Retired Woodstock Veterinarian Makes Annual Visits to Uganda to Work with Gorillas
Oct 25, 2019 04:23PM
By Virginia Dean
The place was the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. The bamboo and thick ground cover of ferns, vines and other plant growth interspersed among larger forest hardwoods made the forest extremely difficult to access by foot.
The forest is also known as the “Place of Darkness” and is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, a region where half the world’s population of the highly endangered mountain gorillas live in its jungles.
Murrell, who founded the Kedron Valley Veterinary Clinic in 1978 in South Woodstock, had traveled there with his wife, physician Dr. Judith Hills, as he had done every year since 2007 but, this time, under unusual circumstances.
He and the members of his group had received a call that a silverback gorilla had been struck and killed by lightning and had been discovered by rangers the following morning when they noticed that he was missing from his group.
So, along with members of his group called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), Gorilla Doctors and other veterinarian technicians, Murrell hiked into the impenetrable forest at sunset to observe and assist in the post-mortem.
“Everyone was attired in full hazmat suits since no one knows what viruses these animals carry and no one wants to be the first case of the next HIV disease,” said Murrell.
Guards were posted in the dark around Murrell and the other groups because a younger silverback was detected, trying to approach. Male gorillas become silverbacks around the age of 13 when the hair across their shoulders and down their back becomes grayish or white in color.
Silverbacks can be as dangerous as the dominant males who control several females and youngsters and fend off other males.
“We were able to scare away the young silverback with much arm waving and shouting,” said Murrell.
When the post-mortem was completed, the body was buried in a deep grave which had been dug during the surgery.
“I never heard what was learned from the examination of the samples taken from the dead gorilla, but found that they had been sent to labs in Europe and the United States to take advantage of this rare chance to study the parasites, bacteria, and viruses of this species,” said Murrell.
As he and the others hiked out of the jungle in the dark to the ranger station, Murrell was fascinated by the calls of the nearby chimpanzees and other jungle creatures.
“Gentle giants” is how Murrell describes the predominantly herbivorous apes that inhabit the forests of central Sub-Saharan Africa. The DNA of the primates is highly similar to that of humans, from 95-99 percent, and are the next closest living relatives to humans after chimpanzees and bonobos.
Murrell had joined his wife who is the president of Friends of Hospice Africa, USA and had arranged to go to Uganda twelve years ago to work there.
“I went along to see if there was something I could do, utilizing my veterinary medicine experience,” said Murrell.
Not long after, Murrell was introduced to Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka a Ugandan veterinarian who, after receiving her veterinary training at the Royal Veterinary College in London, had become the first veterinarian with the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
After becoming aware of the plight of the endangered mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, she founded CTPH with a mission of improving public health in the villages surrounding the Bwindi National Park to reduce the risk of human disease transmission to the gorillas and to monitor the health of these creatures to reduce the chance of disease transmission to humans.
“The villages share in the ecotourism income from people who track and observe the gorillas and thereby have learned to respect the value of them in improving the quality of their life,” said Murrell. “This has reduced poaching to essentially zero and has resulted in a steady rise in the gorilla population.”
As of 2019, there are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining on the continent, according to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. This is up from 480 in 2010.
When Murrell arrived in Bwindi in 2007, he traveled with Kalema-Zikusoka and her field staff to observe and participate in the gorilla health monitoring work she was doing, although it would be four years later that he made his first gorilla trek.
“It was a grueling 12-hour drive in a Toyota Land Cruiser over poorly maintained roads,” said Murrell.
The most important process Kalema-Zikusoka and her staff continue to use is examination of stool samples brought into their lab by rangers who observed gorillas daily. Kalema-Zikusoka has also intervened directly when a medical problem has been reported by rangers, thus resulting in surgery in the forest on occasion.
“When an injury occurs, the preferred approach is to allow natural healing unless life threatening infection or other complications occur,” said Murrell. “These are wild animals and veterinary intervention is reserved for extreme circumstances. Medical therapy is rarely employed if nature can deal with it.”
An exception to this rule was an outbreak of scabies in one of the gorilla groups that Kalema-Zikusoka traced to gorillas wandering out of the forest and coming into contact with human clothing infested with the scabies mites. A baby gorilla died of a severe infestation but the others in the group were treated with Ivermectin administered by a dart gun that stopped the outbreak.
“I soon realized that we weren’t going to be going into the forest daily with our vet bags to hold gorilla health clinics,” said Murrell. “The approach was instead largely ‘herd health’”.
Murrell continues to return to Uganda every year (usually in January or February) as one of the few U.S. veterinarians to help the gorillas. Next year, he will travel in January.
He officially retired from the Kedron Valley Veterinary Clinic in 2012. The Clinic was taken over by his daughter, Dr. Blakeley Murrell-Liland of Quechee and Dr. Philippa Richards of South Pomfret.
“I think what my Dad is doing is so cool in so many ways,” said Murrell-Liland. “At an older age, he’s traveling to the depths of Africa to improve the life of the mountain gorillas and the people who live in the villages surrounding them. He’s an inspiration to anyone with advanced academic training or skills who continues to use them long after retirement.”
When he first encountered these “gentle giants”, prior to applying his veterinary procedures, later on, Murrell and his wife observed a group from a distance of no less than 20 feet for an hour.
“The mothers were relaxing and chewing on vegetation while their juveniles were busy playing just like human kids,” said Murrell. “One youngster would start up a vine and another would grab him and pull him down. Occasionally, a juvenile male would stand up on his hind legs and pound his chest, no doubt to assert his superiority. The silverback sat at a distance and observed the serenity of his family.”
By and large, the gorillas ignored Murrell and his group.
“But we all had a great laugh when one juvenile somehow got behind us and then went roaring between the legs of one of our group to join his buddies,” said Murrell. “When our hour was up, we packed up our cameras and hiked out to the ranger station with our guide, having had the privilege of observing these gentle giants, undisturbed, in their natural habitat.”
Murrell received his DVM from Michigan State University and is a member of the American Medical Veterinary Association and Vermont Medical Veterinary Association.
For more information and to support gorilla conservation, go to www.CTPH.org