Long-time Gorilla Doctors Board Member and former Director of the Morris Animal Foundation (which founded MGVP) Dr. Rob Hilsenroth facilitated a team-building retreat for the Gorilla Doctors staff at Uganda’s Volcanoes Safaris Mount Gahinga Lodge this month. We were fortunate to have Dr. Rob write about his experience with the staff and the remarkable changes he’s observed in Rwanda over the last 20 years. Here is his story:

The Gorilla Doctors staff convene in Uganda for a team-building retreat.

It had been a long ten years since I had an opportunity to be in Rwanda, and a lot has changed.  I had heard from our staff about all the positive changes, but until I actually spent a few days there, I couldn’t comprehend the advances.  

My relationship with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (initially called the Volcano Veterinary Center) started in 1991, when I was hired by Morris Animal Foundation as their “Staff Veterinary Spokesman”.  I became Executive Director of Morris Animal Foundation 10 months after my start there, and the new job made me responsible for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (now Gorilla Doctors).  It was a rude awakening, as in 1993 I made my first trip to Rwanda, just four months before the beginning of the April, 1994 Genocide.  What I recall most on that first trip was hearing gun shots and grenades exploding all night long, every night I was there, as there were rebel uprisings everywhere.  The staff at MGVP had been evacuated twice by then, and we had lost almost all of our equipment each time.  My next trip was six months after the Genocide, and I found myself amongst the walking wounded….. many people missing limbs, or with gashes in the heads or other parts of their bodies.  I stayed at the main hotel in Kigali, on the top floor, with no roof over my head.  I had taken about all the food I could carry, and had difficulty finding clean drinking water.  There were no banks open, so I had carried cash over to pay our staff for their last 10 months of work.  Needless to say, I wasn’t very comfortable.  

I visited the project several times from 1995-2003, and each time I saw improvement in both our operations and the feeling of security in the country.  But the changes in both over the last 10 years are remarkable.

Dr. Rob with a chameleon outside of Volcanoes National Park in 2002.

The country is so clean, so safe, and as beautiful as ever.  The people are wonderful, friendly, and happy.  They are proud of how much has changed.  I could hardly believe the differences compared to my first introduction 20 years ago.   

Dr. Rob with a silverback in Rwanda.

Even more striking, however, is the advancement of Gorilla Doctors.  As a Board member, I attend meetings, read all the reports, and contribute what I can to our policy making decisions.  So truth be known, I have seen the changes on paper and in pictures.  But even that didn’t prepare me for the reality of the Gorilla Doctors project and the scope of services it provides.  

The main reason for my trip was to help facilitate a retreat that involved all of the veterinary medical staff from Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  There were 18 staff members, along with directors Kirsten Gilardi and Mike Cranfield.  All had taken part in a staff survey, which provided thought-provoking questions that helped us examine the project on all levels.  Everyone contributed to the discussions, and it helped define the best course for us to follow over the next several years.  I was especially pleased with how energetic the staff is, and how dedicated they are to their work.  After two days, everyone headed back to their jobs exhausted from the effort, but jazzed about the program.  There was talk of making this an annual event.  I certainly feel it would benefit everyone if we can do that, but we also have to work within budgets, and we may not be able to afford it each year.  

There was one other thing that struck me during my interactions with our staff.  Many of them are very well connected with zoo and wildlife veterinarians around the world.  My “day job” is that of Executive Director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV).  Most of the staff at Gorilla Doctors are members of AAZV.  In addition, two of them have attended a 6 week course called Envirovet, with veterinarians all around the globe learning and sharing ideas.  Three of the other staff members have attended annual Conferences of the AAZV, with scholarship help from AAZV.  So even though my encounters with them had been brief over the years… no longer than two weeks at a time, it felt like “old home week” for me to be there.  We should be proud of our veterinary staff that are so well known and connected with zoo and wildlife veterinarians all over the world.  

After all these years, the hard work and dedication of all of the staff at Gorilla Doctors has ensured the survival of these magnificent animals.  I send to them my heartfelt thanks for all they do. And I rest easy knowing they’re out there doing the work they do.  They are the best!