Vet examines spider monkey
Animal Care Wildlife Conservation Wildlife Rehabilitation

From Puppies to Primates: A Veterinarian’s Path to Saving Wildlife

By Ben Lybarger

Back in 2018, I shared a dorm room in Bolivia with a veterinary surgeon from Italy, and at times also a baby macaw or squirrel monkey that he would wake up every couple of hours to feed. His name was Cristian Tirapelle, and we were both working with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) at their Machía Wildlife Sanctuary. One thing that struck me even back then, was how devoted Cris and the other vets were to the animals in their care, as well as to making their own vocational paths where oftentimes no clear and standard routes existed.

Like so many other veterinarians, Cris had formerly worked mainly with conventional pets, gaining additional experience with livestock and exotics whenever he could. Once he had banked enough money and clinical experience in Europe, though, he began looking for wildlife rescue centers abroad in need of vets. “I have always been fascinated by animals, and by the idea of being able to treat them if needed,” he tells me. “On the other hand I’ve always been interested in working for the conservation of threatened species.” This opportunity at the Machía Sanctuary seemed like a perfect fit, as he immediately began to work with a group of endangered spider monkeys. Later he would take on veterinary and husbandry duties for a massive number of capuchin monkeys, many of whom suffered from severe behavioral problems and other issues related to being raised with (or as) humans.

Sapajus Apella
Capuchin monkeys like Conejo (above) are commonly find their way to rescue centers, typically victims of the pet trade. CIWY in Bolivia cares for well over 100 individuals. (Photo by Ben Lybarger.)

“Coming from working as a veterinary surgeon in busy vet practices (where most of the care for the animals is carried out by nurses), I was now rediscovering the enjoyable feelings of getting to properly know the animals I was working with, and feeling close to them. Yet I was also witnessing how the very same human desire of proximity to wild animals was driving the illegal pet trade for wildlife, and seeing what the consequences of it were.”

During his time with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia, and later with Amazon Shelter in Peru, he worked with many unique species: from yellow-footed tortoises and sloths to jaguars and an Andean bear. What he has been most grateful for, though, are the chances he has had to learn from seasoned vets, to gain hands-on experience with diverse animals, and to find new areas of veterinary medicine where he could contribute and develop. “Good training courses are not available everywhere or affordable to everyone,” Cris points out. This means that would-be wildlife vets often have to rely on their own independent study of available resources, bearing in mind that many academic papers are not open-access.

Wildlife Vet
Veterinarian Cristian Tirapelle with rescued woolly monkeys at Amazon Shelter in Peru.

The challenges for wildlife vets are not limited to personal unfamiliarity with certain species either. For many species there exists little medical information, or even basic biological knowledge. “You need to get good at extrapolating information from what is known about similar species,” he explains, “or species that you have previously worked with.”

Access to technology is also limited for many wildlife vets, who in normal pet-focused practices would have access to everything from x-rays to advanced laboratory services. Organizations committed to rescue and rehabilitation very often lack funding for all but the most basic diagnostic tools, so finding other solutions can require cunning and creativity. In one memorable case, Cris recalls helping to sneak a spider monkey into a Bolivian hospital to see a human ultrasound technician so they could diagnose a heart disease. Obviously, this is not an approach that can be used regularly, but there was something heartening about this extraordinary effort, as well as the subsequent inquiries from the hospital helpers who were curious about their unusual patient.

Howler monkey in Peru
The dietary needs of howler monkeys can be difficult to fulfill in captivity. (Photo by Ben Lybarger.)

Dietary planning is another complex area for those working with diverse species, and this can be true even in a zoo setting where specially formulated foods for exotic species are commercially available. Often wild species have very specific dietary and husbandry needs, which can be challenging to reproduce in captivity. “You might need to learn new skills such as recognizing (or even more basic: finding out) which wild plant species they eat, and then figure out how to get them where you are,” Cris explains. I can personally recall him researching and learning to identify various trees and plants in the forest to feed sick and injured sloths, or to fulfill the nutritional requirements of howler monkeys. As of the writing of this article, he is on the other side of the world in Africa, still seeking the optimal local diet for his patients. This time, though, they are gorillas.

Just before the global pandemic hit, Cris had traveled to Gabon to work on a gorilla project with the Aspinall Foundation. Soon after he arrived, they sent him to do health checks at a reserve in the Republic of the Congo. It is there that he has remained due to border closures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Naturally, the safety of the gorillas — who are extremely susceptible to human respiratory diseases — has become a major concern. To limit the risk of transmitting Sars-CoV2 to the animals in their care, they keep safe distances at all times, have changed the way they sanitize food items, and of course they always wear protective gear and observe strict hygienic practices. Other infectious diseases already have impacted gorilla populations in different parts of their geographic range, including the ebola virus, so bio-security remains paramount.

Western Lowland Gorilla
A male western lowland gorilla orphaned from illegal wildlife trade. He is currently in a years-long process of being carefully reintroduced to forests in the Republic of the Congo by the Aspinall Foundation. (Photo by Cristian Tirapelle.)

The gorillas currently under Cris’ care arrived from European zoos, but in the past this project has also released gorillas confiscated from illegal trafficking. His role is primarily to monitor their health and to gauge their progress as they acclimatize to their new environment, adapting in stages to an incredibly different, independent lifestyle. Eventually, they will be transferred to a large tract of protected forest that has been provided with anti-poaching units. As an additional safeguard, there is another international project in the area that supports local people with goats, which they can use as an alternative source of meat and income.

The main threats facing the gorilla populations in this region are not so different from the threats to wildlife that he’s seen elsewhere in the world: logging and mining concessions in one place, land conversion to agricultural use and ranching in another. Always, new roads give hunters and traffickers access to previously impenetrable forests.

Examining a traumatized porcupine brought to a rescue center for suspected electrocution.

However, he has also seen signs of hope. In the southeastern corner of the Peruvian Amazon, he notes the presence of a vibrant international community of people involved in conservation activities and research. Cris also lives for those moments of releasing animals to the wild, the culmination of a complicated process that can often take several years in the case of nonhuman primates. Apart from the reintroductions that he is currently working on in the Republic of the Congo, last year he was able to join a team releasing howler monkeys in Peru. However, it is the first release that he ever participated in that sticks out most in his memory. The animal: a three-toed sloth.

“I carried it on my back for about an hour, walking in the early morning through a fascinating muffled, foggy forest, discovering the walking palm trees for the first time along the way. After looking for a suitable release spot, we placed the carrier beneath our chosen tree, and set up ready to film the very moment when we would open the door and the wild animal would regain his freedom. And so we do this… I don’t know how it occurred to me, but I was expecting something somehow dramatic. However, my excitement for the event clashed with five very long and uneventful minutes before seeing a three-toed limb slowly emerge from the carrier and grab the tree trunk. I guess I learned then that a release doesn’t necessarily go as you picture it!”

Nevertheless, Cris remains as enthusiastic as ever with each reintroduction. It is a great feeling to be there when an animal needs you, but perhaps it’s even more special at the moment when it no longer does.