Treating chimpanzees in Sierra Leone
Jenny Jaffe graduated from Utrecht University, the Netherlands in 2007. She has spent three years in British small animal practice. After wildlife vet jobs in Ecuador and Indonesia, she completed an MSc in Wild Animal Health at the RVC. Currently, she works at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone.
The sanctuary where I work was founded 17 years ago by Bala Amarasekaran to enforce the laws that protect chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. We currently home and rehabilitate 103 chimpanzees that were either confiscated or handed in after being kept illegally.
Staff is almost exclusively Sierra Leonean. With barely a handful of vets in the country, the post of resident vet is filled from overseas.
Recruited fresh from an MSc in Wild Animal Health at the Royal Veterinary College in London, I was eager to put my new skills and knowledge to use. I had initially applied for the same position a few years ago while still in small animal practice in Oxford. The MSc and recent experience working at wildlife rescue centres in Ecuador and Indonesia meant I was a more prepared candidate this time around.
I am fortunate to have arrived at a relatively well equipped clinic. We have a pretty decent library with reference volumes and relevant scientific articles, as well as airconditioning which we have on for a few hours a day to keep the pages from getting mouldy! With limited funds and few laboratories around, we do our own faecal and blood exams. This is not like in my old practice in the UK where you would place a tube of blood in a machine and get the results neatly printed out after fifteen minutes! Here we use tried and tested techniques which involve a lot of manual counting, which takes time. My laboratory skills needed a bit of brushing up… After close perusal of the instructions and the laboratory reference books, I am now more confident in doing white blood cell counts, differentials, haemoglobin measurements, Gram staining and more. We do need a diesel powered generator to be on to supply the extra power needed for the centrifuge and autoclave, but the solar panels at Tacugama provide enough energy for microscopes, laptops, fridges and plenty more.
At present, to anaesthetize the chimps we normally hand inject the smaller ones with medetomidine/ketamine and use the blowpipe to dart the older individuals. However, apes are smart and after catching a glimpse of the blowpipe, they know what is coming and do everything to prevent being darted. They seem to know we need them to be still for a bit and have a thigh or an upper arm exposed, so they move around a lot and avoid sitting with those bits towards us. They are also incredibly quick at pulling out the dart when it hits them and appear to enjoy snapping it in two or chewing it to pieces. All of this can make the process of darting quite challenging. We do have several senior staff members who are very adept at it after many years of practice, so I am learning a lot from them.
When do we need to sedate a chimp? Well, first of all during the three health checks we perform during their quarantine period, which involve intracutaneous tuberculin administration in the eyelid. This site is chosen so that, on subsequent days, the results can be seen easily and no hands-on sessions are needed to ‘read’ the results.
We also sedate when the time has come to insert contraceptive implants. As our priority is to ensure we have the space and resources to care for our rescued chimps, we try to prevent births at the sanctuary. We use contraceptive implants which normally inhibit reproduction for 3 to 4 years.
Occasionally, clinical cases require sedation. During my first weeks here, the youngest chimp at the sanctuary, developed a quite alarming exophthalmus (protruding eye). I turned out to be a retrobulbar abscess! What now? Within a day, I had received advice from both veterinary and human ophthalmologists by email. Most advised to drain the abscess surgically as soon as possible.The abscess resolved completely after surgery and a week of treatment.The left eyelid is still a tiny bit droopy, but this seems to be resolving slowly over time.
Though in small animal practice I have had to dissuade owners from thinking they can just give their cat a paracetamol, in apes a lot of human medicines and dosages apply due to their similarity to us. We work with a lot of human drugs, which are sometimes donated to us by a local pharmacy just after they go out of date. Most difficult to come by are the veterinary formulations of drugs that I had become used to in the UK.
We are very interested in keeping in touch with British vet practices (maybe if you were seeing practice or doing volunteer work with some nice vets?). Donations such as ‘just out of date’ drugs, old uniforms, etc. are invaluable. If you’d like to find out more about how to help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out http://www.tacugama.com/support.html. You can also follow what’s happening at the sanctuary on our blog http://tacugama.wildlifedirect.org.
Thanks for sharing your story, Jenny! And thank you for bringing her here, Chris. I will definitely be following along at the Tacugama blog! Always fun to read about the incredible variety of jobs other vets are getting into.