Tales of an Entrepreneurial Animal Psychologist

At an earlier stage of my academic career, a college dean asked me to reevaluate a scholar who initially had been denied tenure.  The scientist in question had published in highly regarded journals, was known to be a superb teacher, and was already the recipient of prestigious awards for superior scholarship.  The candidate’s vita revealed only one transgression: the absence of large federal grants.  From publications, however, it was clear that the experimental methods and testing technology in this laboratory were both elegant and inexpensive.  The species under the microscope, Periplaneta americana (the common cockroach), was both abundant and available at no cost since eager undergraduates came to class prepared to deposit healthy specimens collected from their dormitories.  A new set of referees derived a different conclusion and the dean granted tenure.

This experience taught me that promising scholars can be overlooked early in their careers if money is valued over creativity.  Of course, the first challenge for any scientist is to acquire the means to do the work.  Fortunately, research in my specialty is not inherently costly and there are many funding alternatives to the federal government.  For three decades my students and I have conducted behavioral studies in zoological parks where the subjects are on public display and the investigator pays no per diem for the opportunity to systematically observe them (Maple, 1980; Maple and Hoff, 1982; Maple, 1995; Norton et al, 1995).  Plagued by small subject pools of endangered fauna and creatures showing little promise as animal models for humankind (e.g. anteaters, hippos, and Komodo dragons to name a few), the niche of animal welfare (Maple, in press) and conservation (Maple and Mallavarapu, 2006) has better fit my circumstances.  My approach can be compared to the “action research” model advocated by environmental psychologist, Robert Sommer (2000) who asserted, “Four decades of doing action research has convinced me that it is possible and desirable to do studies that both advance knowledge and solve immediate problems.”

Any scientist who contemplates the zoo as a research venue is immediately struck by the immensity of the opportunity.  This is particularly true for behavioral studies, the most popular and ubiquitous type of research conducted in zoos. By its nature zoo research is labor intensive, but observers are plentiful as students are eager to study lions, tigers, and bears.  However, zoos suffer a certain degree of volatility that cannot be anticipated.  In 1983, for example, my locally outsourced, exotic animal laboratory suddenly imploded.  Public controversy over mismanagement, neglect, and animal cruelty nearly closed Atlanta’s zoo (Desiderio, 2000; Maple and Archibald, 1993).  The crisis demanded leadership and I was recruited to fill the void, expecting to serve as “interim” zoo director no more than one year.   Eighteen years later, I finally retired from the zoo to return full time to my post at Georgia Tech (Hebert, 2003).

In my capacity as a reform zoo administrator, I implemented a plan to establish conservation, education, and science as the primary drivers of zoo credibility. Aligned perfectly with our research interests, the substantive application of comparative, environmental, and experimental psychology led to a still-continuing stream of publications on animal behavior (e.g. Chang et al., 1999; Lukas et al., 1998; Stoinski et al., 2002; Anderson et al., in press) and environmental evaluation (e.g. Maple and Finlay, 1986; Finlay et al., 1988; Ogden et al., 1990; Gold and Maple, 1994; Bashaw and Maple, 2001). As the critical mass of trained scientists at the zoo enlarged, productivity soared. At its peak, Zoo Atlanta employed nine doctoral level staff and had an annual operating budget approaching $1 million for conservation, education, and science.

In the mid-1990s, however, I was confronted with serious “guns or butter” issues that threatened the growth if not the very survival of Zoo Atlanta’s scientific program.  Fortuitously, a prominent Atlanta family shared our vision.  A colleague and dear friend, Elizabeth Smithgall-Watts, asked me to find a way to honor her grandfather who, in his capacity as a local city alderman, first escorted his granddaughter to see nonhuman primates at the zoo.  The monkeys clearly made an impression as Elizabeth elected to study physical anthropology, joined the faculty of Tulane University, and enjoyed international acclaim in primatology.  After her death in 1994, the family honored her wishes by establishing the Charles Bailey Endowment to support graduate education in primate behavior.  Two years later the Smithgall family endowed the Elizabeth Smithgall-Watts Chair in Conservation and Behavior at Georgia Tech.

Both funds, one managed by Zoo Atlanta and the other by the Georgia Tech Foundation, provide stipends for graduate students, honoring the career commitment of Smithgall-Watts to the training and mentoring of successors in her field.   Significantly, most of the fellowship recipients have been women. With the endowments in place, our collaborative research program with the zoo continues to attract brilliant students.  Many of our nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums also have devoted endowment dollars to fund research, and some of these endowments are substantial.  The largest private endowment —at the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York — has grown to nearly half a billion dollars supporting some 58 field conservation projects throughout the world.

Private donors and foundations concerned about conservation are perfectly positioned to support behavioral research on endangered species.  Without the 40-year investment of the National Geographic Society, continued by the private Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (formerly the Digit Fund), we would know very little about the secluded, endangered mountain gorillas (G. gorilla beringei) in Central Africa. Awards from groups like the Fossey Fund, The L.S.B. Leakey Fund, and National Geographic tend to be smaller, but they support an enormous amount of research on the world’s endangered fauna.  Our giant panda research has been supported by a grant from the Denver-based Morris Animal Foundation, and small grants from the American Museum of Natural History enabled my students to study endangered antelopes at the St. Catherine’s Island Species Survival Center in coastal Georgia (Stine et al., 1982; Murdock et al., 1983).  This idyllic setting was a motivating alternative to fieldwork in Africa and far less expensive.

My strategy for recruiting soft money has worked for me, but it is hardly the norm for animal research in American universities.  Professors are not encouraged to raise money from private benefactors who have the capacity to deliver bigger grants to the university development officer.  But fund-raising partnerships between universities and non-profit zoos can be synergistic.  Zoo Atlanta’s acquisition of giant pandas for exhibition and research was an arduous and complex journey, but our achievements have justified the effort (Maple, 2000).  Graduate student projects confirmed color vision in this species (Kelling et al., 2006), established new norms for giant panda cognition (Tarou et al., 2004), and influenced management practices in China due to an improved understanding of panda social development (Snyder et al., 2003).  Georgia Tech’s Center for Conservation and Behavior continues to play a significant role in advancing panda biology and helping to protect the species from the threat of extinction (Lindburg and Baragona, 2004; Wildt, 2006).  Since university administrators now routinely employ dedicated development personnel, it is easier to identify and recruit donors who will support research in esoteric fields.

As one indicator of quality scholarship, the acquisition of extramural federal funding through peer-review is a reliable path to tenure. However, in a marketplace of unprecedented opportunity, private funding beckons as the low-hanging fruit that can jump-start research.  Seasoned academic leaders certainly recognize the critical role of philanthropy in supporting research facilities and programs.  Moreover, the looming prospects of an “environmental century” will be powerful incentives for a new generation of entrepreneurial scholars.

A knack for acquiring private research funding may be an indicator of leadership genes or the first bold steps of a future college dean, but it is often sparked by a modest gift acquired at the earliest moments of a budding career. The academy should be on the lookout for high-achieving scientists who possess the gift of cultivation.

The constructive comments of Kenneth Beauchamp, Mollie A. Bloomsmith, Joseph M. Erwin, Lawrence James, Robert M. Murphey, Robert Sommer, and Evan L. Zucker led to significant improvements in the manuscript.

Anderson, U.S., Stoinski, T.S., Bloomsmith, M.A., Marr, M.J., Smith, A.D. and Maple, T.L. (In press). Relative numerousness judgment and summation in young and old western lowland gorillas. Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Bashaw, M.J. and Maple, T. (2001). Signs fail to increase zoo visitor’s ability to see tigers.  Curator 44, 3, 297-304.
Chang, T.R., Forthman, D.L. and Maple, T.L.  (1999). Comparison of captive mandrills in traditional and ecologically appropriate exhibits.  Zoo Biology, 18, 3, 163-176.
Desiderio, F.  (2000).  Raising the Bars: The Transformation of Atlanta’s Zoo, 1889-2000.  Atlanta History, XLIII, 4, 1-64.
Finlay, T.W., James, L. and Maple, T. (1988). Zoo environments influence people’s perception off animals. Environment and Behavior, 20, 4, 508-528.
Gold, K. and Maple, T. (1994). Personality assessment in the gorilla and its utility as a management tool. Zoo Biology, 13, 5, 509-522.
Hebert, R. (2003). With psychologist at the helm, Zoo Atlanta goes wild.  APS Observer, 16, 4.
Hoff, M.P. (2004). No monkey business. APS Observer, 17, 6.
Kelling, A. S., Snyder, R.J., Gardner, W., Marr, M.J., Bloomsmith, M.A. and Maple, T.L.  (2006).  Color vision in the giant panda, Ailuripoda melanoleuca. Learning and Behavior 34, 2, 154-161.
Lindburg, D.G. and Baragona, K. (Eds). (2004). Giant Pandas: Biology and Conservation. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.
Lukas, K.E., Marr, M.J. and Maple, T.L.  (1998).  Teaching operant conditioning in the zoo. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 2, 112-116.
Maple, T. (1980). Orang-utan Behavior. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.
Maple, T. (1995a). Psychology is alive and well in the zoo.  Psychological Science Agenda. American Psychological Association, 8, 3, 8-9.
Maple, T.L. (In press). Toward a science of zoo animal welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
Maple, T. (2000). Saving the Giant Panda. Atlanta, Longstreet Press.
Maple, T. and Archibald, E. (1993). Zooman: Inside the Zoo Revolution. Atlanta, Longstreet Press.
Maple, T. and Finlay, T.W. (1986). Evaluating captive primate environments. In Benirschke, K. (Ed.) Primates: The Road to Self-sustaining Populations. New York, Springer-Verlag, 480-488.
Maple, T. and Hoff, M.P. (1982). Gorilla Behavior. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Maple, T.L. and Mallavarapu, S. Values, advocacy and leadership: an empirical philosophy for 21st century zoos and aquariums. In Genoways, H.H. (Ed.) Museum Philosophy for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD, Alta Mira Press, 2006, pp. 455-468.
Murdock, G.K., Stine, W.W. and Maple, T.L.  (1983). Observations of maternal-infant interaction in a captive herd of sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Zoo Biology 2, 3, 215-224.
Norton, B.G., Hutchins, M., Beck, B.B., Stevens, E.S. and Maple, T.L. (Eds).  (1995). Ethics on the Ark.  Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ogden, J., Finlay, T.W. and Maple, T. (1990). Gorilla adaptations to naturalistic environments. Zoo Biology 9, 2, 107-121.
Snyder, R.J., Zhang, A.J., Zhang, Z.H., Li, G.H., Tian, Y.Z., Huang, X.M., Luo, L., Forthman, D.L. and Maple, T.L.  (2003).  Behavioral and developmental consequences of early rearing experiences for captive giant pandas. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 117, 235-245.
Sommer, R. (2000).  Presidential Address, APA Division 34. Population & Environmental Psychology Bulletin, 26, 3, 7-10.
Stine, W.W., Howell, L., Murdock, G.K., Newland, M.C., Conradsen, L. and Maple, T.L. Progression order in the captive sable antelope of St. Catherine’s Island.  (1982). Zoo Biology 1, 2, 89-110.
Stoinski, T.S., Hoff, M.P. and Maple, T.L.  (2002). The effect of structural preferences, temperature, and social factors on visibility in western lowland gorillas.  Environment and Behavior, 34, 4, 493-507.
Tarou, L. R., Snyder, R.J. and Maple, T.L. (2004). Spatial memory in the giant panda.  In Lindburg, D.G. and Baragona, K. (Eds.) Giant Pandas: Biology and Conservation.  Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, pp. 101-108.
Wildt, D. E., Zhang, A.J., Zhang, Z.H., Janssen, D. and Ellis, S. (Eds).  (2006). Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine, and Management.  London, Cambridge University Press.

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