Professor of Psychology Brent White honored for research at Louisville Zoo
When Matton Emeritus Professor of Psychology Brent White was invited to present a summary of his research to the Louisville Zoo Foundation Board of Directors in late June, he was not expecting to receive any awards—and yet, he was honored with two that day.
White, an expert in physiological psychology and animal behavior who has worked on zoo research for 30 years, received both the Foundation Award, usually given to zoo employees, and the Good Egg Award, bestowed upon individuals the zoo seeks to honor. White, who was already named a “Good Egg” by the zoo in 1987, is the only person to ever receive that award twice.
“I was deeply honored by the awards,” he says. “It was a surprise, and I appreciate the recognition. Perhaps this publicity will provide a means by which I can pass along my thanks to the many students who have helped with this research.”
The unique challenges research presents and the interpersonal interactions it facilitates have been highlights of White’s work at the zoo over the years.
“I enjoy the collaborative relationships with students and the staff,” he says. “Science involves a never-ending series of problem-solving opportunities. The zoo is an interesting and pleasant place to be, and this includes the people and the animals.”
Also rewarding for White is the knowledge that his work is improving the lives of all animals, not just those he has studied in captivity.
“I have long believed that conservation of the natural environments should be one of our highest priorities,” he says. “All populations of wild animals are managed to some degree. With declining habitat quantity and quality, these remnant wild populations will require more intense management.
“The more we can learn about the zoo animals, the better we will be able to successfully manage their wild counterparts in their remnant habitats,” he continues. “The zoo research contributes to this knowledge.”
White’s animal research at Louisville Zoo began when he took his animal behavior class there in the mid-1980s to explore the behavior of captive wild animals.
“I was aware that the zoo purchased a group of woolly monkeys to establish a breeding group,” he says. “Since woolly monkeys had been dying of hypertension-related causes, I suggested that we look at what might be stressing the monkeys.”
Together with the zoo, White received grant funding for a study about the relationship between behavior and cortisol, the stress hormone, in woolly monkeys. White spent several days a week at the zoo collecting samples and making observations, while John C. Walkup Professor of Chemistry Preston Miles supervised the assessment of the findings back on Centre’s campus.
“Many students worked on this study over the years, and one of the early ones was [now Professor of Biology and Biochemistry] Stephanie Dew ’89,” White says. “In addition to the woolly monkeys, I have had students do studies of zebras, elephants, seals, Cuban crocodiles, lemurs and lynx.”
The woolly monkey study, which continued for nearly a decade, led to White’s appointment to the zoo’s research committee. He has also since become the president and a founding director of the Woolly Monkey Foundation, which seeks to understand and protect the species.
White’s research collaborations with the zoo have continued to this day, with evaluations of exhibits and their effects on such animals as elephants, gorillas, grizzly bears and polar bears.
“Fifty students have worked on the zoo projects over the past 30 years,” White says.
White has been a member of Centre’s faculty since 1971 and has held the Matton Professorship since 1996. He has chaired the psychology and psychobiology programs and has also been division chair of the sciences and mathematics. White earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. from Princeton.
by Elizabeth Trollinger
August 2, 2016