I’d always wanted to go to Africa and work with chimpanzees and gorillas and for a long time working as a zoo vet with these amazing animals seemed like as far as I’d get to ‘the wild’. Then I got the call to go and help a sick chimpanzee at CWAF. When I got off the plane, I was whisked to the forest. It was both exciting and a little scary!

Despite our best efforts the little chimpanzee didn’t make it but at the dinner table that evening Avi Sivan, CWAF's Director, asked me what was needed and I drew out an animal hospital area and other suggestions including larger areas for the inevitable large adult apes the project would soon be managing. All babies grow up… . When I returned a couple of years later, Rachel the shy volunteer was now running the renamed Ape Action Africa and Avi Sivan had helped build not only the animal hospital but generously assisted with large forested areas for the adults too.

During that time I saw the handsome Shufai start as a frightened young gorilla and grow into a stronger teenager. But the gunshot injury to his wrist he had as a baby was now causing him pain and he was known as the ‘quiet one’ who didn’t climb and play like the others. The observant Mr Appolinaire was always my go-to person to ask how a gorilla feels and he said, ‘He feels sad, Doctor.’

An X-ray of Shufai's wrist from 2011

One year I came out with surgeons to fix Shufai’s arm and despite our best efforts and those of the amazing surgeons Dr Damian Chase and his supervisor Dr Sandra Corr, the arm didn’t fix well enough for the needs of a growing silverback. We returned a couple of years later with special X-ray equipment thinking we’d be able to do another type of ‘fix’ but the X-rays told a different story. Sandra explained the issue was that one bone had stopped growing but the other was still lengthening, so reorienting his arm around and meaning Shufai was in more and more pain from his elbow and wrist which were both very damaged.

Several quiet and upsetting conversations followed with Rachel and the team of Mr Appolinaire and his staff, as we debated the option of relieving his pain by amputating the arm and how well Shufai would cope rather than put him through any other surgery that would likely fail given the limitations of performing major surgery and the recovery needed while living in the forest. After a few days and nights the decision was made. Following a very long surgery (my own role as anaesthetist was to keep Shufai asleep and pain free throughout, to wake up pain free and yet do all this when part of the machine broke during surgery….but that’s another story) Shufai awoke without his arm and was exploring his recovery cage the next day. He was climbing even then for the first time in years.

Shufai's amputation surgery. Photo courtesy of Dr Sharon Redrobe

Dr Sharon accompanying an anaesthetised Shufai as he is transported in the forest.

Photo courtesy of Dr Sharon Redrobe

When I returned a month later Shufai was running around his large forested enclosure with the other ‘guys’ and had learned to tuck food under his stump so as not to lose out at feeding time! Mr Appolinaire wore one of his beautiful smiles as we watched the ‘new’ Shufai and said, ‘He is happy doctor’. What more can we ask?

Shufai back in the trees after his amputation. Photo courtesy of Ian Bickerstaff

I’ve been privileged to work as a vet supporting Ape Action Africa for over 20 years now and even more so to become a Trustee and then Chair of the Board. Over the years I’ve loved watching many of the chimpanzees and gorillas grow up but also know it’s very sad that more animals are coming into AAA every year needing to be rescued and that yet more areas always need to be made to house them as they grow. I know we all look forward to a world when animals can be wild and free but until then AAA is doing it’s part to educate and inform, working closely with the government to save animals and their habitat and one day we will win. I’d encourage others to help where they can and support this wonderful project.

The handsome silverback Shufai has become.

Dr Sharon Redrobe

We are incredibly grateful to vets Sandra, Damian and Sharon and to our team who supported the surgeons and continued to care for Shufai after his operation. In addition to the vets, there were many other people behind the scenes who helped with funds and equipment. Thank you so much to everyone involved in providing Shufai with a life free from pain. We're very lucky to have Dr Sharon as Chair of the Board and greatly appreciate everything that she has done for Ape Action Africa over the years.

If you'd like a behind the scenes look at the story of Shufai's amputation, you can watch ITV's three-part news story from 2013 here

If you'd like to join our forest family and help us care for Shufai, you can adopt him for £30 a year. Visit our adoption page to join our forest family.

Please select a donation amount (required)
Set up a regular payment Donate