Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Laura Pereira

Laura Pereira is researching giraffe behavior for her senior thesis, and studying how zoo visitors respond to different kinds of animal exhibits.

It’s a zoo in there: I am drawn to animal behavior, since my current career goal is to become a veterinarian, and I am especially interested in learning more about exotic species and their behaviors. Who wouldn’t want to work with giraffes? So, this past summer I was a research intern for professor Kathleen Morgan at The Southwick Zoo in Mendon, Mass., where I collected data on two separate giraffe exhibits. The zoo had just finished a multimillion dollar giraffe exhibit. With the exhibit complete, Molly, the now 2 1/2 year old giraffe, moved in, followed by two other young giraffes.

People-watching: One advantage of the new giraffe exhibit is a triangular feeding dock, which allows visitors to feed any of the three giraffes, for a fee. I was responsible for recording both visitor and giraffe behavior using ethograms (catalogues of different behaviors) at both the old and new exhibits. The giraffe feeding time also created a new window for research on determining when visitors are more inclined to participate in conservation efforts. We conducted surveys at both exhibits in order to collect data. We also placed a donation box for the Giraffe Center in Kenya at both exhibits during feeding and nonfeeding times to determine when visitors are more likely to donate to conservation efforts.

The nose knows: Working with Professor Morgan, I tested to see if Molly could visually differentiate between different objects. By the end of the summer she was able to pick the correct object 100 percent of the time. Since Molly has been successful at visually discriminating between objects, I wanted to see if she could differentiate between objects based on smell alone. Not much is known about the olfactory capabilities of giraffes. That’s why my honor’s thesis in biology will focus on determining giraffe scent differentiation. It is a relatively unknown aspect of giraffe behavior. I will be able to begin organizing and analyzing the data soon.

Wild things: My time at the zoo forced me to consider one of the most debated arguments in the zoo world: whether visitors should be able to have hands-on interactions with animals. Some believe that direct interactions between animals and people will domesticate exotic animals in the visitors’ eyes, leading them to believe that wild animals belong in zoos. The other viewpoint argues that less interaction will keep the animals at too much of a distance, and that wild animals will not be lost through domestication.

Training trials: This type of work with animals—especially giraffes— takes a lot of patience. You just have to wait for the light bulb to turn on. This summer when training her to visually discriminate between objects, we only rewarded Molly for the correct answer, and it was common for her to become frustrated when she chose wrong and did not receive her reward. She would typically pace after she got a wrong answer as if to walk it off.  Also, giraffes are very mouthy, and Molly needed to lick every novel object several times before we could use it to test her because she was just so curious about it. Since I got to watch the different stages of her learning, I couldn’t help but feel excited when she finally understood what we were asking, and was able to answer correctly.

Interview by Elizabeth Meyer ’14