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Rwanda's Mountain Medicine

Legendary primatologist Dian Fossey spent decades documenting the lives of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Now, scientists are exhuming the bodies of those gorillas to learn about evolution. Researcher Erin Marie Williams is part of that team, and sent this eighth dispatch from the field.

Et tu, spiced beef? I'm in the midst of a bout of food poisoning, with no one to blame but myself. The first day here, we were told, "Leave the beef; take the goat." But last night at our favorite bar, two of us had sambusas (like samosas, but substitute spiced beef for potatoes). This morning, we paid the piper.

Magdalena Lukasik-Braum, one of the vets with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), has been my Mother Teresa today. With soft, cool hands she took my pulse, felt my skin, listened to my breathing and declared that salmonella was the dish of the day, and dehydration was mounting. I had planned to write about labeling and organizing gorilla skeletons for storage. But clearly, I'm not at the garage, so let's talk about veterinarians.

Gorilla vets are a courageous lot. Their hours are long, and the work is physically and emotionally demanding. And house calls, the only kind they make, involve trekking into the mountains. Just this weekend, Magdalena and a host of trackers found themselves following a gorilla group through the Virunga Mountains nearly into Uganda. One of the group's infants had developed a severe respiratory infection, and the vets feared the outcome if they weren't able to get medicine to it. But following gorillas is no easy feat. The mountain forests are thick, and gorillas aren't known to stick to the trails.

MVGP's vets intervene in gorilla life as little as possible. When a gorilla's life is threatened due to illness or injury from human activities (such as a foot caught in a snare meant for another animal), they step in. Otherwise, they're hands off.

And how does one give a gorilla a shot, anyway? From a distance, if you're smart. The vets use darts to administer medicine, and just like with human infants, the bum is the best bet. Which is how Magdalena found herself aiming darts of medicine at an infant gorilla bum on a lovely Saturday afternoon recently. Fortunately, she hit her mark on the third try. And the gorilla and I are both recovering nicely, thanks to Magdalena's skills.

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