Chris Whittier ’87 Returns to Andover As a Gorilla Vet

The second guest speaker of the yearlong series, “Speaking on Sustainability,” Doctor Chris Whittier ’87, gave a presentation on gorilla preservation and his work as a gorilla veterinarian in Africa on Wednesday. Whittier began the presentation by discussing his fascination with gorillas as a child. “My influences as a kid were the original Planet of the Apes and King Kong movies. When I look back at my childhood, I think of my interest in gorillas and wildlife…and dressing up as a gorilla from the age of 5 to twelve,” said Whittier. “I realize now that I had grown up with this influence and fascination surrounding gorillas,” said Whittier. “But, at Andover I forgot most of that.” After Whittier left Andover, he attended Brown University. He was unsure about his future until he traveled to Tanzania, where he studied biology and art. In Tanzania, he was inspired to work in Africa as a veterinarian. Now, Whittier works with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whittier said that in these three countries, particularly Rwanda, gorillas are considered to be very important to the economy and evoke a sense of pride. Gorillas are a vibrant source of tourism in African nations, which can be both beneficial to the nation and detrimental, said Whittier. The tourism generates money for the care of the gorillas, but can also harm the gorillas because sick humans might transmit human diseases to the gorillas. Whittier said, “People pay $500 to sit with gorillas for an hour, and about 40 people do this every day all year. The gorillas are very important to the economies of these countries, but more importantly, it means they are protected.” Whittier’s work with the MGVP aims to protect the welfare of gorillas, which are often endangered by poaching or diseases transmitted by human contact. Whittier said, “The gorillas are exposed to the local people, us, tourist, and the military. We have no control over the military and we can’t monitor their health care.” A major fear for the MGVP is the possibility of an Ebola outbreak, said Whittier. Poaching also poses another problem for gorillas because it significantly hurts their population. Gorillas mate and reproduce rarely, about every five years. But one of the worst problems of poaching is that people will hunt baby gorillas because they think there is a demand, according to Whittier. “Baby gorillas are very fragile. For some reason this isn’t the case for chimpanzees. But most baby gorillas will die in about a week after being taken away from their mother,” said Whittier. There are a growing number of baby gorillas that are now in the care of the MGVP, but it will be difficult for those gorillas to adapt to their natural environments after they leave their domestic lives. Whittier said, “It’s difficult to put gorillas that have spent time with humans back into the wildlife. Most gorilla groups are very hostile to the new additions and will often attack them.” Local residents also set traps in forests to hunt animals, but accidentally ensnare gorillas. “People in Africa think that people in the West want gorillas as pets. But, it is important to remember that animals in the entertainment industry are often abused,” said Whittier. Whittier said, “It is very challenging to work in developing countries. There is a balance between helping the animals and the people. Both go hand in hand.” Amanda Wang ’11 enjoyed Whittier’s presention. She said that he was “a lot more engaging than many of the other speakers I’ve seen, and perhaps that had something to do with his speaking style.” Wang continued, “The content of his presentation was all really interesting, especially the parts pertaining to how they dealt with the gorillas they were examining—knocking them out and chasing away other gorillas so that they wouldn’t disturb them.” “The end of the lecture was also very interesting, when [Whittier] mentioned that extracting coltan, which is used in cell phone production, harms gorillas,” said Wang. Whittier also discussed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in his presentation. “[Working is Rwanda was] a very strong reminder as a foreigner that you need to know what things you can and can’t talk about. Americans have a very bad reputation around the world, especially now and it’s important to remain aware of the world,” said Whittier. Whittier earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Tufts University and is finishing his doctorate work at North Carolina State University.