No Monkey Business

Zoo Atlanta Gorilla Researcher Juggles Teaching and Primates

Michael P. Hoff
Hoff

“This is not a research institution!” was the response I received from the academic dean. This followed my request to go to an international primate conference from my new job as an assistant professor at Dalton Junior College in 1981. I had arrived on the campus several months before, after changing my career goals during my last year of graduate school at Emory University.

When I went to Emory, I intended to become a researcher who also taught. However, in my last two years of graduate school, I was a part-time instructor for Mercer University in their prison program at Atlanta Federal Prison. I taught a range of classes and discovered that while I liked doing research, I loved teaching. Hence, I changed my career focus from being a researcher who also taught to being a teacher who also did research. The trick was to find a place to do both.

Fortunately, Dalton Junior College, a small two-year college in north Georgia, was looking for a psychologist who could also teach anthropology. When I started teaching at Dalton, there were two psychologists on the faculty, and I taught five different classes, with a teaching load of three classes per quarter. Dalton has been on a semester calendar since changing its status to a four-year college in selected areas and becoming Dalton State College. There are five faculty teaching psychology, and our teaching load is still nine classes per year. I also maintain an active research program, studying captive gorillas one or two days per week at Zoo Atlanta.

Dalton is a teaching institution. Research is appreciated, respected, and rewarded in the “professional development” category of our annual evaluation; however, it is not expected nor required of faculty. In that vein, there is no release time for engaging in research: Teaching comes first. In my first several years, I finished my graduate school research program and co-authored a book, Gorilla Behavior. However, in 1988, two serendipitous things occurred. First, the old Atlanta Zoo was in the process of being rebuilt under zoo director APS Fellow Terry Maple, and the gorilla habitats had just opened. This allowed the zoo to bring over a dozen gorillas from Yerkes Primate Center on a breeding loan. Second, I received the Dalton College Foundation Award, which allowed a one-quarter release time to pursue academic activities.

With the additional research time, I studied two infant gorillas born in March 1989, nine months after the gorillas were released at Zoo Atlanta. I studied those infants and a third born that summer through the spring and summer quarters. For the next several years, my gorilla studies were sporadic, largely focusing on times in between quarters. However, by 1992, I was able to arrange my teaching schedule to allow year-round study of the zoo gorillas. Zoo Atlanta has since had 13 infants born; all of them have been studied, and the last nine have been studied year round.

Infant development has always been the primary focus of my research, although I have studied a variety of other aspects of captive gorilla life, including changing group membership, behavior in the indoor holding area versus the outdoor exhibit, adaptation to exhibit modifications, and the behavior of an all-male group. My primary research challenge relates to time: I need large blocks of time to be able to travel the 90 miles to Zoo Atlanta one or two days per week, and I need time to analyze data and write papers. There have been two primary keys to my being able to do this: collaboration and technology.

My primary collaboration has been with the administration and researchers at Zoo Atlanta and Georgia Institute of Technology. The administration of the zoo has developed a model of using science when possible in making animal management decisions. I have done several studies at the request of the zoo management. In return, I am allowed to pursue my own interests to a great extent. The cooperation with zoo management has been beneficial; while I have to submit research proposals and they have to be approved, I have access to the gorillas and do not need grant support. The other key to my research productivity is in collaborating with other researchers and advanced graduate students from Georgia Institute of Technology. By combining data and sharing data analysis and writing responsibilities, we are able to develop a better understanding of gorillas in a captive environment and regularly publish our results.

The second key to managing time lies in computer-based data collection. The old model of paper and pencil data collection and tabulation would simply not allow me the time to engage in research and teach a heavy load. With data collection technology, a three-hour data collection day takes several minutes, rather than hours, to tabulate and enter into a spreadsheet for analysis.

My primary professional responsibility is in teaching. That is my choice and my passion. So, I work hard to teach well. However, at the same time, I find great value, both personally and professionally in engaging in research. I do believe that my research is beneficial to my teaching, both in the specific information that I can bring to class, as well as in the modeling of possible life and career opportunities to my students.

Dalton State College has a large percentage of first-generation college students. One real benefit of my research is in giving these students a glimpse of the enormous range of possibilities in life – it’s pretty different to study gorillas!

Observer Vol.17, No.6 June, 2004

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