As caretakers and teachers, protectors and researchers, Bucknellians around the world and in their own backyards follow the call of the wild.
By David Pacchioli
"These are tool users," Peter Judge '77 is saying. "You can see how persistent and manipulative they are."
I turn to respond, and feel a small hand grab at my shoulder. Nobel, a juvenile capuchin monkey, appears jealous of my attention. I turn toward him again and he rocks back, momentarily content to peer at me through the bars. Soon his confreres gather: Sagan, DaVinci, Smithson, Monet, their round faces appropriately thoughtful. Monet, the alpha, "is a big lug," Judge says fondly, "but he turns out to be one of our smartest monkeys."
We're in Bucknell's Animal Behavior Lab, a cluster of low buildings on a cul de sac west of Route 15. Judge, director of the University's highly regarded animal behavior program, is giving me the tour. Beyond the capuchins are fidgety squirrel monkeys, placid baboons and lion-tailed macaques that look as if they were conjured by Dr. Seuss. Bats, too, are somewhere present, and the fenced yard outside holds half a dozen beehives.
It's an impressive facility to match an impressive program. Started as a collaboration between the biology and psychology departments in 1968, Bucknell animal behavior remains one of the few undergraduate programs of its kind. And largely due to its founder and long-time head, the well-respected psychologist Douglas K. Candland, now retired, its reputation in the fields of animal behavior, learning and cognition is worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the program has produced its fair share of primatologists who are now scattered at zoos and universities around the U.S. and beyond. "But we've also produced a lot of entomologists," Judge says. "And experimental psychologists. One or two every year go to vet school. Our majors go on to do just about anything."
Indeed, they do. Along with fellow graduates in biology, environmental science and ecology, animal behavior alumni form an impressive cadre of Bucknellians who are more or less out in the wild, studying, taking care of, protecting and teaching others about the great variety of non-human animals that share our existence on Earth. What follows is a small sampling of their paths and passions.
Judge himself went from Bucknell's animal behavior program to graduate school in psychology at the University of Georgia and a series of post-docs at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta with well-known primatologist Frans de Waal. "I went around studying monkey groups, asking whether they are more aggressive under high-density conditions," he remembers. "The answer is yes - but they are also more friendly. Our assumption was that they learned that in those environments they have to be nicer to one another or they might get beaten up."
He returned to the University in 200. Close on his heels came six feisty capuchins from de Waal's lab at Yerkes, including Monet. Eight more have since been born, for a present colony of 14. Judge uses these and the other primates to study social behavior and cognitive ability. "Specifically, I'm interested in reconciliation behavior - how they make up after fights," he explains. In a recent study of baboons, he and his students looked at fight bystanders and found that while witnessing violence makes their stress levels rise ("You can tell by the excessive scratching"), their anxiety lessens when combatants make up.
"We let them near the monkeys right away," Judge says of his students. "There are not many places that do that. The experience helps them not only to get into graduate school, but also to perform well there."
Of his current position, he says, "It's a dream job for a primatologist, to have your own private primate center. And because we're a small, high-quality program we tend to attract some really good students, who come here with great ideas. I get to take advantage of that."
Alexis Will '06 had the idea to study seabirds while kayaking with her father. "I grew up in Sitka, Alaska," she explains, "and we'd go every summer. On one trip, after freshman year, we ran into some people doing field research." Will has been in the field for at least a part of every year since.
The work - gathering data on population trends, reproductive success and diet - has taken her from the rugged North Slope to the Aleutian chain, and last winter to Antarctica to track penguins, petrels and skuas. Will hires on where she's needed, migrating from one study to the next. "The seabird community is small and close-knit," she says. "Once you get into it, you know everybody."
An environmental studies major, Will says, "I'm a big picture person. Seabirds are great indicator species for the health of the world's oceans. They open up all kinds of questions about the marine ecosystem. And the environments they inhabit are incredible."
The birds themselves, she adds, "are fun to be around, fun to watch over a whole season. They're the closest thing to a dinosaur that's alive, that I can study. I grew up with The Land Before Time, and I guess I never really got over that."
Sarah Bush '89 also grew up with a keen interest in animals. "Some people would call it an obsession," she says. Her father happened on Bucknell's animal behavior program while her older brother was considering the University for engineering. "When I visited," she remembers, "Doug Candland gave me a tour of the primate colonies. Bucknell was my first choice from that day onward."
Through Candland, she participated in various research projects and eventually zeroed in on amphibians. He encouraged her to apply for a Marshall Scholarship, and Bush became one of the three Bucknellians ever to win that honor. In England, she studied courtship behavior in the endangered Majorcan midwife toad.
Her return to the States to do a post-doc with Carl Gerhardt, the world's leading expert on the gray tree frog, led to Bush joining the University of Missouri faculty, where her current research focuses on the evolution of acoustic communication in both frogs and insects. She and collaborator Johannes Schul are approaching the problem via katydids.
"The research is fun and stimulating when it's going well," she says. "But on a day - to - day basis the teaching is the more rewarding aspect of my job." She traces this preference to Candland and her other professors at Bucknell, "whose dedication to teaching inspired me to want an academic career."
The classroom experience led Ursula Anderson '00 in another direction. Her coursework at Bucknell gave her a strong background in animal cognition, and also, she says, in scientific writing - so much so that when she went on to do graduate work at Georgia Tech, "I found that I was more prepared than any of my peers." She remembers a Candland-led seminar in which "we read and evaluated research papers," including one by Marc Hauser '81, Harvard biologist and a leading expert on cognitive evolution. "It sparked my interest in the topic," she says, and it has guided her research ever since.
A summer undergraduate internship at Zoo Atlanta convinced Anderson of the value of zoo-based research. For her master's degree, she designed experiments to test the age-related decline of quantitative skills in gorillas and orangutans. (The old gorillas, she reports, held up fine; orangutans, not so much.)
Now a Ph.D. candidate in Georgia Tech's Center for Conservation and Behavior, Anderson continues to look at numerical cognition. Her current study requires her orangutan subjects to judge whether five triangles, for example, have the same "numerosity" as five squares - a higher-order cognitive skill. In future work, she hopes to continue exploring the comparative evolution of cognition in research with human infants.
Kate Nowak '01 first went to Tanzania in 2000 for a Bucknell study-abroad program. Two years later she was back as a graduate student at Cambridge University studying the role of behavioral flexibility in the population persistence of primates. "I am interested in how flexible and innovative animals can be in human-dominated areas," she says.
On Zanzibar Island, Nowak studied a species of red colobus monkeys that, despite being threatened by habitat encroachment, is carving a new niche for itself, changing its diet and even its mode of locomotion to exploit mangrove forest. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, she studies elephants of Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains, a population increasingly confined to the montane forest.
Elephants, she says, "are ecosystem engineers:" Their presence profoundly impacts their environment - and human neighbors - in ways that are difficult to predict. "Human-elephant interactions create a complex and politically charged issue." Recently, she jumped into the thick of the fray, co-authoring an influential article in the journal Science that argued against a temporary lift of the 1989 ban on selling ivory.
This summer, Nowak returns to Tanzania where, with Princeton's Andrew Dobson, she will look at species interactions in the Udzungwa Mountains. "Forest systems are challenging to understand," she says. "We are trying to see the forest through the eyes of an elephant."
Dhaval Vyas '03 also has felt the call of Tanzania's elephants. "I've always had an interest in sub-Saharan Africa," he says. "Fortunately, I befriended a Bucknellian who was from Tanzania and who invited me to visit. I spent three weeks there and fell in love with what I saw."
Vyas has since lived an additional two years in Tanzania, including three months on a Bucknell Undergraduate Research Fellowship. For his master's thesis at Georgia Southern University, he wrote about chemical signaling between savannah elephants in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
He has worked as a keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and as an ecologist for the Georgia Department of Transportation. After spending a year traveling the world, Vyas recently took a job in animal health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "My main duties are to provide environmental enrichment and behavioral training for the CDC's animals, everything from mice to goats," he says. "Captive animals can have a difficult time adjusting to a confined space, so it's rewarding to see that the implementations we provide are helping to alleviate problems."
For Bridget Fahey '93, an endangered species chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with wildlife "is almost exclusively a desk job." Fahey, based in Denver, spends her days implementing the Endangered Species Act. "I knew in the 5th grade I wanted to be a wildlife biologist," she says. "Basically I have a job the 10-year-old Bridget would've dreamed of."
Fahey has helped save the gray wolf, the grizzly bear, the lynx and the black-footed ferret, among other species, from the brink of extinction. "Essentially, I do quality control on our endangered species listings, making sure that we're stating the case as strongly as possible," she explains.
The endless litigation can be wearisome, she admits. "We're always in the middle," she says. "Usually we're not making anyone happy." On the other hand, "I've been doing this 12 years and I have never been bored. And I feel like I'm one of the good guys."
She started as a volunteer with the California Condor Recovery program. "My first job involved putting stillborn calf carcasses on my back and hiking up the mountain so the condors would have something to eat," she remembers. "It was a wonderful field job. But at some point you figure out that if you want to do more for conservation you might just need to come inside."
Page Kannor '09 has yet to reach that point. Right after graduation last May, she lit out for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Hawksbill Sea Turtle Recovery Project. From June through November, Kannor was a volunteer turtle watcher.
Each night at 7 p.m., she reports, a two-to-three-person crew would commence hourly beach patrols, walking the shore to check for females nesting. "Once they started laying eggs, we monitored the nests" and fended off predators. "When the nest reached 45 days, we would check it every hour, looking for this characteristic divot in the sand that tells you it's ready to hatch.' We would watch to make sure all the hatchlings got to the water, then dig out the pit to make sure there were none stuck."
This summer she'll shift gears, moving to Mammoth Lakes, California, to assist in a study of social behavior in ground squirrels. "After that," she says, "I'll try to figure out some place good to spend the winter - maybe Death Valley."
"I've always wanted to work with animals. I just never knew exactly what," says Kannor. "I'm exploring the variety of things I can do - and there are a lot of options. Right now my plan changes daily."
Upon graduation, Mandy Revak '04 wasn't immediately sure where she was headed, either. Her internship experiences had shown her what she didn't want to be: a zookeeper or a field researcher. For several months, Revak worked at her local Petsmart. "I just walked in and said I have an animal behavior degree, and I want to be a dog trainer," she says. "I think that was where I began to realize that I like to teach."
An ad for a part-time science educator drew her to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Today, she is coordinator of KidScience and Zoo U., the Zoo's popular programs for middle- and high-school students. "I teach them wildlife conservation, environmental sciences and techniques for animal behavior research," she reports. "I get to put into practice everything I learned at Bucknell."
Her students are highly motivated: the tuition-based programs require a two-year commitment. And the science is real. "We teach them how to design a study, how to use sampling techniques," Revak says. "In the summer every student does an independent research project, and we finish with a poster session."
"I never envisioned myself as a teacher," she says. "Now I can't see myself doing anything else."
Allison Blankenship '80 never thought she'd be a teacher either, much less a wildlife educator. Yet Blankenship now owns and runs Zooniversity of Dallas, Texas, "the teaching zoo that comes to you."
After graduating with a double major in biology and art, she says, "I spent 19 years in boardrooms climbing the ranks, and ended up with an executive title, a big salary, a corner office and a job that swallowed me whole."
"To maintain some sense of self," she says, she took a weekend position exhibiting animals at a local zoo. In 2001, abruptly laid off after yet another hostile takeover, "I traded the corporate pumps for hiking boots and started Zooniversity." Nine years later, she delivers more than 700 wildlife shows a year.
Blankenship gets frequent e-mails from college students eager to enter the field. "Expect 16-hour days," she tells the hopefuls. "Expect no days off. Expect lots of expenses and very little profit. It is not the life most people think we lead when they see us beaming at the microphone."
As director of the Avian Wildlife Center (AWC), in Wantage, N. J., Giselle Smisko '79 can relate to 16-hour days. In summer, her busy season, the center typically cares for 200 rescued birds at a time - from hummingbirds to mute swans. "We get everything," Smisko says. "A lot of them are nestlings. Some of them need food every 20 minutes. My day is pretty much planned out for me."
A biology major at Bucknell, Smisko and her husband founded the AWC in their home in 1990. "We started with three outdoor aviaries, and have added on every year," she says. Her family members are all involved in the work - "whether they want to be or not," she quips. "My sons have grown up thinking everyone keeps frozen mice in the freezer."
As a state and federally licensed rehabilitator, Smisko does everything from routine first aid to assisting surgery, and also gives educational programs at nature clubs and schools. She has witnessed her share of unusual rescues, but it's the "little stories," she says, that stick with her: The worried kid who brings in a robin or a sparrow; the hawk badly mangled in a contractor's ladder, yet somehow recovered and released.
"You can make a difference - in one bird's life, in an endangered species or in a person's life," she says. "When people see the result of their caring for these creatures, they are forever changed for the better. That's the thing that keeps me coming back."
David Pacchioli is a freelance writer in State College, Pa.