Anna Katogiritis was born and raised in Greece and is currently studying veterinary medicine in the US (Virginia). Over the last three years she has conducted some amazing work with the Jane Goodall Institute, which was founded in the 1970s by famed primatologist, UN Messenger of Peace and Dame of the British Empire: Dr. Jane Goodall.
She is also the first Greek to work at the biggest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa: Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary- Jane Goodall Institute- the sanctuary is located in the Republic of Congo.
Anna will now be representing the Roots&Shoots program in Greece, which she successfully initiated a few months ago. Having also interned for the Institute at their main office in Washington DC: Jane Goodall Institute- Office of the Founder, she will be personally assisting Dr. Jane Goodall during her visit in Greece.
Roots&Shoots is a youth program that was created in the 1990s by Dr. Jane Goodall and a team of 12 students in Tanzania. The goal is to motivate children, youth and young people to take action regarding various problems that their community is facing. The moto is "turning learners into leaders" and "everyone can make a difference". The belief is that if we all help our local communities, the positive effects will eventually add up and there will be a positive global impact.
The program has been successfully introduced to schools around the world, as well as universities. They have more than 150, 000 groups in over 140 countries.
Anna recently spoke to GCT about her involvement with the program and how she hopes to make positive changes in the world as an activist- for both humans and animals.
What is your line of work?
I have a degree in molecular biology from the University of Crete (Greece). I am currently working on my graduate degree in veterinary medicine at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Virginia (USA).
Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in Athens, Greece. Currently, I live in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.
Where in Greece are your ancestors from?
Both my father and mother, George and Roula Katogiritis, are from Karpathos island. More specifically, they are both from Menetes village.
Tell us about your love of animals? Did this begin at a young age? What led to you studying veterinary science?
My love for and interaction with animals goes back to when I was 5 years old. At that time, I was on Karpathos island where veterinary care was completely lacking. Growing up, I saw a lot of animal cruelty (in privately owned animals, as well as strays) and this is what inspired me to become a veterinarian. In fact, I can still recall the moment where I learned how to say the Greek word: “κτηνίατρος” (veterinarian). There were many times when I struggled between veterinary medicine and human medicine. However, after seeing the need for veterinarians on my island, it ended up being a one-way path for me. I had many people doubt my dream, make fun of it, or try to change it. But, luckily, I have a family that could see my passion for animal welfare from that young age and had my back the whole time. Even up to this day- I would not be here if it weren’t for my extremely supportive family.
Tell us about your meeting with Dr Jane Goodall and your involvement with the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI)?
In 2014 I read that Dr. Goodall would visit Washington and Lee University. I could not believe that there was a possibility that I could see in person the individual that inspired me as a kid to dream big and make a difference. The university was about 1.5 hours away from Virginia Tech, but thanks to the encouragement of my partner, Dr. Thomas Cotrone, I wrote a letter and drove to the lecture hall.
After Dr. Jane’s lecture was over, I stood in line so I could have my book signed. When it was my turn to approach her I gave her my letter and told her “I wrote a letter. I know you probably won’t have time to read it... but it would mean a lot if you did”. Dr. Jane, obviously tired, did not say much. She took the letter and placed it on the pile of letters she had received that day. And when I say “pile” of letters… I mean many letters. So many, that at that point I was sure that she was never going to read mine.
Little did I know that Dr. Jane reads most of the letters (if not all) that people give her during lectures, and makes an effort to personally reply to all of them.
Three weeks later I received an email saying: “A message from Dr. Jane Goodall”. That was the beginning to my adventure and volunteer work with JGI. Dr. Goodall had taken the time to read my letter and connect me with her colleagues. My background in parasitology research just so happened to be in need at the time and therefore a unique opportunity was presented to me. In the coming weeks we scheduled my trip to Africa.
In April 2015, I had the chance to see Dr. Goodall again at Hollins University, and then in June 2015 I left for the Republic of Congo. More specifically, I travelled to the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center (sanctuary), which is overseen by JGI. I worked with Dr. Rebeca Atencia and Ms. Debbie Cox, both two of the most respected primatologists in the world.
In February this year, I started an internship at JGI working directly in Dr. Goodall's office (Office of the Founder Global) just outside of Washington, D.C, where I assisted Mr. Jacob Petersen.
In June, I returned to Greece for the summer where my dream of bringing Dr. Jane’s Roots & Shoots program to Greece was slowly becoming real. I translated a lot of material from English to Greek, and also recruited my wonderful colleague Ms. Efi Douvitsa, who is currently voluntarily doing Roots & Shoots workshops in Athens, Greece. It has been a slow process, but one that will empower many children and young people, I am sure. JGI’s support during this whole process has been immense.
Tell us about your time in Indonesia and the Congo?
I visited Indonesia the summer of 2011. Right after graduating from the University of Crete, I felt that I needed to get my feet wet and finally start being more active in wildlife conservation. I visited Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center in North Sulawesi Island. The center has over 200 animals (macaques, orangutans, birds, crocodiles etc), that have been confiscated from illegal wildlife trading. Sulawesi is a hot spot where illegal trading occurs, sort of like a cross road. So the team of the rehabilitation center is always busy.
While there, my supervisor Mr. Simon Purser (manager of the center) entrusted me with the wildlife clinic. At the time, the center had no volunteer veterinarians, and I was responsible for all the medical cases of the center. Macaques, being macaques, would often get hurt, parrots would get injured and animals would develop lesions often, so I was busy enough. My mornings consisted of daily health checks for all the animals. I would wake up at 6:30-7am, eat breakfast and then start going around the sanctuary, observing every individual animal carefully. I would then report back to Mr. Purser and we would come up with a plan. I am very thankful for all the veterinarians that answered my calls and emails during that time, as we managed to medically help many animals that way. That experience allowed me to put all my knowledge into practice and forced me out of my comfort zone- in the most positive way. I had to learn to trust my instincts, believe in myself, and find solutions to problems. Was I stressed? Yes! Definitely. I was dealing with species that I had never seen up close before… but I had people around me that believed in me, and animals that needed help, so that in itself was enough.
My experience in Congo was different. In Congo, I studied chimpanzee parasites for the most part. I was responsible for checking fecal samples from all the chimpanzees, seeing which chimpanzee groups had active parasite infections. I would then report to my supervisor Dr. Atencia (chief veterinarian of the sanctuary), so that we would come up with a treatment plan.
In the meantime, I had the chance to follow the nurses around when they were treating sick chimpanzees and I also had a time to observe the chimpanzees on my own, thus learning more about their behavior, which was really important to me.
Ms. Debby Cox was a phenomenal mentor. She would always answer all of my questions, and go into great detail when giving answers. I often felt that spending a week with Ms. Cox was worth a whole semester of veterinary school, because of her vast knowledge of chimpanzee behavior and conservation, in addition to her willingness to share that knowledge with me.
Tell us about your special bond with Podive?
The Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo, is the largest chimpanzee Sanctuary in all of Africa. JGI cares for more than 160 chimpanzees, mandrills and other animals, all of which have been rescued.
Podive was one of those lucky chimpanzees who was saved by JGI. His name means “trouble” because the night they found him he was being very naughty, from what I was told. I was only at Tchimpounga for 3 months, but Podive’s enclosed area was behind our building. So whenever I would have a break- normally between 1-3pm, I would go close to Podive’s fence and just sit there. He was always curious, calm and kind. I would often take my computer and play music, just so I could see his reactions, or play some movies. For 2 hours every day Podive and I would sit quietly at the same exact spot. He got used to me going there at the same time every day, that when he would see me coming from the distance he would race to the usual spot. I always say that even though we had a fence separating the two of us, I feel that we had a connection that could bypass that. For security reasons no interaction was allowed with the chimpanzees. However, just sitting across from him with a fence in the middle seemed enough for our friendship to grow.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Africa, was because I felt that if I did not study chimpanzees in their natural environment, and understand their natural behaviour, I would not be able to treat them properly as a veterinarian. In veterinary medicine, animal behaviour is often key in making a judgment as to whether an animal is healthy or not, because animals cannot talk by using words. Behaviour and body language are the first signs we come across when we are observing our patients from distance. Therefore, knowing which behaviour is normal and which isn’t is very important. Having spent that time with Podive was priceless in many regards, but also because he taught me some key aspects of chimpanzee behaviour.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I am working on finishing my veterinary degree. At the same time, during my free time, I am trying to develop JGI Roots & Shoots groups and establish the program in Greece. Distance does not make this task easy, but having a colleague that I can trust, Ms. Efi Douvitsa, has been of immense help. My volunteer work has been supported by JGI team (especially Mr. Jacob Petersen, Ms. Mary Lewis and Ms. Erin Viera), who have been instrumental in allowing all of this to happen, and I can’t thank them enough.
What changes would you like to see take place in Greece for the welfare of animals? Do you think change is possible?
I will start by answering the second question first with a strong and loud “yes”. Animal welfare has been an issue in our country for as long as I can remember myself. Animal abuse is happening daily, and even though there are current laws, they are not being strictly applied. People are often afraid of bringing cases to the police, because for the police to take action they need a formal complaint (not anonymous). Over the years various animal welfare groups have been created, and they have saved thousands of animals. That in itself is huge progress. If I were to compare animal welfare now with what we had 20 years ago in Greece I would say that there is a drastic improvement. I see more people speaking up and condemning cruel actions, I see more people fostering animals, more people taking better care of their own animals.
Non-for-Profit Organisations have done a phenomenal job with bringing volunteer veterinarians from around the world and providing veterinary care in remote areas.
Despite this progress, people are still afraid to speak up in many of those cases, mainly because most Greeks are afraid of the consequences (e.g. disturbing the relationships with their neighbours). But I am hopeful that the day is coming where the ones who will be afraid to act will be the animal abusers, because the people who are raising their voices for the welfare of all animals will be way more.
Another reason for hope, is seeing how sensitive younger generations are becoming regarding animal cruelty and welfare issues. They are less tolerant of animal abuse, and I am hopeful that the future will be brighter because of them, mainly because the present already looks much better.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learnt over the past 5 years?
One of the biggest lessons was something that my father told me 4 years ago. I had gone through a difficult phase and did not know if I would pursue veterinary medicine and my father told me: if you do not become a veterinarian and fulfill your dream that means that you never really wanted it to begin with. This specific advice taught me that there is always a way of achieving what we want, as long as we are determined and remain true to our goals and, above all, ourselves. Obstacles are everywhere, but giving up or persevering is a choice.
Another lesson is that finding the positives in a swamp of negatives is also a choice. “Hunt for the Good” as they say. One of the biggest lessons came from my visit to Africa. There, I realized that we cannot judge the people of another country if we truly do not know what they are going through.
Being an activist, and often being sensitive, I would always judge poachers, for example. I could not understand their point of view. Whenever I would think of local people in Africa and Asia killing endangered animals, I would get angry. I just could never imagine, how someone would not appreciate their local wildlife and kill chimpanzees, for example. However, when I went to Africa I got to see the other side. I love talking to people, and I love learning about cultures. So having the chance to speak to the Congolese people that worked at the sanctuary was a truly eye opening experience. Poor people in various parts of Africa have no choice sometimes but to kill our precious endangered species, in order to feed their families. Because when faced with extreme poverty, one is in survival mode. Having understood that, I can appreciate why educating the communities, teaching them how to produce their own food, and become more sustainable is of outmost importance when it comes to conservation. This way, big corporations cannot take advantage of their need. This way, we can fight deforestation and wildlife trafficking.
This lesson really applies to what happened with Greece’s situation over the last few years. The whole world would judge the Greek people, because of the economic crisis and the huge amount of debt that we owe the IMF. However, a lot of those people had never visited Greece- the country where democracy was created, and where people go to extremes to help others. As a result of this “judgment” that was going on worldwide the dreams of many young people in Greece were crushed. Had people actually made an effort to understand why Greece owed so much money to the IMF and how all of this gradually happened, maybe they would have been able to help the country. Therefore, learning not to judge other countries before we closely look at the problems that they are facing, and speaking to the actual –local- people has definitely been an important lesson. This is the only way to actually come up with solutions that can have a long term positive effect.
Where do you see yourself working in 10 years time?
Ideally, I would like to be able to work in Greece and in the US, while finding time to volunteer in developing countries in the meantime. Volunteering is an integral part of who I am, so I cannot imagine myself not being able to provide my services and skills. My end goal is to tailor my job in the future to those needs and make the best out of it. At the same time I am open to new possibilities. I see new areas of interest everyday, and meet people who inspire me. As long as the end result is a positive change for all of those creatures I care about, and as long as I can give back to my country I will be more than happy.
What inspires you?
For the last 4 years, I have been inspired a lot by peoples’ stories. I attended a Veterinary Leadership experience once, and there I learned that every person has a story and if we actually take the time and ask we can learn a lot not only about the individual, but also about other possibilities that exist. I always like stories (thanks to my great-grand mother) so I really took that advice to heart and started asking and reading about people’s backgrounds. What inspires me the most is when I read or listen to a story about an individual that had to struggle a lot to achieve a dream, but still managed to do so anyway. This reminds me a lot of all those Greeks that left Greece at a time of extreme poverty and accomplished phenomenal things all around the world (in science, business etc). They did not have any help, and yet a lot of them started by washing dishes in restaurants and managed to own corporations. Greeks are definitely resilient people, and I know for sure that my father’s generation has inspired me a lot- because I had him as an example.
Aside from your family, what other Greeks have influenced you?
I could go back in Greek History and think of many names (we Greeks are lucky to have that option), but I will stay in the present. Aside from my family, the one person that had a tremendous positive impact on me was Dr. Sofia Melidonis. A veterinarian in Heraklion, Crete (Greece) that encompasses all those characteristics that define Greeks: honest, caring, hospitable, with a lot of philotimo (φιλότιμο). She trained me, and was the first one –outside of my family- to believe in me. I am very proud to call her my mentor and friend.
What is one piece of ancestral knowledge/advice you remember to this day?
My great- grandmother Maria Korsou is the one that comes to mind. She passed away at the age of 97, when I was 10 years old. Every day she would remind me to stay humble, never look down on people and always care for others. I think she may be the reason I am too sensitive about animals and people. Her life story was a lesson in itself: She was born in 1900, experienced wars, extreme poverty, and lost her husband while my grandmother Fragitsa was only a few months old. Yet, she remained strong and ethical. She taught me that no matter the obstacles, if you have strong ethics and determination you can do anything.
What is your favourite Greek food?
My mother’s Pastitsio, my grandmothers chicken Avgolemono soup and my father’s Fasolada.
*Dr. Goodall will be visiting Greece this coming December for the first time, with the goal of raising awareness regarding environmental issues, and bringing people together. The lecture is scheduled for December 15th, 7pm at Megaro Mousikis in Athens. On December 16th Dr. Goodall will meet Roots&Shoots groups and educators.
You can learn more about our global program here: www.rootsandshoots.org