Aug 17, 2023

Mike Cranfield, Maryland Zoo’s director of animal health who became head of The Gorilla Doctors, dies

Mike Cranfield, the Maryland Zoo’s director of animal health who was responsible for the health and care of more than 1,500 animals before becoming the head of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, died Aug. 28 from the Powassan virus, a tick borne disease. He was 71 and lived in Baltimore County.

Mr. Cranfield and his older brother John grew up with their parents Jack Cranfield, who worked at Canadian General Electric, and Amy Cranfield, a high school teacher, near a lake in Peterborough, Canada.

John Cranfield, 75, said living in nature influenced his brother’s love for animals, but even as a child, he adopted a baby racoon after it lost its parents.

“I think living by the lake is where he got his love from animals and nature,” John said. “He knew at a very early age what he wanted to do.”

Mr. Cranfield attended Thomas A. Stewart High School in Peterborough and then Guelph University in Ontario, where he studied veterinary medicine. He also interned at the Toronto Zoo.

After his internship, Mr. Cranfield wanted to work with exotic zoo animals, so he started to travel. His first stop was Japan, John Cranfield said. Following his experience in Japan, he began working at the Maryland Zoo.

Mike Cranfield was the Maryland Zoo’s director of animal health who became head of The Gorilla Doctors. (Maryland Zoo)

Mr. Cranfield first came to the Maryland Zoo in 1982 as chief veterinarian. Later, he would become the director of animal health, research and conservation, responsible for the health of more than 1,500 animals at the zoo.

“He taught me pretty much everything that I know,” Jennifer Sohl, director of the Hospital and Conservation Programs for the Maryland Zoo, said. “I started off as a vet tech and now I am a director of a hospital, and that’s all cause of him.”

In 1998, he became executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, better known as The Gorilla Doctors, which is dedicated to saving the lives of endangered mountain gorillas living in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Under Mr. Cranfield, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project expanded to include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention programs, often called “one health,” combating the spread of diseases between humans and animals with a focus on eastern lowland gorillas, known as Grauer’s gorillas, living in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Mike was a pioneer,” said Rob Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. “When he started working with the mountain gorilla program in Africa, he completely changed it from an NGO [nongovernmental organization] that provided veterinary care to sick animals. He championed what we now call ‘one health’ long before it became popular among health care professionals and conservationists.”

Gorilla Doctors grew from a single American veterinarian to an organization with more than 80% of its staff from African partner nations, including 13 veterinarians, under Mr. Cranfield’s direction, according to a biographical profile written by Elizabeth Grieb, former president of the Maryland Zoo.

“Mike was brilliant,” Ms. Grieb said. “He was good at his job, but what he did for the gorillas in Africa was important and long lasting. He created a program that taught vets how to do the work that Gorilla Doctors do, and it worked. They are still using it to this day.”

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When Mr. Cranfield retired in 2018, he would still go to the zoo regularly to collaborate on projects and help former colleagues, Ms. Sohl said.

“He was one of the most passionate veterinarians in the world,” Ms. Sohl said. “He was a trailblazer and a force to be reckoned with.”

Mr. Cranfield is survived by his brother, John Cranfield, of Peterborough, Ontario.

The Maryland Zoo will have a memorial for Mr. Cranfield Oct. 14 from 5 to 8 p.m. in Zoo Central.