Centre student’s passion for primate research leads to summer internship

Posted by Centre News in Behavioral Neuroscience, Internships, News, Psychology 18 Jun 2014

monkey06122014_untitled_35683Spider monkeys and chimpanzees might seem out of place in the lush farmland of the Kentucky Bluegrass, but hidden away in a valley just outside Nicholasville lies the Primate Rescue Center (PRC), where rising junior Rebecca Barefield is spending the summer.

The behavioral neuroscience major from Houston is in the middle of an internship that has her not only working with primates but also living among them. “I have a window in my apartment that connects with the chimp playroom,” she says, “so I can watch and hear them displaying or playing or throwing things around at all times.”

“The chimps make eye contact, hand gestures and deliberate attempts to communicate,” she says. “I am enthralled with them.”

The PRC is a non-profit organization that provides sanctuary to 11 chimpanzees and more than 40 monkeys of various kinds, including macaques, capuchins, colobuses, spider and vervet monkeys, an olive baboon and a siamang gibbon.

Some of these animals are “surplus” primates previously used as research subjects, and others were confiscated from unlicensed or unscrupulous owners. Most, however, are former pets brought to the center by owners no longer able to care for them.

“The Primate Rescue Center does not house animals for education or entertainment,” notes Melissa Burns-Cusato, associate professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at Centre. “Rather, the goal is to provide humane housing and appropriate experiences for primates that were previously pets of misguided individuals. PRC provides a second chance for the primates.”

“Monkeys and apes do not make good pets under any circumstances,” says Burns-Cusato, who serves as faculty advisor for Barefield’s internship. “They start out small and cute and manageable but quickly become too much for people to handle in their home.”

The animals at PRC are housed in indoor-outdoor enclosures spread across 30 acres, and the facilities include a state-of-the-art chimpanzee enclosure. The center is also home to a large industrial kitchen, where food for the primates is processed.

06122014_untitled_35504It takes over 300 pounds of vegetables, fruit, grains and pasta per day to feed the animals, some of which is donated by local grocery stores.

“My daily duties include chopping fruits and veggies for all the residents and preparing the chimpanzee playroom for their breakfast and dinner,” says Barefield, who also works to ensure that the primate enclosures are clean and enriched with toys and other objects.

Living in close proximity to the primates has allowed Barefield to get to know some of them individually. “Pozna, the youngest female chimp, is very curious and loves new things,” says Barefield. “She likes watching movies on rainy days, and the other day I caught her snuggled up with a blanket watching The Little Mermaid.”

Noelle, another female chimp, can often be found on a fire-hose hammock in an outdoor enclosure leafing through a magazine or newspaper. “She is calm and independent, but very sensitive and kind of a drama queen,” says Barefield.

Like many other Centre students pursuing internships as part of the Centre Commitment, Barefield received assistance from the College’s Career Services office as she applied for her position and support funding. In Barefield’s case, money from the Centre Internship Plus program and a grant to the College by the James Graham Brown Foundation made her summer internship possible. “I am beyond thankful for the funding and for the experience it has afforded me,” she says.

Previous experience as a volunteer in the primate department at the Houston Zoo helped prepare Barefield for her work at the PRC, as did a course on animal behavior taught by Brian Cusato, Elizabeth Molloy Dowling Associate Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience. The course, says Barefield, “helped me focus on the nuances of each animal interaction. Everything I see I’ve been relating to things I learned from the class.”

“This internship gives Becky the chance to grow as an animal caregiver, but also as a person,” says Burns-Cusato. “I believe this job will be more challenging than her previous zoo experiences. Her dedication to this profession will be tested on a daily basis, and this challenge will help refine her career path.”

Barefield says that her work this summer has strengthened her desire to do field research on great apes. “This experience being immersed in chimp behavior really encourages me to pursue this dream,” she says. “It lets me know that I can do this. I can handle these things. Sleep interrupted by chimp displays? Check. Waking up early to go to work? Check. Getting spit on by chimps? Check. And surprisingly, I still want to know more.”

by Laurie Pierce