Learning From Gorillas to Save Killer Whales

A pod of Southern Resident killer whales, including J50, in August 2018
J50, or Scarlet, a southern resident killer whale in the Salish Sea, keeps up with her family in August 2018. (Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

In 2018, the southern resident killer whale population in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea was at its lowest ever. The world watched in September as an orca named Scarlet, or J50, wasted away and died, leaving just 74 of her kind left. Some wondered if this was “What extinction looks like.”

Meanwhile, endangered mountain gorillas in Africa hit a milestone in the opposite direction. Their population climbed to more than 1,000 — the highest in nearly a century.

Building on work begun by primatologist Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist fame, Gorilla Doctors, a program led by the University of California, Davis, has been providing personalized veterinary care to these animals in the wild since the late 2000s. The gorillas have their own long-term health records, and the international team of veterinarians that observe and treat them know each one as they would their own family members and friends — down to the individual.

Wildlife veterinarians from UC Davis’ SeaDoc Society and partnering organizations are just beginning to take that individualized-care approach with the ailing orcas. 

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