hand of the lightly injured gorilla was saved. After a few days, Dr. Whittier and his crew started treating the other gorilla. Because he was still young and often spent time near his mother, anesthesia became exceptionally difficult. If they were to anesthetize his mother first, this gorilla could very likely run away and suffer attacks from other gorillas. On the other hand, if they were to anesthetize him first, his mother could perceive these veterinarians’ action as a threat and attack them. The pouring rain, of course, didn’t help either. Nevertheless, in the end, they anesthetized both the mother and the child, finally able to start inspecting the wound. They discovered that the exposed bones were entirely infected, so they did an amputation, cleaned the infected areas on the wound, and gave the gorilla antibiotics. They didn’t sew together the wound because it might cause further infection in the wilderness environment. This surgery was the two Congolese veterinary students’ first complex outdoors wildlife surgery, as well as one of the most complex surgeries Dr. Whittier had ever done. After the surgery, they periodically injected the gorilla with antibiotics to prevent infection, which was not an easy task and had become increasingly difficult because the gorilla was very smart and very quickly learned to shun the veterinarians.

On the left is the young Sebagabo after amputation. On the right: Sebagabo as a fierce grown-up.

After a few months, Dr. Whittier completed his work in Africa and returned to the States. At the same time, he lost touch with the gorillas they saved. He admitted that a Congolese colleague still kept his eyes on one of the gorillas, but he deliberately avoided imparting any information regarding the more severely injured one, because he thinks that he had only a meager chance of survival. It appeared almost impossible for the gorilla who had lost one hand, living in such harsh conditions with rampant poaching activities, to make it through. However, in February 2017, Dr. Whittier saw a Facebook message from Eddy, one of the two Congolese veterinary students: the then-young gorilla from ten years ago not only survived but grew into one of the strongest dominant males in his tribe. On the other hand, the Congolese students who just finished their first complicated surgery ten years ago also became experienced wildlife veterinarians. Discussing these pieces of good news filled him with pride. He not only praised the tenacity of these wild animals, but also felt hopeful about the emergence of a new generation of veterinarians and biologists.

Dr. Whittier (on the right) at work

Wildlife rescue: marching through the obstacles

As a wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Whittier often has to face many complicated outdoor environments; various components of the rescue process can set back the treatment procedures, such as performing anesthesia and delivering the medicine. Nevertheless, when asked about the challenges he had encountered at work, he found interventions from political and economic powers even more challenging than environmental predicaments.9

Dr. Whittier was invited to speak at a conference on science and film. He was discussing King Kong from a veterinary perspective.

After all, wild animals are not aware of the existence of national boundary lines. A species can be distributed across multiple countries, and protection of these species requires international collaboration. But whenever something went wrong in the relationship among nations, their borders could be closed, making it difficult for people to enter and exit these countries. To prevent these situations from disrupting their work, Dr. Whittier often cooperates with veterinarians from many different countries to avoid interference from state governments.

Dr. Whhittier’s photograph has been selected into a BBC exhibit on solitude: a lonely gorilla looks with yearning at its former home, now an agricultural land outside Rwanda Volcanic National Park.

In addition to the obstacles mentioned above, another difficulty in protecting animals in less economically developed regions is the resistance from the locals. These people lack clean water and ample food, and it is not hard to understand their antagonism towards wildlife care, as more medical resources have been directed to helping animals rather than to them. When reminiscing his trip to Tanzania as a veterinary student, Dr. Whittier recalled his analysis of the parasites in gorilla and human feces. In Tanzania, he discovered with surprise that the local residents often came to him for questions about health, because the doctors there lack medical resources. Although he had only received veterinary training, Dr. Whittier still tried his best to help those who needed help using his specialized primate-related medical knowledge. Therefore, Dr. Whittier often emphasizes (which is also what he tries to pass on to his students) the impossibility of protecting wild animals without satisfying the basic needs of locals. Humans, animals, and the environment are inextricably linked together, and the failure of one could lead to the failure of the other two.

A kitchen outside Dzanga Sangha National Park

Moreover, finding the right way of advocacy also matters. Preaching didactically to locals hardly works, but making the locals benefit from natural and animal conservation is more likely to ensure conservation success. To “conserve,” we have to first understand what the word means: do we want to keep things as they are, help an ecosystem return to its previous condition, or make conservation simultaneous with sustainable resource usage? The difficulty level of the three options successively increases. In real life, isolating an ecosystem for its conservation is hardly practical, and prohibiting any kind of development does not last long. As populations began to rapidly increase, more people coveted better living conditions, requiring vast amounts of resources. The good news is, as societies and technologies advance, we will naturally care more about environmental protections, and find more environmentally-friendly ways to develop.

This is a photo of an eastern lowland gorilla, which has been severely threatened by illegal mining (especially of coltan). Its population was down to 3800 gorillas. Our mobile phones and electronic devices all contain coltan.

On China

When speaking of China, Dr. Whittier admitted that he had only stopped at Hong Kong once for a layover, so he knew little about China. But he said that China is now in a moment with many opportunities and in a crucial transitional phase. Many Chinese people hope to do what they can to protect wild animals and nature, but they require more available platforms to educate them about the science behind conservation, as well as how to conserve. Natural education is becoming more prevalent in China, such as informative posts about ivory and shark fin. As a populous country with high energy demands, relying solely on clean energy can hardly meet its needs. However, every instance of clean energy use, every investment in clean energy electrical power stations, represents one step forward. Dr. Whittier believes that China could become a model for other developing countries, showing them a more environmentally-friendly way of development. To quote a cliche, each small deed done by an individual can lead to more substantial changes. According to Dr. Whittier, this saying speaks true especially in China, the country that has 1/4 of the world population, and more people means more power.

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