Mountain gorilla project finds a new home at Maryland Zoo

Facility to serve as base for medical research for species

August 11, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore doesn't have any mountain gorillas, but it's about to become a worldwide base for medical care for the endangered species.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project announced yesterday that it would move its DNA specimens and other medical research data from its headquarters at the Morris Animal Foundation in Colorado to Baltimore, the nation's third-oldest zoo.

"This means that we at the zoo are associated with the leading conservation project in the world," zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said.

Grieb said the gorilla project would use some of the zoo's research facilities, but the program will be its own nonprofit organization and conduct its own fundraising.

The program - which provides in-field veterinary care to mountain gorillas that suffer from human-caused or life-threatening diseases and illnesses - will continue to receive funding from the Morris Foundation, said Dr. Patricia Olson, the foundation's president and chief executive officer.

The gorilla project began in 1986 at the request of Dian Fossey, a famed gorilla researcher and advocate. At that time, researchers said that the fewer than 250 remaining mountain gorillas were in danger because of illness, poaching and deforestation. Today, researchers said, thanks to the work of groups such as the gorilla project, about 700 mountain gorillas live in Africa.

Baltimore's zoo has long had connections to the gorilla project. In 1998, Dr. Michael R. Cranfield, the zoo's director of animal health, research and conservation, was named the gorilla project's part-time director.

Cranfield said the program's veterinarians go to the habitat of the gorillas and provide medication and medical procedures.

"We are building programs as a model of saving any wildlife, not just gorillas," Cranfield said.

Starting with one veterinarian in 1986, the project has swelled to eight veterinarians and a large support staff.

The program "has outgrown our house [in Colorado], and we needed more partners to help," Olson said. "We needed additional partners, and we felt that the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore would be good support."

Cranfield said Baltimore is an important asset to the growth of the program.

"Baltimore has tremendous medical facilities for both veterinarian and human medicine, and we have been taking advantage of this for a long time," Cranfield said.

Grieb said the addition of the gorilla project builds on the zoo's history of contributions to conservation and research. For example, in Project Golden Frog, a conservation consortium among Panamanian and U.S. institutions, researchers are seeking to avoid the extinction of the endangered Panamanian golden frog due to an incurable fungal disease.

No zoos in the United States house mountain gorillas because they are so rare, Cranfield said, and there are difficulties in getting permits to house them.

The last gorillas housed at the zoo were of the western lowland variety. Sylvia and Hercules were a popular attraction, but zoo officials decided in 1981 that their cage space was inadequate, sending them to the National Zoo in Washington. Sylvia was euthanized last year at age 39 at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio because of inoperable cancer.

Grieb said the goal of the gorilla project would be to give support to the African countries that are home to the gorillas.

"The ideal for this project is for it to be taken over again by the local countries of the gorillas," Grieb said. "We are training people in Rwanda and Uganda to be able to carry on this work."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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