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Just Like Us: A Visual Memoir of Our Great Ape Relatives

How veterinarian and photographer Rick Quinn became a conservationist.

Key points

  • Just Like Us is an entertaining and informative read that illustrates how one ordinary person can be a catalyst for positive change.―Jane Goodall
  • It aims to inform a general audience with high-quality images and stories enabling them to relate to the issues at hand and take action.
Rick Quinn/with permission.
Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.

Great apes, our closest relatives, are vanishing right in front of our eyes. It's impossible to document what is actually happening in a way that people who don't ever get to see these magnificent nonhumans up close and personal—which is most people on our planet—except in zoos or on TV, and that is why veterinarian and photographer Rick Quinn's book, an informative photographic journey titled Just Like Us: A Veterinarian's Visual Memoir of Our Vanishing Great Ape Relatives with a foreword by Jane Goodall, is an essential read for a global audience.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Just Like Us?

Rick Quinn: Photographing mountain gorillas and spending time with their veterinary caregivers in East Arica piqued my interest in the plight of our closest great ape relatives and led to a journey of discovery over seven years and through seven African countries, Sumatra, and Borneo. My fascination with the photographed subjects was predictable; the dedication and passion, as well as the hardships endured by those working on the front lines of conservation, were unexpected and humbling, Just Like Us came out of a sense of responsibility to give back, to share what I was privileged to have viewed through my shutter and to have learned from those around me in the forest.1

Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.
Adult western lowland gorilla silverback malinda, the dominant male of the Makunda group, near Bai Hokou, Central African Republic. Western gorillas typically have a shorter greyish-black coat with a distinctive red tinge to the hair on the top of their heads
Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

RQ: The book was written for an audience that is curious about wild animals, wild places, and the reason why many species may not survive beyond this century. The full-colour, clear close-up images of each of the great ape species in their natural habitats may excite the trained primate-savvy scientist, however, the main beneficiary would be the average ‘person next door’ who will be delivered to the rainforest home of our closest relatives to understand the reality of their situation.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

RQ: The book delivers three messages of equal importance. First, the reader will have the opportunity to ‘appreciate the relatives.’ It won’t take long to recognize their physical features, and their behavior—particularly with their infants—as being uncannily close to our own. Reading about their diet, nest-building activities, and foraging lifestyle, makes it easier to understand why they are tied to a specific habitat—one which is disappearing rapidly because of human infrastructure. Their genetic similarity to humans not only leads to physical and behavioral similarities to ourselves but also to susceptibility to diseases that we share. That is problematic for a critically endangered population so close to expanding human settlements in some of the most heavily populated regions in developing countries.

Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.
Cargo being unloaded at the trailhead at the small village of Bosolomwa, on the Lomako River, Équateur Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our landing at this sandy beach capped a thirteen-hour ride down the tributaries of the legendary Congo River in this forty-foot wooden pirogue.
Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.

Bushmeat hunting, habitat loss from logging and the extraction of surface minerals and oil exploration, and human-wildlife conflict, are among the leading threats to their survival and highlight the second message of the book: ‘understanding the challenges'. Many of these populations are within areas that have experienced some of the bloodiest human conflicts in the last several decades. Internally displaced populations flee to the forest and are obliged to stay warm and cook, removing trees and wildlife. The illegal production of charcoal is currency for rebel activity, depleting forests of the very trees necessary for great apes to survive. Deforestation by government-sanctioned slash-and-burn techniques for palm oil production is devastating the landscapes and orangutan population in Indonesia.

Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.
Adult male Sumatran orangutan, Gunning Leuser National park, Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, Indonesia. The orangutans of Sumatra have more distinctive beards and flatter flanges than their Bornean counterparts. The most arboreal of the great apes, orangutans spend very little time on the ground.
Source: Rick Quinn/with permission.

Equally important for consideration, is the third message: ‘There are positive steps being taken’. The book highlights recent cooperation between adjacent African nations and international NGOs, to form protected areas within contiguous forests, monitor wildlife, and manage land usage while considering the rights of indigenous peoples. The health monitoring of critically endangered gorilla populations has played a role in the increase in the number of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. International NGOs are supporting public education and projects to empower local organizations to work towards self-sufficiency in their conservation efforts. They provide education, improved agricultural practices, healthcare, microcredit opportunities for the ladies of a village to create small businesses, and alternatives for livelihoods that threaten wildlife. Hunters have become trackers, porters, and guides for the growing eco-tourism industry.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

RQ: Most books that describe the great ape species as a group, present the information in an atlas format, with accurate information but with little context to appreciate what has led to their critically endangered status. Just Like Us aims to inform a more general audience, where multiple high-quality images and stories may hold the reader’s interest enabling them to directly relate to the issues at hand, and be moved to participate.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about nonhumans they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

RQ: Many people lack any substantial knowledge about the plight of great apes or perhaps doubt the effect of one individual’s contribution to solving the problem. One way to change attitudes is to increase awareness. Only when people understand the great apes—their natural behaviors, the habitat, their importance in the wild, and how close we are to losing them forever, will they be able to decide how best to advocate for our closest relatives. Yes, I am hopeful that as people are provided a more complete understanding it will seem natural to think of them as being worthy of our protection, honour, and respect.


In conversation with Rick Quinn, founder of Docs4GreatApes, a charitable organization that supports health care for great apes while also helping the communities surrounding them and the environment they share. Just Like Us (also available at Docs4GreatApes) is a major source of income for the scholarships given by the consortium called the Wildlife ConserVet Education Project—the lead charity being JGI Canada. The costs of design, printing, and other costs were paid for separately by my cl9inic. So truly, 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of this book go to fund the ConsdrVet scholarship

1) When I asked Rick how his book relates to his background and general areas of interest, he answered: As a young veterinarian, I enjoyed being able to explain, in straightforward terms to anyone who entrusted the care of their pet with me, the medical problems they faced. I welcomed invitations to media events such as radio call-in shows to educate people about the care of pets. Eventually returning to an academic environment for graduate training in ophthalmology, I worked hard to break down complex problems and communicate effectively, for the sake of the individual presenting with their much-loved pet and the attending veterinary students. In retrospect, writing the book was likely an offshoot of that dual interest in caring about animals and teaching. It hopefully serves as a vehicle to build awareness of the plight of critically endangered wildlife as well as the need to support building wildlife healthcare capacity in the regions where that need is greatest.

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