Gorillas in his midst for city zoo veterinarian Doctor: Dr. Michael Cranfield of the Baltimore Zoo has been named to lead an international campaign to save Africa's endangered mountain gorilla.

May 06, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

As chief veterinarian at the Baltimore Zoo, Dr. Michael Cranfield has operated on giraffes, knocked out tigers with blowguns and looked for a cure for malaria in penguins.

Now he will help figure out how to save the 400-pound gorilla.

Cranfield has been appointed director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, a part-time post overseeing international efforts to save Africa's mountain gorilla, the largest and most endangered of the world's great apes.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project was set up in 1985 at the suggestion of naturalist Dian Fossey to save the mountain gorillas, whose numbers in Rwanda and bordering countries have dwindled to 640.

Cranfield, 46, of Butler was named to the post this month after an international search by an advisory committee of the Morris Animal Foundation, a Colorado-based group that funds the project.

"I like to think that we can make a difference," Cranfield said this week after examining a baby penguin at the zoo hospital, a one-story infirmary tucked in a corner of Druid Hill Park.

Cranfield said that the job will take about 15 percent of his time and that he will remain with the zoo, where he has been chief vet for 15 years.

Cranfield will travel to the project's clinic in Rwanda twice a year to supervise three veterinarians and six assistants who monitor and treat the gorillas that inhabit the Virungas, a curve of volcanoes that straddles the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Their chores range from repairing gorilla limbs damaged by poacher traps to checking urine samples for signs of diabetes, or kidney and liver ailments.

Cranfield said he applied for the job after reading about it in a trade journal.

He attributed his hiring in part to his working relationships with medical experts at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he serves on the faculty, and at the National Institutes of Health, which is working with him on the penguin malaria vaccine.

"It's a real honor, but I think it was the ability to collaborate with other institutions and what we could offer being in Baltimore that attracted the foundation," Cranfield said.

Robert Hilsenroth, the executive director of the Morris Animal Foundation, said Cranfield had more than that going for him.

Hilsenroth said Cranfield was selected from a field of 10 highly regarded veterinarians around the world because of his experience as an administrator and his work with exotic wildlife overseas.

"This was really the cream of the crop who had applied for this position," Hilsenroth said.

Hilsenroth and Cranfield say the most serious threats to the gorillas are posed by mankind.

Increased logging is destroying the gorilla's habitat, poachers hunt them in the park that is their home, and a civil war rages between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland. With 8 million people, it is Africa's most densely populated nation.

Fossey was hacked to death in December 1985, and many believe she was killed by poachers.

The project's original clinic hasn't been inhabited since 1994 and was destroyed three times during the civil unrest of recent years. Its veterinarians are based in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, about a two-hour drive from a base of operations near the original clinic. Cranfield, who visited the clinic in March, said another problem is the threat from common human diseases, such as measles and cold germs.

"People don't realize it, but these animals are highly susceptible to these human diseases," Cranfield said.

Because of this susceptibility, one of the project's goals will be to try limiting tourist access to the gorillas, Cranfield said.

The civil war has forced many refugees to seek shelter in parklands that are the gorillas' home, he said, adding, "There's no easy answers."

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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