How Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas Are Helping Heal A Fractured Nation - CATEGORY Prime Report: TITLE

It hasn't always been easy for veterinarian Felicia Nutter to see her patients. For four years, she often had to trek for miles uphill through mud and dense foliage accompanied by a couple of armed guards.

That's because Nutter and her husband, Chris Whittier, were staff veterinarians for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, working with the severely endangered mountain gorilla population of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

Now, all Nutter has to do to see her patients is wait in the hospital for them to be brought to her. Since January, Nutter, 40, has been at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, working with seals and sea lions.

From 400-pound silverbacks to 4,000-pound elephant seals and an occasional whale, the largest of Nutter's past and present patients, it seems that Nutter has made quite a switch. But she said she's thought about working at the Marine Mammal Center ever since she spent a month of her residency at the center in 1997.

"It took me about a day to figure out it was a really special place," she says of the nonprofit hospital dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals that will celebrate 32 years with a black-tie gala Wednesday at San Francisco City Hall.

So when her contract was up with MGVP and the staff veterinarian position opened up at the Marine Mammal Center, Nutter was elated and "grateful that they took a chance on a gorilla vet."

Deb Wickham, operations manager for the Marine Mammal Center, who worked with Nutter in 1997 and works with her closely says Nutter "really cares about the animals, that's very clear."

Nutter has a much larger case load than when she was working with the gorillas, but she sees that as a good thing.

"I always said that if we didn't have any sick gorillas that we needed to treat, that would make me happy because it meant the population was doing well and the animals didn't need our help," says Nutter, who lives just down the road from the center.

The MGVP, set up as a direct request from Dian Fossey - the San-Francisco-born zoologist who in 1985 was found murdered in her cabin at Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park - contributes to the species conservation by treating the gorillas when they fall ill from human-caused ailments such as measles or pneumonia caught from gorilla-trekking tourists or a snare set by a poacher.

"Responding to gorilla health emergencies is the core of what we do. We intervene in cases of human induced, which usually means snares, or life-threatening illnesses or injuries," Nutter says.

"But our general mission is to improve the sustainability of the whole mountain gorilla population. We do that by providing health care when it is necessary, by conducting health-related research and by sharing the results of our research."

The world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas live in two habitats in East Africa. Approximately 380 live in a small strip of land atop a chain of mostly dormant volcanoes straddling the Rwanda, DRC and Uganda borders. The other 320 live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

The mountain gorilla population is constantly at risk of demise, she says. Their habitat is somewhat protected in Rwanda and Uganda but DRC is another story.

Sitting at her desk in the heart of the Marin Headlands - a far cry from the hills of Rwanda - Nutter reflected on how drastically her life has changed, as well as the gorillas'.

"The last year since I've been working at the Marine Mammal Center has actually been a very difficult year for the mountain gorillas. And it's been very difficult to be so far away and to hear about what's been happening in Congo and with the whole population," she says.

"Since January there have been nine mountain gorillas confirmed dead in the DRC, they have all been killed purposely and I believe as of last week it's now 10 confirmed deaths. The decomposing body of a young female gorilla was found and a poaching ring was broken up by authorities," she says.

Nutter calls the intentional killings eco-terrorism and said that the loss of a single reproductive female is a significant setback.

Even in light of recent events, Nutter says, "Mountain gorillas are currently the only population of great apes, as far as anyone knows, whose numbers are increasing. The numbers have been fairly steadily increasing since Dian Fossey started working here."

But she cautions that efforts to protect them must continue.

"It means that we have to continue to do everything that we have been doing because the conservation measures have worked to date and it's not time to rest on our laurels and think that the job is done. The number of snares (taken out of the park) per month shows that the threats are still there. The same threats that drove mountain gorillas to a low of 220 to 230 gorillas in the 1980s. Deforestation, poaching, human disease, all of those things, are still here and are still threats."

"For me to be happy I need to be fixing broken or sick animals, to have that hands-on, very immediate impact on an individual animal. But I also really need to be solving problems and addressing issues at a population level, things that are going to be helping conserve populations. That's the mix that I found with MGVP for the past four years that's been very, very rewarding, and I get to have that same sort of mix at the Marine Mammal Center," she says.


What: Marine Mammal Center gala celebrating 32 years

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17

Where: San Francisco City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place

Tickets: $250 and up

Information: 289-7335 or

More: For more information on the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, go to

For more images of Felicia Nutter and her work for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, go to, index News this day of events, accidents, crime, law, News unique, Politics, and special reports on the world and International.

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