Alumni Spotlight: Chris Whittier ’87

Chris Whittier ’87 is a wildlife veterinarian who works for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. The Project provides care for the less than 700 mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo. He is constantly on call to hike treacherous distances to care for and protect these special animals. What do you like about being a veterinarian? I like being able to use my skills and training to help both individual and populations of animals. Though veterinarians are not able to help every case, [the cases in which] we are able to make a difference are really rewarding. I especially like being a wildlife veterinarian because a lot of my work entails being outside and often in interesting natural areas. What’s the funniest experience you have had in your line of work? That’s a tough question. One of the funniest happened a few years ago when I was checking up on a small group of gorillas. Towards the end of our visit, a young adult female disappeared into a clump of bushes only to emerge about ten minutes later with a newborn infant. The funniest part was that all the other gorillas in the group seemed to be just as surprised as we were! It was pretty amazing. What’s the most rare animal you’ve treated? It would have to be the mountain gorillas as there are only 700 total [gorillas left]. I have also worked on a number of very rare captive prosimian primates, [lemurs,] at the Duke University Primate Center in North Carolina, including the sifaka “Zaboomafoo” who is the star of the Kratt’s Critters’ TV show and is thereby something of an animal celebrity. Do you have any advice for aspiring veterinarians? One shouldn’t become a veterinarian simply because they like animals. There remains a lot of flexibility in what type of veterinary medicine one practices, whether it is in business, research, non-profit activities, clinical practice, teaching, or any of the hundreds of other disciplines. Because of this diversity most veterinarians are able to find a niche they love even though it is not where they expected to be before they became veterinarians. What made you interested in working with animals? There are actually a lot of answers to this question for me. I grew up in the New England woods on a very small family farm with lots of pets. Animals and wildlife and nature were always a big part of my life I was heavily influenced by National Geographic and other TV specials and was really interested in visiting Africa and working with wild animals from an early age. I really expected to do those things as a biologist or scientist, but by being a veterinarian I’ve feel like I have a more direct impact on helping to save lives and conserve wildlife. Have you ever worked with circus animals? I did some rotations in zoos and wild animal parks while I was a veterinary student, and have assisted my wife with some animals at the Ringling Brothers circuses. There are lots of abuses and mistreatments of captive wild animals, especially in the circus environment. The situation is even worse in the entertainment world. We should all be pretty appalled when we see animals like chimpanzees used in movies, TV shows, and commercials no matter how cute they may seem. I fundamentally believe that private people should not keep wild animals, including what we call “exotics,” as pets. Wild animals, even those bred in captivity, really don’t belong in cages in people’s living rooms. Did Andover influence you career choice? Yes and no. If you look up my senior picture you’ll see that I was thinking about gorillas those 20 years ago, but I hadn’t even considered becoming a veterinarian at that point. The great thing about Andover though, along with support from my parents, is that it really taught me that the world was wide open and that with enough effort I could become anything that I wanted to be. What was your best experience at Andover? Aside from simply being admitted, that’s really an impossible question to answer. If pressed I’d have to say that my most important experiences are all the hundreds of hours I spent forming friendships that I still treasure today. Do you have any advice for current Andover students? I suspect it’s the same stuff you hear all the time, but [my advice is] to study hard but not too hard, to play hard but not too hard, and to just make the most of your experience there.