RMKThe Gorilla Doctors Story

The Gorilla Doctors began as the realization of a dream of American gorilla researcher Dian Fossey.  Fossey dedicated her life to studying and protecting mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and by the mid-1980s, her research indicated that the mountain gorilla population was rapidly declining, with fewer than 300 known mountain gorillas remaining in the world. Gorillas were being killed outright by poachers, suffering from life-threatening injuries caused by snares, and succumbing to illnesses Fossey suspected were being transmitted by humans. At that time, there was no health program in place to treat sick and injured gorillas.

In 1984, Fossey met wildlife enthusiast Ruth Morris Keesling, whose father was Dr. Mark Morris, founder of the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF), an organization that funds animal health research around the world. “There are 248 gorillas in the world, and they’re all going to die,” Fossey told Keesling. “Would you help me save them by sending a veterinarian for them?”

Keesling promised to help Fossey by establishing the Volcanoes Veterinary Clinic in Rwanda through MAF. She hired Dr. James Foster to be the resident veterinarian—the first Gorilla Doctor.

Sadly, on December 26, 1985, a few weeks before Dr. Foster was scheduled to arrive in Rwanda, unknown assailants murdered Fossey in her cabin. Fortunately, MAF vowed to honor Fossey’s wishes, and in early 1986, Dr. Foster set about building the clinic.

Dr. Foster served as program director of what would become the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) until his death in Rwanda in 1997. Thanks to his leadership, the project built a veterinary program that would ultimately help turn around the decline of the mountain gorilla species. 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.

Following Dr. Foster’s death, Dr. Mike Cranfield became executive director of the MGVP. Under Dr. Cranfield, the program expanded to include health programs for the mountain and Grauer’s gorillas living in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, orphaned gorillas, and for the people working in and living near gorilla habitat.

In 2006, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project became its own 501(c)3 organization, separate from MAF.  Three years later, MGVP partnered with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Together, the two institutions formed Gorilla Doctors, which is now under the co-directorship of Cranfield and Dr. Kirsten Gilardi at UC Davis. 

Gorilla Doctors now employs more than a dozen veterinarians and health experts in all three countries where mountain gorillas live. Meet the current roster of Gorilla Doctors and other staff members.