Quirks & Quarks

How a Canadian vet took on the challenge of saving the world's great apes

Training African vets how to treat injuries to gorilla eyes was the start of a conservation mission

Training African vets how to treat injuries to gorilla eyes was the start of a conservation mission

Female bonobo with infant, Lola y Bonobo sanctuary, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Richard Quinn)

By his own admission, Richard Quinn was as surprised as anyone that his career took such a dramatic turn relatively late in life. In fact he calls it a fluke.

Quinn had a very successful private practice as a veterinary ophthalmologist near London, Ontario, and teaching at the University of Western Ontario. But he happened to read an article about veterinarians who treated endangered gorillas in in places like Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. Quinn knew he needed to help. Before too long, he was actually there, teaching local veterinarians ophthamalogical first aid, and helping spread the word around the world about great ape conservation. 

Richard Quinn (2nd from right) walking through swamp to get to the Mondika Research station in Congo Republic (Richard Quinn)

Part of his efforts involved founding the charity Docs4GreatApes.org. He has recently chronicled his life-changing story in a soon to be released book of inspirational stories and amazing photographs called 'Just Like Us - A Veterinarian's Visual Memoir of Our Vanishing Great Ape Relatives'.

Here is part of his conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity

Bob McDonald: Tell me about your life before great apes came into it. 

Rick Quinn: Well, as a veterinarian, I had very full days and a busy referral practice looking after eye problems in dogs and cats and horses and some wildlife. And as a dad always busy with four kids. I was incredibly fortunate, having been able to teach with those who taught me and having some influence over a number of a whole generation of students who I interact with to this day as a referring veterinarian. So overall, really quite lucky. 

BM: Then all of that changed and you even begin your book with this quote. "I never saw it coming. I was a content veterinarian, but one day in the solitude of my study, something changed." So what changed? What happened? 

RQ: I came across an article that profiled a group of veterinarians in East Africa called the Gorilla Doctors. And this article went on to say how their practice setting was on the side of a volcano in the Virunga massif in East Africa that they treated respiratory disease with darts in gorillas and did surgery on the forest floor to remove wire snares from the wrists of two curious gorillas. It seemed like their work was quite incredible, physically challenging and somewhat dangerous. And the population they were treating was critically endangered. 

And having had an interest in wildlife photography and having been on wildlife expeditions for that purpose, the whole situation resonated with me and piqued my interest. But I admit that I had no idea it would actually turn into a mission. 

Adult flanged male Bornean orangutan, Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo, Indonesia (Richard Quinn)

BM: How receptive were local African veterinarians to you? 

RQ: Well, we went prepared to present a series of lectures and share our expertise. And when we arrived, we found an overcrowded room with not only the gorilla doctors, but retired veterinarians, administrative personnel and local conservation government officials. The whole community turned out and we were overwhelmed by the reception. They made us feel most welcome and absolutely thirsty for knowledge, totally grateful that we would be there. 

BM: In your book, you describe some of your visits to the gorillas as the highlight of your personal life. How so? 

RQ: We were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a national park called Kahuzi-Biega with a team of gorilla doctors who I had met years before. One of them said they had a mission to go out and rescue a young gorilla and remove a snare from around his wrist.

Adult silverback male Western lowland gorilla near Bai Hokou, Dzanga National Park, Central African Republic (Richard Quinn)

So I was able to join the group then traveled to the scene to be able to remove the snare. It was quite an experience because I was able to pretend I was a gorilla doctor for the day and end up being with colleagues that I really enjoyed and got to see things that I normally wouldn't have experienced. 

BM: You mentioned in your book that it was the inequity between what doctors are veterinarians here get, such as yourself compared to what they're getting in these other countries. Tell me about that. 

RQ: Well, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable because as I would be there working with, for example, a young veterinarian in Sumatra at a release site. We would discuss what medications we would use and sedatives. And I would say, well, gee, you know, why don't you use X, Y or Z? And he would say, well, it's not legal for us to have that here. We can't get it. And I would think that, you know, I could hardly even practice if I didn't have that.

So seeing how much work was done in Africa with the chimps and the gorillas and the bonobos with very little equipment and all kinds of dedication, and then I would come back home and I would see advertisements for conferences with a whole plethora of topics.  And it just seemed that the exhibit halls that had all the equipment on display, that there was just so much of it. So it began to feel somewhat wrong and I guess at the very least, unfair. 

'Just Like Us' by Richard Quinn (soon to be released) (Richard Quinn)

BM: What's it like for you to see the contrast between treating cats and dogs here in North America that are pretty well pampered and seeing how our great apes are being treated in the wild? 

RQ: Interesting, because many of the same principles apply. Certainly the medical and surgical principles. When I sat in front of an awake orangutan on a floor and examined his eyes, I thought it kind of remotely looked like an Irish setter. But it had more of an appearance of a human, it seemed quite odd. So they don't come attached with an owner, but they do come attached with quite a bit of responsibility.

A male Chimpanzee in Kibale Forest National Park, Uganda (Richard Quinn)




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