My once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center

Anna Katogiritis of Karpathos, Greece, is a third-year DVM student pursuing the mixed animal track at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. She hopes to work in small animal surgical oncology and combine her interest in primate conservation after graduation.

My journey to the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo began with a dream and a letter to Dr. Jane Goodall. In May of 2014, I had the pleasure and honor of attending Dr. Goodall’s lecture at Washington and Lee University in Lexington. I remember being anxious and stressed at the time as the day after the speech we had an exam at the veterinary school. However, thanks to the encouragement of the class professor (thank you Dr. B) and my best friend, I got in the car and drove to Lexington.

Anna Katogiritis with Jane Goodall
Anna Katogiritis (left) meets Jane Goodall (right) during a lecture at Hollins University in Roanoke last April. The two also met at a 2014 lecture at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.

At the time, I could not believe that I was finally given the chance to listen to one of my biggest inspirations. As a kid, I had two books filled with pictures of primates from around the world. I was raised on a small island in Greece called Karpathos, and I was always interested in animals.

When I attended Dr. Goodall’s lecture, I gave her a letter at the end of the speech, explaining why I committed to becoming a veterinarian at the early age of 5. I explained to her that I had seen a lot of animal cruelty, and that I always wanted to make a difference in the animal rights field as well as take part in conservation efforts. I remembered writing that I would love to be able in the future to volunteer as a veterinarian in various parts of the world and help monkeys and great apes that are being rehabilitated. Furthermore, I believed that in order to practice medicine one needs to have a better understanding of an animal’s behavior, and what better way to study that than to visit the natural habitat of the chimpanzees? I had already worked with macaques and orangutans in Indonesia in 2011, and I carry the experiences and lessons learned with me up to this day.

Anna with Rebeca Atencia
Katogiritis joined Rebeca Atencia, executive director and chief veterinarian at the Jane Goodall Institute in Congo, for the introduction of a chimpanzee back into the forest on protected islands.

Two weeks after giving Dr. Goodall my letter, to my surprise, I received an email from her. Sweet and to the point, she brought me in contact with members of the Jane Goodall Institute and eventually I had the opportunity to communicate with Debby Cox, technical advisor of the Jane Goodall Institute for its Africa programs, and Dr. Rebeca Atencia, executive director and chief veterinarian of JGI in Congo. It just so happened that at the time they had a need for someone with my skills, and the rare opportunity of volunteering in Congo was given to me.

For the year that followed, I simply could not wait for June of 2015 when I would finally get on the plane and not only make a dream come true, but also learn from the best: Ms. Cox, a naturalist with years of experience in conservation and primate behavior (a real authority in the field); and Dr. Atencia, a veterinarian whose passion for chimpanzees has resulted in the release and rehabilitation of so many of them.

After arriving in Congo, I had a week to acclimate. I followed Ms. Cox everywhere and assisted in various tasks. I recall asking her a million questions about primate behavior and other topics, and I cannot thank her enough for the tremendous patience that she showed. She would respond to each question in such detail, that every day with Ms. Cox felt like a week of vet school as far as the information that I gained. I also had the chance to travel to the new island sanctuary expansion sites where some of Tchimpounga’s chimpanzees are being transferred, visit the Conkouati-Douli National Park which is known for its rich biodiversity (elephants, gorillas, leopards, chimpanzees, hundreds of birds, and more), and interact with JGI’s staff, most of whom are Congolese people.

The Republic of Congo, and specifically Pointe-Noire, reminded me in many ways of Greek culture and tradition, especially the hospitality. Although the Congolese are in general very poor, the most distinct images when walking, or driving, through Pointe Noire are of the various oil companies. Seeing the two cultures was like day and night: from one hand I could see the poor Congolese and from the other hand the rich “Moundeles,” which means white people in Congolese.

A chimpanzee sanctuary

Katogiritis developed a special bond with Podive (pictured here), an 8-year-old chimpanzee who required constant medical care due to a hepatitis B diagnosis. After several weeks of daily interactions with him, Katogiritis noticed a change in the chimpanzee’s disposition toward her.

The sanctuary has over 150 chimpanzees that have been rescued from various regions in the Congo Basin and from various circumstances. Some were found orphaned and very sick at a young age, others were rescued from zoos in which they were not being taken care of properly, others had been kept as pets, and still others were injured or orphaned during illegal poaching or wildlife trafficking. No matter the reason of their rescue, these chimpanzees were given a second chance.

The sanctuary has sections for the infants and elderly or immunocompromised, the middle-aged, and the adults. Each year the Jane Goodall Institute invests money in building new infrastructure in order to meet the needs of the center, as well as take care of the chimpanzees that have 24-hour care. The cost of their care can reach up to $1 million per year. In addition to the chimpanzees, the center takes care of several rescued mandrills, moustache monkeys, African grey parrots, and fishing eagles.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this experience was to see the interaction of the caregivers and the chimpanzees. Not every part of Congo has the same culture and traditions. Nonetheless, the villages around the Tchimpounga have the belief that when a family member dies he or she is reincarnated into a chimpanzee. Therefore, taking care of these animals is like taking care of a family member who passed away.

Mpaka, former alpha male of the mandrill group at the Conkouati-Douli National Park in Congo.

I remember a certain instance where Serge, a caregiver that has been with the institute since he was a young boy, was talking to one of the chimpanzees “Betou” as if he were his child. Betou did not want to receive his antibiotic cream and was hiding his face. Serge spoke to him as he would speak to a stubborn 7 year old, and I could just see that they could both understand each other. Betou accepted the application of the antibiotic cream after Serge had a long discussion with him. The whole scene was funny to watch, and at the same time it left me in awe because of the connection that Serge had with the chimpanzees.

The weeks passed, and I could not believe the amount of information that I was learning. While I was there, I conducted parasitology studies at the center. Whenever I found infected chimpanzees, mandrills, or staff, I would consult with the nurses, email my information to Dr. Atencia, and have the animals treated by the veterinarian in charge.

During my stay at the center, I had the honor of meeting a chimpanzee who I still have very close to my heart. His name is “Podive,” which means “trouble.” Podive is an 8-year-old chimpanzee who was rescued at an early age. He requires 24/7 medical care, as he became immunocompromised when he got infected with hepatitis B. His immune problem led to the development of skin lesions that require daily cleaning and care. Podive is the definition of a “kind heart.” Every day between 1 and 3 p.m., when the others at the center were on break, I would go by his enclosure, sit on the ground, and either listen to music with him, talk to him, or just sit there as his company.

Mandrill baby
Mark, the newest infant in the mandrill group at the Conkouati-Douli National Park in Congo.

After several weeks of these daily interactions, whenever Podive would see me approaching his enclosed area, he would jump off the high structure that he sat on, and run towards the very specific spot where we spent an hour every day. Without JGI and the dedication of the team, Podive would not be alive today. Instead, he has a family that loves him and cares for him as if he were an actual person. A fence was always separating Podive and myself, but I guess there is no real obstacle to true friendship. Podive reminded me that we need to take time off each day and appreciate what we have around us.

I could write so much more about my experience in Africa and the knowledge that I gained from all the wonderful people and animals that I encountered, but this would probably take pages. I have taken a lot of things from that experience, one of which was advice that Dr. Atencia gave me, and with pleasure I pass on to you: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you cannot combine the things you love and create the job that you like. When I came to Africa, Tchimpounga was not as it is today. However, with determination, passion, and teamwork we created a center where I love to work and have combined everything that I like. When you graduate you should do the same: create your job.”

Dr. Jane Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse interfering with or handling wild chimpanzees. The chimpanzees pictured in this imagery were rescued and are now cared for at the Jane Goodall Institute's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo.

Anna Katogiritis with a microscope
Katogiritis checks samples for parasites at the Jane Goodall Institute’s mandrill release site at the Conkouati-Douli National Park in Congo.