CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. (AP) — While on an Ohio State alumni tour in Africa last year, Mary Torrence began to clearly see how she could change the lives of the chimpanzees she encountered at a wildlife sanctuary.
Torrence said she had really wanted to visit Africa and, as a former veterinarian, she was excited to see animals in their natural habitat.
"We went to this chimp conservancy part of the park (Ol Pejeta Conservancy), Sweetwater," said Torrence, a Kearneysville resident. "We walked through the park and we come across all these chimps and they're interacting with us. It was amazing."
While face to face with the chimpanzees, Torrence noticed they were suffering from vision ailments.
"While I was looking at some of the chimps, you could tell they were tilting their heads and their eyes looked a little cloudy, like a person with cataracts or an old dog. I thought, 'Some of these chimps are having trouble seeing us,'" she said.
Some of the eye lesions were caused by parasites in the water, which can affect humans as well. Torrence said if the chimps receive treatment, people in nearby villages could be educated about their health.
Another cause of the vision ailments is ultraviolet light from the sun.
When Torrence asked the deputy manager of the Sweetwater Sanctuary about the chimps' vision, she was told that they receive veterinary care, but not specialized vision care.
Torrence began planning a return trip. Her goal is to bring a certified ophthalmologist back to the Sweetwater Chimpanzee Sanctuary, part of Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Torrence said she talked to the dean of Ohio State's veterinary program, since it is focused on conservation. The university has agreed to help her with the trip and send veterinary students as well.
Torrence said she is planning to go back to Sweetwater in October, and has raised $1,000 on her own. She submitted a grant application to the Columbus Zoo, and is hoping to receive an additional $5,000.
The funds raised will go toward travel expenses, getting specialized equipment and a professional ophthalmologist to go to the sanctuary to treat the chimps.
According to Torrence, an eye exam for a chimpanzee is similar to what veterinarians do to domestic pets. The chimps will be anesthetized so the ophthalmologist can look into their eyes with scopes and magnifying lenses. Some of the vision ailments could be treated with medication, surgery or eye drops, she said.
"When we go, we're going to videotape it, and hope that we'll get the word out," Torrence said. "(The Ol Pejeta Conservancy) wants to bring local vets and send vet students over there to not only look at the chimps, but look at the other wildlife."
Torrence said the area near Nairobi, Kenya, is home to other wildlife sanctuaries. An elephant orphanage and a giraffe education center are located near Ol Pejeta.
The long-term goal is to have similar specialized care programs and university-professional partnerships in these other locations.
"If we get there once, and that video goes up on YouTube or whatever, I think people will be amazed and give us support," Torrence said. "They'll see that wildlife and people can work together."
Torrence said some of the chimpanzees at Sweetwater had been in zoos, traveling shows, or living as pets. She said her involvement with the project stems from her veterinary background and a longtime love for animals.
"I'm actually kind of surprised about (my involvement with this project) myself. I think it's because I work for the government now, I don't practice anymore, and I think I forgot why I'm a veterinarian. This kind of reminded me of the underdog. The chimps can't speak, but we can help them and speak for them. I love animals, and it's a chance to help animals that were abused by humans," Torrence said.
For more information about the return trip to Africa, including items needed for donation, contact Mary Torrence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/