Lisa Milella 2015 02 23
Milella was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2013. Since then, she's been dedicating her time to helping animals.

Dr Lisa Milella gets tired easily these days. “I used to be able to operate for ten hours a day,” says the 41-year-old veterinary dentist from Byfleet, Surrey, in the UK. Her work, performing maxillofacial surgery on animals, required both arm strength and fine motor control, something she no longer possesses. “Typing more than a paragraph is all I have the arm strength for now,” she says.

In August 2013, Milella was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a condition that is usually fatal within two to five years. The revelation forced her to close her veterinary practice, but it didn’t end her mission of helping animals.

Instead, Milella devoted what time she had left to helping animals in the wild. While she was still able to work, she travelled all over the world. She worked with the organisation International Animal Rescue to save a slow loris whose venomous teeth had been ripped out and an overweight orangutan that had been kept in chains and raised on a diet of sweets and sodas, causing massive tooth decay.

Lisa Milella Operating 2015 02 23
Milella in the operating room.

Milella saved that orangutan’s life during a five-hour surgery. Now another young orangutan owes something else to the doctor: her name.

Lisa the orangutan came to International Animal Rescue’s Orangutan Rescue Center in Ketapang, Indonesia on January 28. The three-year-old orphan had been illegally kept as a pet for ten days after she was found alone in a field, the previous owner claimed. During that time she was controlled with a rope around her neck and fed a diet solely of fruit juice and water.

By the time the owner voluntarily turned the orangutan in, she was suffering from malnutrition, low body weight and a distended abdomen. Her faeces contained both worms and worm eggs. The rope had caused several superficial wounds on her head.

Although a fruit-juice diet isn’t sufficient for a young orangutan, the malnutrition probably set in even before she was captured. “The area she came from is now mainly palm oil plantations, so she wouldn't have had good nutritious food for a while,” says Lisa Burtenshaw, who runs the rescue centre's volunteer and animal-enrichment programs.

Burtenshaw reports that Lisa the orangutan is healing nicely. “All her aliments were superficial,” she says. “She is adjusting very well to her nutritious diet of fruits and vegetables and will eat everything she is given. Her drink has to be given to her in a bowl, though, as she is still very nervous of humans and won't drink from a bottle or jug like the other orangutans.” The facility currently cares for 82 other abandoned apes. 

Lisa shows a surprisingly high level of wild behaviour, including the ability to build her own nest out of leaves. She’s also a bit feisty: she keeps trying to bite members of the centre’s medical team. 

Lisa Orangutan Rescue 2015 02 23
Lisa the orangutan is recovering well and even showing her feistier side.

Milella says she is “very touched” that the team in Indonesia named the young orangutan after her, but wonders if others might have deserved the honour even more. “There are so many volunteers, sponsors and workers that help at the sanctuary so to know that they have specifically thought of me means a lot to me. The team out in Indonesia have dedicated their lives to helping this endangered species and I feel my contribution could never be enough in terms of fundraising or teaching or practical work compared to what they do on a daily basis. They are the people that deserve the recognition, not me!” 

Burtenshaw, however, says Lisa Milella has inspired the entire staff at the rescue centre in Indonesia. “She is an amazing and inspirational lady so it seemed right to name one of the orangutans after her.”

Alan Knight, OBE, chief executive of International Animal Rescue, also praises Milella. “Lisa has been an inspiration to me since we first met in the early 1990s,” he says. “She has always had a ‘can-do’ attitude to working with every type of animal, from cats at our sanctuary at home to fully grown bears in India. I only hope I can be as courageous as Lisa if ever I have to face the situation that she finds herself in. Lisa is one in a million and it was the very least we could do to name a baby orangutan after her.” 

Although Milella can no longer do the 'practical' surgery work, she still travels to help train others to perform life-saving veterinary dental surgeries. She’s also a tireless fundraiser for International Animal Rescue. She initially set out to raise £10,000 for the organisation. That number now stands at nearly £23,000 ($35,000). 

Although she notices more deterioration in her condition every few weeks, Milella isn’t stopping any time soon. Her many friends and family members help her at every location. “Lisa’s knowledge of dentistry is encyclopaedic and I am determined to make sure that she can take part in as many dental workshops as she can manage while she still has the strength,” Knight says. “I have just returned from Indonesia where Lisa taught a class of ten vets the basics of dentistry and she is already talking about a visit to India to work on the bears.” 

Milella says her diagnosis has changed the way she sees the world. “As my condition deteriorates I have become much more aware of everything we take for granted in life. I just hope that I can make some sort of impression so that everyone around realises this and lives each day as if it was the last. It sounds such a cliché but when you are in my position you realise how real those sorts of clichés are.” 

As far as the staff and volunteers at the Orangutan Rescue Center are concerned, that impression will already last a lifetime.

Top header image: Al Smith, Flickr