‘Dr. Mel’ fought for tigers, lions, elephants

Local man recalls animal advocate brother

by W. Winston Skinner

Lions and tigers and bears …

… and elephants, chimpanzees and other creatures of the wild. Those big exotic critters had an advocate in Dr. Mel Richardson, until his death earlier this year.

Animal advocates across the globe mourned his loss, and his brother, Newnan resident Ron Richardson, has lots of memories of his brother and Mel’s passion for caring for animals. “All creatures great and small is what he liked,” Ron Richardson said.

Just last year, Mel Richardson was in the cast of “Lion Ark,” an acclaimed documentary that told the story of 25 lions – part of a Bolivian circus troupe – who were airlifted to a new life in Colorado. “It’s winning all kinds of awards for a documentary around the country,” Ron Richardson said.

Ron Richardson, who has lived in Newnan for 11 years, was shocked by his brother’s death – and by how he found out about it. Ron was previewing his Facebook page on Jan. 3 when he discovered his younger brother had died. After a number of telephone calls, Ron learned Mel had died at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

He learned Mel had gone to the hospital experiencing trouble breathing. Mel was taken into an operating room for a lung biopsy. While he was on the operating table, his lung collapsed and he experienced cardiac arrest.

Five days on life support followed, but ultimately the brilliant veterinarian and animal rights activist – who had fought to keep many four-legged creatures alive and safe – lost his own battle.

Mel Richardson was born Jan. 30, 1950, in Moultrie. He was one of seven children. His only survivors are Ron Richardson and their sister, Betty.

The family moved to the Atlanta area in 1954. “We grew up in south Atlanta,” Ron said. Mel went to school in College Park and Hapeville. “He always excelled scholastically,” he said.

There was little in Mel’s childhood to predict his future role as a savior of big cats and primates.

“I never thought of him being a veterinarian,” his older brother said – thinking back to their childhood. “We had pets. … Dogs and cat were about all we had. A parakeet maybe.”

Mel Richardson spent a year at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “He was going to study architecture,” his brother said, adding that Mel would have made a great architect.

Mel graduated from the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine in 1981.

When Mel turned his attention toward animals, he quickly began focusing on large ones. “He started out working with Willie B” at Zoo Atlanta, Ron recalled, and then was on staff at a wild animal park in Henry County.

Then there was a stint at a wild animal park at Grand Prairie, Texas. He traveled to South America and to Africa, working with the “gorillas in the mist” project and a chimpanzee rehab program.

Mel had spent most of his life away from Georgia. He had returned to Atlanta from California shortly before his death.

“He’s done a lot of really interesting things with his work,” Ron said. “He got really involved with this, and I didn’t see much of him for years.”

Ron Richardson nonetheless kept up with his brother’s activities. He has a trove of articles from newspaper and magazine articles about Mel’s activities.

There also are letters from a time in Rwanda where Mel worked to protect wildlife. “He was in Rwanda when that civil war broke out,” Ron recalled.

In an online post, Matthew Liebman, senior attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, paid tribute to Mel Richardson.

“Dr. Mel was a tireless advocate for captive wild animals,” he stated. “He was … a regular consultant for us on all sorts of captive wildlife cases, and the phrase ‘Let’s call Dr. Mel and ask him’ was uttered frequently at our litigation meetings. … His primary allegiance was to the animals, and he was happy to help anyone at any time.”

Tim Phillips, vice president of Animals Defenders International, wrote Ron Richardson shortly after Mel’s death. Phillips said he and Jan Creamer, president of ADI, “worked closely with Mel on rescues including Operation Lion Ark in Bolivia and campaign activities including when he spoke at the U.S. Congress.”

Mel was encouraging Congress to pass the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, which would prohibit having exotic animals as part of traveling circuses in the United States.

In 2006, Mel tried unsuccessfully to file a lawsuit – backed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – against as Texas primate sanctuary. The suit centered on animals formerly part of a program at Ohio State University. Richardson had determined a chimpanzee named Bobby died in 2006 of a heart attack, probably triggered by starvation.

Three years later, Mel publicly disagreed with a Montgomery Zoo veterinarian on the cause of the deaths of an African elephant and her calf. Jack Kottwitz, the zoo’s veterinarian, said the mother elephant, Mary, died following an intestinal rupture – and that she would have died in the wild – three days after birthing a calf.

In Defense of Animals, a California group trying to ban elephant breeding in zoos, contended the restricted space of captivity can create health problems during pregnancy for elephants.

IDA asked Mel Richardson to look at the case, and he concluded Mary's death was related to breeding. "You create a lot of abdominal pressure during the birthing process so you can easily see it's related to the birthing process," Mel told Associated Press.

He agreed she would have died if she had an intestinal rupture in the wild, but said elephants in the wild generally are in extremely good physical condition. "An intestinal rupture probably would not have happened in the wild," he said.

Richardson told AP the calf's death probably was not preventable.

"The calf, like a lot of orphans, doesn't have any protective immunity," he said. "The zoo did everything they could. The circumstances the elephants were in was the problem."

The Bolivian lion rescue will stand as a lasting reminder of Mel Richardson’s dedication to animals – at least in part because of the film chronicling the project.

“Certainly we believe ‘Lion Ark’ will be a lasting memorial to your brother – showing him in action, doing what he loved to do,” Phillips wrote to Ron Richardson. He also wrote about “how much Mel meant to our team at ADI. … We are so desperately sad that we will not see him again.”

Ron Richardson said he never realized the full breadth of his brother’s work until after he was gone.

Mel Richardson was cremated – with part of his ashes being sent to Machu Picchu in Peru and part to P.A.W.S. California.

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