Kim Hammond's obsession with Africa began, like a lot of things in his life, with a girl.
In 1997, the veterinarian, founder of the Falls Road Animal Hospital, and notorious man about town, found himself sitting next to an attractive woman on a transatlantic flight.
"I was coming back from Niger, and he was coming back from a fashion show in Paris," recalls Marjorie Copson, then a desk officer in the Peace Corps, who sat next to Dr. Hammond on the flight. "He kind of jokingly said, 'Well, maybe you can get me a gig in Africa.'"
Recalling the conversation today, Hammond, 57, now married with a two-year-old daughter, smiles and shrugs. "She was a pretty girl."
As it turned out, Copson was married, so the flirtation didn't get very far. But the encounter proved fateful nonetheless: When she returned to her desk in Washington, Copson found a request for an animal doctor in Niger. "They specifically needed a veterinarian to work at the zoo in Niamey," she says. "I just couldn't really believe it."
Copson contacted Hammond, and, never one to back down from a challenge, he accepted. Then, he panicked. In his animal hospital, Hammond rarely handled anything larger than a St. Bernard. In Niger, he would be asked to treat wild animals. He turned to Dr. Mike Cranfield, head veterinarian at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
"I got this message from Falls Road asking me, 'How do you immobilize a lion?'" Cranfield recalls. "I thought, well, nobody at Falls Road should be immobilizing a lion, so I didn't answer it. Then, I got a message a couple days later that said, 'I'm going to Africa. I'm going to need to immobilize a lion,' and I still thought, this doesn't sound right. The next message I got was, 'Going to Africa. Want to come?'"
Hammond, Cranfield, and a couple of technicians made the trip later that year, sedating and treating zoo animals so that Peace Corps volunteers could repair their badly deteriorated cages and feeding equipment. "They went out there and did a fabulous job," recalls Copson. "Kim kind of takes a place by storm. When you've got a guy like Kim Hammond and his crew coming in to a lot of starving, overheated Peace Corps volunteers, it was kind of inspirational."
It proved inspirational for Cranfield and Hammond, too. It was the first time either had worked in Africa, and Cranfield was moved to make it his life's work. "If you work in a zoo long enough, you see animals born and die and you want to see more than that," he says. "I'd always wanted to work with wild animals." Soon after the trip to Niger, Cranfield got involved with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP), a legacy of Dian Fossey's work with endangered Rwandan mountain gorillas, portrayed in Gorillas in the Mist.
By 1999, Cranfield was director of MGVP, and, soon thereafter, Hammond began visiting the project site in Rwanda. He joined the board of directors in 2005. Cranfield spends about half of the year in the group's sites in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hammond makes several trips a year to the sites, helping to train African veterinarians and bringing his seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm to the project. He has also poured a significant portion of his fortune into the cause as well.
"This has been brewing inside of me for a long time," says Hammond. "Public service, to me, is the payoff. It's not the gold. For me, to sit by the pool or play tennis in the afternoon doesn't do it."
Wearing blue scrubs, sitting in his bug-infested, wood-paneled office above Falls Road Animal Hospital, you might not guess that Kim Hammond is heir to one of America's most revered fashion families.
But the man who frequently finds his hands inside peoples' pets is actually the great-grandson of Andrew Saks, the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue. His dad graduated from law school at 20 years old and founded the very successful Farboil Paint Company on Key Highway. Brought up in luxury in Mt. Washington, Hammond says he was always searching for his own calling.
"I was raised in a setting of nice, pretty lawns and beautiful swimming pools," he says. "And yet, that image didn't often reflect the people that lived inside those homes. My parents read all the classics to me. I still remember Wadsworth, Kipling, and Hemingway, and seeing Jacques Cousteau at the Lyric."
Hammond had a love of dogs that dates back to his beloved childhood German shepherd, Jinx. "I could always read animals pretty well," he says. "I was clearly a dog person."
As an undergrad at the University of Colorado, he admired the pre-vet students, who worked with their hands and didn't seem to take grades too seriously. He says he never really considered human medicine. "If you scan the population at Ravens stadium, how many do you want to do a physical exam on?" he asks.
There were obstacles to becoming a veterinarian, however, chief among them, the fact that Hammond was allergic to cats. "My allergist told me I needed to find another profession," he recalls. "Instead, I found another allergist."
After college, Hammond went to veterinary school at Tuskegee University in Alabama and had no intention of returning to Baltimore. But soon after he graduated, his sister got multiple sclerosis and he moved back to be with his family. His sister died of MS and his brother died of prostate cancer soon thereafter, and Hammond settled in Baltimore. In 1981, he teamed with his father to open Falls Road Animal Hospital, the first 24-hour animal care facility in Maryland.
With his dedication and tireless energy, Hammond built the hospital from two doctors and a cot to its current staff of 12 full-time and three part-time veterinarians, who see 75,000 patients a year.
Along the way, Hammond cultivated an image as a celebrity vet, frequently appearing on TV and hanging out with any bold-faced names who came through town.
Twice a year, Hammond flew to Paris for fashion week, attending runway shows and Diddy parties with his cousin, Peter Marx, who runs the family's Saks Jandel chain. It was during such a trip that the veterinarian was called into duty to care for Ming, Parisian designer Hervé Léger's French bulldog. Hammond miraculously cured Ming's hyperkeratosis (nose warts), earning Léger's eternal favor and amused write-ups in The New Yorker and The Daily Telegraph.
Soon, Hammond was treating Valen-tino's pugs, Britney Spears's bulldog, Charlize Theron's Italian mix, and Billy Bob Thornton's mutt. A veterinarian to the stars was born.
Hammond's jet-set-vet caché carried over to Hollywood, where he began to consult on films like All the Pretty Horses, The Accidental Tourist, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Hammond's energy in promoting both his animal hospital and his own celebrity throughout the '80s and '90s led The Baltimore Sun to cheekily name him "Baltimore's most modest veterinarian" in 1998.
These days, Hammond still finds ways to drops famous names of interest—he had drinks with Christian Siriano the night before—but just as often, the names he mentions are veterinarians and scientists. He mentions that David Letterman's favorite vet, Jack Hanna, is on the board of MGVP, and shows off a picture of him with leading conservationist Jane Goodall, who he says was patting his butt at the time. "She said, 'chimps don't shake hands, you know,'" he recalls.
Hammond's face brightens when he talks about his trips to Africa, particularly his most recent excursion to Congo, where the vets' travel was risky because of civil war.
"When you're going to work in a country like that, you have to assume there's risk," he says. "We prepare, but you can't predict some 10-year-old with an AK-47 coming out of nowhere."
"So, why do it?" he continues. "I have a great business in Baltimore, I have a great family, I have a new daughter, I have an older daughter who's 24. It's really public service. I go to Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo because I'm a veterinarian and I've been offered a dream of a lifetime to care for these gorillas. These projects, they're not for self-aggrandizement, they're not for self-enrichment, they're projects cause they're the right thing to do. We're veterinary missionaries."
Hammond's wife, Carol, who has traveled to Africa with him, says she has come to accept the risks he takes. "There's definitely dangers when he's camping in Uganda and the Congo—it's scary," she says. "But I think that they're smart. They do their homework. It's in his heart and he was meant to do it. He loves it. He lives for it."
Hammond's eyes are set on permanent roll as he sits in on a December conference call of MGVP's board of directors. Dr. Cranfield and board president Billie Grieb review detailed budgets and schedules, occasionally broken by the confused "Hello?" of Jack Hanna, who seems to be having trouble with his phone connection.
Hammond only pipes up once, when Grieb suggests that board members might consider making additional contributions to the group before the end of the year.
"I'll send a check for $10,000 today, Billie," he says, then steps out of his office to instruct his assistant to cut a check for $10,000 dollars and send it out right away before returning to the call.
Since joining the board in 2005, Hammond has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and equipment to MGVP, but Dr. Cranfield says the resources are not Hammond's biggest contribution.
"He's done several things," he says. "Probably the most significant one was to bring African veterinarians over to his clinic."
Beginning in 2005, Hammond paid to bring African vets to work in his Falls Road hospital to learn basic techniques. "In Africa, they see very few cases," says Cranfield. "They needed to see dozens of cases a day. They needed to be comfortable around animals, they needed to draw blood. Their didactic skills got much better."
When bringing individual veterinarians to Baltimore proved slow and costly, Hammond decided to bring the training to Africa, paying $100,000 out of his pocket to transport high-tech equipment into the mountains of Rwanda for young veterinarians to use on-site—a feat most thought was impossible.
"He'll get an idea, and he'll take it to the nth degree, and more often than for a lot of people, they work out, just because of his drive," says Cranfield. "He'll follow it until he hits an obstacle that is insurmountable—and he'll pass four or five obstacles that everybody else would call insurmountable along the way."
Beyond training young vets, Hammond has taken a particular interest in serving the communities that live around the gorillas. He funds a mentoring program with several orphanages in the Rwandan mountains, where local tour guides teach orphans skills to become part of the eco-tourism industry. The MGVP's work provides a sustainable habitat for the gorillas so that tourists—about 56 per day—can pay $500 each to tour the mountains and see them. A large portion of those fees go to the people who live nearby.
"We take care of about two million people now and the main reason is that no one's gonna save a gorilla if they're hungry," says Hammond, citing MGVP's One Health philosophy, which states that, in order for the gorillas to be healthy, surrounding communities must be healthy as well. "If the people are sick, they're gonna spread those diseases to the gorillas."
More than anything, Cranfield says, Hammond greatest gift to MGVP is his boundless energy. "I go over there more than him, but every time I go over, everybody asks about Dr. Kim," says Cranfield. "He gives away T-shirts and he always throws a party. Somehow, he just builds the morale in the town that we live in. He's always up and always energetic. It's amazing."
Never one to rest on his accomplishments, Hammond has a full slate of projects he's trying to pursue with the help of the Rwandan government, including reintroducing rhinos into Akagera national park, and creating a face recognition database for the gorillas, both to track them for medical reasons and also so that tourists can know the names and histories of the animals they're seeing. There's also a team of producers from HBO's Big Love, who want to shoot a series on Cranfield, Hammond, and the other veterinarians of MGVP, called Gorilla Doctors.
"Five years from now, we're going to be sitting here and all these things are going to be done," he says, without a hint of irony or false modesty. "That's how I operate."
Dr. Hammond is in one of Falls Road Animal Hospital's four operating suites, spaying a golden retriever named Kelly. It's a procedure he's performed thousands of times.
His hands move quickly, occasionally slowing to show visitors the dog's ovaries or incision points, but his mouth never stops. The office reflects his energy, with vets, technicians, and animals quickly moving from room to room in a choreographed dance of veterinary efficiency.
"When he comes back from a trip to Africa, you can tell he's excited to be back in the hospital, taking cases again," says Keisha Adkins, a veterinarian on staff. She chose to work at Falls Road because of the fast pace and the range of cases. "You can build a career here."
As he does the surgery, Dr. Hammond talks about some interesting cases he's seen today, including a cat who was born allergic to its teeth (they all had to be removed), and a dog that severely fractured a hind leg in a car accident.
Suddenly, Dr. Hammond's mouth and hands freeze. He's misplaced the blade he'd been using during the surgery. He searches the operating table, then the floor, then, finally, inside Kelly. After a minutes-long search, he calls out to one of his technicians.
"We're gonna need an x-ray!"
Dr. Hammond finishes the procedure and stitches up the dog's wound as quickly and seamlessly as a Singer and carries Kelly into the x-ray room. Sure enough, the blade is in there. Back into the operating room, Hammond opens the stitches, removes the blade, and sews the dog up once again.
Clearly frustrated—perhaps doubly because a reporter is present—Dr. Hammond kicks a doorframe. "I'm not Superman," he mutters.
It's not clear if he's speaking to himself or those around him, but it seems an apt reminder for a man who has achieved so much on the force of his confidence and will.
Cranfield says Hammond's reputation as a tireless self-promoter is "somewhat warranted," but "the business that he's in, he has to be a self-promoter." For MGVP, Hammond provides the kind of loud enthusiasm Cranfield and scientific colleagues struggle to muster.
A few minutes after the Kelly debacle (she recovered just fine, Hammond reports), the surgeon is back in his office, where he gets a call from one of the HBO producers. She brags about Big Love's just-announced Golden Globe nominations before going over the schedule for shooting a pilot of Gorilla Doctors.
Hammond hangs up and smiles, clearly happy to prove the project is really happening. "I don't think half the people will believe that my life is real."