Dr. Kristen Hitt, an American veterinarian traveling with Terra Incognito Eco Tours, recently visited Rwanda to trek to see the mountain gorillas and meet the Gorilla Doctors. Dr. Hitt’s experience was life-changing and, with an incredibly generous gift of $50,000, led her to become a major donor for Gorilla Doctors. Here is her testimony:

Dr. Kristen Hitt with the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

“On January 14 I was blessed with an amazing opportunity and experienced one of the most memorable days of my life.  I looked forward to journeying to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park as a traveler but most especially as a veterinarian, welcoming the chance to visit the Kwitonda Group of Mountain Gorillas. In my mind, I envisioned watching gorilla antics from a distance, but this was far from what became my gorilla reality.  

I was first struck by the thickness of the jungle with its low visibility and wondered if I’d sense the presence of a gorilla right beside me obscured by the brush.  The thought was unsettling, but I was comforted by the extensive knowledge of our guides who kept us well informed along with the local men who had been hired to assist us on our trek.  They were fearless and were clearly accustomed to the area, while maintaining constant contact with the trekkers.  We trudged onward until we came to a place where the trekkers, who had been with the Kwitonda group since early morning, were waiting.  It was fascinating to learn that many of the guides, porters, and trekkers were once poachers themselves.  Fortunately, they realized that by preserving these wonderful creatures, their countries have a far greater resource for the future.  They now, having taken advantage of education and the opportunity to make a good wage, are completely devoted to gorilla conservation.  

We left our packs and ascended with only our cameras as I became overwhelmed with nervous excitement.  The first gorillas I spotted were up in the trees.  I was amazed as I watched them move among the branches with hardly a sound.  We were then suddenly taken aback when a female gorilla crept out of a bush directly in front of us.  She did not look startled or frightened, but went about her business as our camera shutters became one long clicking sound.  Then, all at once, there was a silverback!  My heart rate rapidly increased as I held my breath.  Anyone could sense the magnitude of respect the guides had for the creature.  He quietly advanced towards us on the trail as we happened to be blocking his way.  The guides were expertly communicating with the silverback, grunting in a way to reassure him that we were no threat and gently warned us to avoid any eye contact.  

The lead Kwitonda silverback pushed by, and sat, facing away from us. His agility and his upper body mass were incredible and although I could feel his power, I was in too much awe to feel afraid.  I knew it would be no feat for him to reach out and obliterate me in an instant, but he seemed tolerant of our presence, if not relaxed.  I sensed that as long as he knew he was in charge and we cooperated with the guides, the silverback would not be any harm.  I did remember being intrigued that the silverback’s fur seemed far more kempt than the females’.  I wondered if that was because, as the leader, those in his group constantly groomed him.  The females’ coats looked more clumped, matted and dull. Could this be from all the youngsters constantly holding on to their mothers?  Or from the extra nutritional demands of bearing and raising the young?  

The young ones were very curious about us.  At one point, a youngster approached and forced me to back up to maintain an appropriate distance.  He had no fear in his eyes as he looked directly at me.  It felt as if he could feel my soul.  There was such intelligence in his eyes and I could feel our DNA kinship.  These gentle souls have depth. It was a revelation and an awe-inspiring moment.  I will forever remember the feelings I had on that mountain.

Later that evening, the Gorilla Doctors Regional Veterinary Manager Dr. Dawn Zimmerman spoke to our group at the lodge about the Gorilla Doctors and their efforts.  As a veterinarian I was impressed by their successes with such little funding and I approved of their intervention policy (to only intervene when the situation is life-threatening or human-induced).  I applaud the Gorilla Doctor’s efforts and their ‘One Health’ approach that considers the bigger picture of the humans, the animals and the surroundings.  Their vaccination program also allows for several hundred thousand dogs and cats living in the areas around the park to be given proper vaccines to protect against rabies.  This serves to protect not only the gorillas, but the other animals and the people also.

The Gorilla Doctors risk their lives every day to better the lives of these gentle, tolerant, and majestic creatures.  As a fellow veterinarian, I am in awe of their efforts and am so proud to claim their profession as my own.  After having experienced the Mountain Gorilla, I, too, have become an ardent supporter.  What they are doing is awe-inspiring and is truly an effort to maintain the existence of the mountain gorilla, as they deserve.  I encourage anyone who is able to visit these creatures to do so.  I guarantee your life will be touched forever.  For those who cannot make the trek, follow the Gorilla Doctors on their website and please support their cause for the sake of us all.”

Dr. Hitt will soon be opening a veterinary practice in Fairfax, VA. If you live in the area, make sure to swing by and show your support for this very generous, very dedicated animal lover!

For more on Mainstay Veterinary Practice, go to www.mainstayvet.com.