Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College



Wheaton's longtime relationship with Southwick's Zoo gives students an opportunity to study animal and human behavior in some unique ways.

By Hannah Benoit

Playing surrogate mother to a camel has its challenges. Just ask Betsey Brewer '92, whose family has owned and operated Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, Mass., for nearly 50 years. In the zoo's education center and in her own home, Brewer has hand-raised many a young animal—kangaroos, gibbons, binturongs, chimps and even an African leopard. But the female camel that was born at the zoo in February 2004 presented a new test.

"I've never taken care of an animal I couldn't fit in a carry crate," Brewer remembers telling Kathy Morgan, Wheaton Associate Professor of Psychology. Yet 24 hours after its birth, the camel hadn't stood to nurse as expected, and zoo officials knew it would need special care.

Every problem, they say, is an opportunity.

When Brewer decided to take on the 100-pound newborn, Morgan made an offer. Would Brewer like her to record observations of the calf's behavior before and after it was re-introduced to its camel mother, —an aggressive and dominant female?

"That would be great," Brewer said. "We'll be the only zoo with data."

Morgan and her students in Wheaton's psychobiology and education departments have been studying animal behavior at Southwick's for nearly a decade, so it was only natural that Patsy the camel--born during the Super Bowl and named after the New England Patriots--would join the ranks of research subjects. The college's collaboration with the zoo has provided a living laboratory for students to pursue individual research interests and to conduct applied animal behavior studies in service to the zoo. Many of these studies relate to a crucial issue in zoo management today: How can zoos design exhibits so as to educate people and engender empathy for animal--ultimately leading to a greater interest in conservation--without fostering the notion that the animals are oversized pets in cages?

"Zoos have an educational message to deliver," Morgan says, "but the majority of people who come don't want to be educated but to be entertained. The challenge is to deliver that message without getting in the way of the entertainment."

The Wheaton researchers have aimed to shed light on this issue, helping the zoo strike a balance between education and entertainment while also keeping animal and visitor safety paramount. Often, this pursuit entails studying the people as well as the animals. Four years ago, Morgan and her students launched a study of animal and visitor behavior at the chimpanzee exhibit, where negative interactions had become rampant. The chimps were housed in a small steel-bar cage that Morgan describes as "really inappropriate.... Their whole focus was on the visitors. That was the only interesting thing happening in their life." The people were close enough to toss food and lit cigarettes to the chimps, who engaged in undesirable behavior of their own. Bonzi, a young male chimp, was given to spitting at visitors and squirting them with "water cannons" he fashioned from plastic containers.

"The visitors were amused, and so were the chimpanzees," Morgan said. In such situations, "most visitors don't realize they're stressing the animals."

Zoo meeting Bonzi, at 15, was an adolescent, developmentally prone to "beating up on" his peers. But because Jingles, a 33-year-old matriarch, was Bonzi's only companion, it was she who bore the brunt of his antics. Cooped up with Bonzi in the small cage, Jingles showed signs of stress: She didn't move around much, and was given to repetitive finger tapping—what scientists call a motor stereotypy.

"There is data that suggest that a stereotypy is a way of coping with conditions that are not comfortable," Morgan said, "for example, that it might release endorphins" that soothe the animal.

While the zoo developed a new, naturalistic enclosure for the chimps, the Wheaton researchers documented animal and visitor behavior at the old exhibit. They also surveyed visitors' attitudes, learning that people perceived the chimps as feeling "depressed" and "helpless" in their small cage. In 2001 Jingles moved to her new home, joined by two newcomers, an 8-year-old male named Terry and a 6-year-old female, Tabitha. The rough-and-tumble Bonzi, deemed too dangerous by Peter Brewer, Betsey's brother and the zoo's veterinarian, was moved to another zoo.

The faculty-student team then repeated their study at the new enclosure—a large, open habitat where the chimps could roam freely, separated from the visitors by a moat and a berm. The researchers' observations were striking.

"It was interesting watching Jingles learn how to be a chimp," Morgan said. As a hand-raised animal, she'd had only people and the aggressive Bonzi as companions. The first time young Tabitha tried to hug her, Jingles recoiled, reacting with a stiff, uptight body posture. In time, though, the two became close. "Now they sit together and they play and cuddle," Morgan said. "It's been amazing to watch this happen."

Jingles's abnormal behavior disappeared, and she also began to explore her new habitat. "I've seen her go all over the exhibit," Morgan said.

While the chimps seemed to be thriving in the new enclosure, the researchers noted that visitors, on average, were spending less time there, "probably because it's less interactive.... The animals are not giving them a response," Morgan said. The follow-up visitor survey, however, told another story, reflecting positive changes on every measure of visitor attitude. People reported increased respect for the animals and perceived them as feeling "comfortable" and "at home."

"Most visitors love the new exhibit," Betsey Brewer concurred, "and the hand-raised chimp is acting more like a chimp. Instead of interacting mainly with people, she's interacting more with the chimps."

In 2002, Morgan presented the project findings at two professional meetings, including the annual international conference of Chimpanzoo. Southwick's recently became a member of this research partnership between 28 zoos and the Jane Goodall Institute. The Wheaton researchers are currently learning to use the Chimpanzoo data collection protocol.

Leopard The zoo is also raising funds to build a new enclosure for Mowgli, Southwick's lively young African leopard. During the summer of 2004, zoo interns Cara Marchese '05 and Nicole Anderson '05 studied the leopard's behavior with an eye toward recommending an optimal design for his new home. Housed in a cage with visitors just a few feet away, Mowgli was in the habit of "stalking" visitors as they walked back and forth. "He does it as play," said Marchese, "but it's still dangerous." As a hand-raised animal—and former resident of Southwick's petting zoo—he also liked people, and had a scary tendency to jump up on the wall of the cage.

Anderson developed an ethogram—catalog of behaviors—for the leopard, and the two students documented his reactions to different kinds of visitors—young and old, male and female.

"We noticed he has an affinity for small children, which was alarming," Anderson said. Knowing that leopards are great leapers, and that Mowgli was unusually active for a cat, the two students questioned the zoo's original idea of a naturalistic enclosure protected by a moat and a fence. "That's okay for the chimps, but the leopard could absolutely jump over it. Based on our research, we recommended that they should come up with an alternative method of confining him."

The faculty-student projects have been invaluable to the zoo, said Brewer, who majored in psychology at Wheaton and later earned a master's in wildlife conservation education from Vermont College. "The relationship with Wheaton is wonderful. It gives us a legitimacy." Brewer now directs EARTH Limited, a nonprofit organization based at Southwick's, offering animal ecology programs at the zoo's education center and directly to schools via the "zoomobile."

This semester, Brewer has helped out in Morgan's "Ponds to Particles" course, a hands-on science class for education minors. In fulfillment of the course's service requirement, some of the "Ponds" students are creating a North American-themed nature trail at the zoo. Geology students of Assistant Professor Geoffrey Collins will contribute to this project by conducting a geological survey of the land for Morgan's students.

Other students in the "Ponds" class will develop portable curriculum kits for EARTH to share with teachers, along with lesson plans that align with statewide MCAS testing standards. This project is designed to "increase Betsey's ability to connect with resource-stretched schools and teach students how to develop lesson plans that are standard-specific," Morgan said.

The chimp study enters a new phase this year, with Emily Hall '05, Kathleen Hatch '07 and Jessi Handcock '05 joining the project and working with the Chimpanzoo protocol. The researchers plan to mount a video camera in the chimp's indoor quarters to enable round-the-clock observation of behavior patterns.

Meanwhile, Patsy the camel has returned to her roots in the camel exhibit. How did she adjust to life in the paddock with her dominant mother, having grown accustomed to Brewer's TLC? As it happened, this was a question that also interested the producers of Animal Planet's "Growing Up ..." cable television series. The show's crew has followed Patsy's progress during her first year of life, and their "Growing Up Camel" episode will air in the spring of 2005.

Through her early experience, Patsy had imprinted on Brewer, coming to identify her as her mother. And when Patsy was returned to the exhibit in June, her camel mother treated her like an unwelcome stranger. "The first thing the mom camel did was throw Patsy against the fence and bite her really hard," Morgan said. "Most hoofed animals get to know their offspring through smell. Very few animals know their offspring by instinct."

The aggressive behavior was simply the mother's natural way of showing Patsy her place in the dominance hierarchy. Patsy soon learned to stay out of the mother camel's way, and the aggression diminished. Although Patsy still moos longingly when her human "mom" approaches, she now paces the fence less and explores her habitat more. Little by little, Patsy is learning how to be a camel.

Hannah Benoit is Wheaton's associate director of communications for Web publishing.

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