Category Archives: Ventures

Of Monkeys and Mothers

Most mammalian mothers show maternal care unrivaled by the rest of the animal kingdom. Primates are no exception; parental care and offspring dependency is often extended longer than other mammals of the same size. In group living primates, the high ecological price of parenting (due to the energy required to produce the offspring and milk, increased vulnerability to predators with a dependent infant, etc) often results not only in an insurance that one’s genes will continue on, but often strong mother-offspring affiliations throughout their lives.

The topic of maternal (and paternal) care is a strong interest of mine and I hope, at some point in my life, the opportunity arises to further explore and research this area. But for the time being, swamped as I am with other research projects, I have consigned myself to simply photographing mother-infant pairs whenever possible.

Chimpanzee parental care is fascinating, but unfortunately, I’ve observed few interactions and taken even fewer photographs (but see Chimp Culture for a photo and brief description of a mother-infant observation). Therefore, this blog is simply an excuse to share my favorite photographs of monkey mothers (baboons and red-tailed monkeys) as well as some absurdly cute infants and juveniles.

First the red-tails:

And now the baboons:


Chimp Culture

Ask a cultural anthropologist if chimpanzees have culture and your answer will likely be “heck no – humans are the only species with culture”. However, ask a physical anthropologist and your answer might be a bit different. Physical anthropologists (also known as primatologists) often define culture as behaviors that are unique to a community of organisms (like chimps). Many of these behaviors can be observed being taught from adults to infants or juvenile.

Chimpanzee communities are known to exhibit community-specific behaviors. Some communities even exhibit dietary differences despite having access to similar food sources. Whether or not this is culture is up for debate.

I have been privileged to spend almost half of each month following the chimps here at Issa. I’ve witnessed two “cultural” behaviors. I’ve also observed many of the fascinating behaviors discovered by Jane Goodall in the 1960s that changed how we view humankind and one of our closest living relatives (don’t forget about bonobos being just as closely related to humans as chimpanzees).

I saw my first “cultural behavior” during one of my first chimp shifts. It is known here as a “grooming hand clasp.” Chimp communities often have specific methods of grooming that are unique to their community. The grooming hand clasp is performed when two chimpanzees each raise an arm to the sky and clasp each other’s hands, while one individual grooms the other. It is a very endearing behavior.

The second cultural behavior I have observed is “termite fishing.” It is unknown why some chimp communities will termite fish while others do not, even if termite mounds can be found in their home range. However, termite fishing is one of the behaviors that forever altered the way we view animals. Chimpanzees were the first species other than humankind observed to use tools! They fish for termites by stripping a long, pliable piece of bark from a sapling or branch and sticking it into a termite mound. Termites grab onto the “threat” with their mandibles (pinchers) and are pulled out of their mound and promptly consumed. Termite fishing starts at the beginning of the rainy season – which is also when termites begin their reproduction cycle of the year – and ends a couple months later.

Along with these cultural behaviors, the chimps at Issa exhibit many other behaviors and characteristics that make them so unique.

Some are quite intimidating to witness. Which is the point… Chimp “culture” is very male dominated. And to show their dominance, males will perform showy displays of strength. This can involve throwing their strength upon small trees to bend and snap branches, or even carrying and throwing branches at other chimps. Usually accompanied by loud screams from any chimps in the vicinity, the whole scene can be a bit unnerving if you’re close by. Especially unnerving is when male chimps saunter toward human observers and sit just a few meters away staring at us (we have one chimp in particular that will do this). Eye contact is often taken as a threat, so we avert our eyes and try to look extra small when this happens. Occasionally a male chimp will even run toward people (sometimes with their backs turned), slapping the ground or tree trunks as he goes along before swerving off in a new direction.

Chimpanzees, like most species, fear people. For us to study chimp behavior they have to be slowly habituated to the presence of humans. Lucky for me, the chimps at Issa (after several slow years) are reaching the end of their habituation process and beginning to ignore humans for the most part. The exception is the male chimps that occasionally test the nerves of the human observers.

The newly habituated chimps allow us to observe some of the subtleties of chimp behavior. Things like large adult males gently playing with a tottering infant. Or a mother tapping her back as she walks past her infant to tell her child to hop on.

Chimpanzees also display the artful skill of making nests. Yes, one of our closest relatives makes nests, like a bird. They bend a multitude of leafy branches high up in the trees to make a new nest each night. Sometimes they even make “day nests” when they have an extra lazy day and want to be more comfortable. I’ve even seen a subadult male chimp display his creativity while he was lounging on a rock. He looked at his surroundings, grabbed a nearby sapling, pulled it down so its leaves covered his rock, and promptly laid back down.

Although the chimpanzees here are habituated, it is still quite easy to lose track of them when they travel quickly along the mountainsides filled with lianas and thickets. When we lose them, we rely on vocalizations to find them again. It is rare that a full day goes by without a chimpanzee group starting a chorus of pant hoots and screams. Sometimes they vocalize seemingly to just hear their own voices. Sometimes it’s to exchange vocalizations with other groups within their community across valleys. And sometimes they vocalize during or after a rain, while shaking branches or charging around on the ground. These are known as rain displays and you can almost feel the exhilaration and awe of the individuals during these experiences.

The larger the group, the more often they send their voices echoing throughout the valleys. We have approximately 26 individuals in the community here and they form smaller groups to forage and travel together. Although it is somewhat rare for all the individuals to travel together, it does happen occasionally. On one of these occasions, we lost the chimpanzees briefly as they ran up the side of a mountain while vocalizing. When we reached the group a few minutes later, they had a dead bushbuck (a hoofed deer-like animal) up in the trees. They had successfully hunted! A large male carried his prize through the treetops and then back on the ground. Various individuals, even a mom and her infant, clutched pieces of meat in nearby trees. Eventually almost the entire community gathered around the kill, sharing meat with every individual, from the biggest male to the smallest infants.

If you ask me, chimpanzees have culture. Maybe culture isn’t the right word… It’s impossible not to view other species through the lens of our anthropocentric worldview. But I feel something akin to culture during rain displays. I see it in the grooming hand clasp. And I find it in the leftover tools at termite mounds. And it is an extraordinary privilege to have fleeting glimpses into the world of one of our closest living relatives.

A Day in the Life: Lions and chimps and monkeys, oh my!

This is the story of the craziest day I’ve had so far in Tanzania.

It was my fifth consecutive day with K1, a group of more than thirty red-tail monkeys. After four, fourteen-hour days behind me already, I was struggling to keep up with the group from the beginning of the day.

The monkeys were already making things difficult that morning, traveling higher and higher up the slope of Mchungwa valley, entering thickets impassible by humans, and spreading out so much that it was impossible to see more than a few monkeys at a time. Just as Judi, my field assistant for the day, and I sat down next to a thicket, thinking the monkeys were finally going to settle down for a few minutes, chimps materialized just ten meters away. We hadn’t heard them coming. Nor did they make any sounds as they climbed a tree, watching us as they settled into comfortable sitting positions. There was a female, her infant, and a juvenile. A bit further down the slope, we saw even more chimps popping up into the trees. By this time, most of the monkeys had melted into the tangle of vines covering the upper portions of the mountainside. Although chimpanzees rarely consume red-tailed monkeys (in fact – we have yet to observe the chimps preying on red-tails at this study site), our monkeys do not take any chances.

Along with the arboreal chimps, we could hear a few individuals screaming and running through the underbrush below us. So, there we were – stuck between a group of chimps and the impassible thickets. There was nothing to do but wait until the chimpanzees had moved further away so we could slide down the slope and try to find our way back to the monkeys, wherever they had fled.

In the short period of time Judi and I were stuck, unable to travel, the monkeys covered a long distance. It took us another three hours to find them, travelling so far along the valley that the mountainsides gave way to a plateau. Jubilant at finding the monkeys again, we got back to data collection. For me, that meant recording and collecting plant samples of the food items the monkeys were consuming. As I stopped to collect a sample of a new woodland plant that a monkey had nibbled on, I lost the group momentarily.

When I returned to the group, I heard a chorus of chirping (the monkeys make very bird-like vocalizations) and scuffling in the underbrush. Stooping down to get a better look, I saw a group of at least eight monkeys surrounding an owl. A few monkeys simultaneously jumped on the owl, while others vocalized and watched while perched on low hanging lianas. Then a monkey darted out and pulled the owl by its wing along the forest floor. This all happened multiple times while I frantically tried to video record and narrate the frenzy of activity. The owl was pulled into a nearby dried up river bed and the monkeys hovered over it for a few more minutes, shaking lianas above the bird but producing fewer and fewer vocalizations. Finally, the monkeys bounced away, starting a game of chase on the ground. I couldn’t get down to the riverbed without navigating a circuitous route to avoid thorny vines. So, by the time I made it to the owl’s previous location, the bird had disappeared. Lucky for the bird, this meant it survived the mobbing and flew away. Unfortunately for me, the bird’s quick disappearance meant I couldn’t get a good enough picture to identify the owl species.

(Monkey-avian interactions are quite rare, so we are hoping to publish this anecdote as a “short communications” paper in a primatology journal. And after looking through some bird books back at camp, we think the owl is an African Wood Owl.)

The owl mobbing was unique and strange enough, but nothing compared to the rest of my day.

The monkeys had settled down a bit, so we took a seat on the forest floor. Judi had just broken out her Tupperware for a late lunch when the alarm calls began. The handful of monkeys that were wandering the forest floor shot up into the trees and the entire group started traveling quickly downriver – all the time maintaining the highest intensity alarm calls I’ve ever heard from them (their alarm calls – like their other vocalizations – are also very bird-like). The constant chirping drowns out all other sound as I rushed after them, stumbling through the rocks of the dry river bed while trying to follow the movements and sounds above me.

Then they stopped.

I looked around me, expecting to see a predator of some kind. Maybe African Wild Dogs, maybe a Jaguar. Or maybe just a bumbling bush pig that the monkeys mistook for a threat. But the intensity of the alarm calls coming from high in the trees put me on edge.

Then I saw one, then two, female lions cross the river bed a mere thirty meters ahead.

They didn’t look at me. They just plodded across the stones and disappeared, almost before I could even register what just happened. Lions hadn’t been seen in this area since 2014. Also…. those were FEMALE lions! The hunters! Even though the lions didn’t look at me, they had to have known I was there – either by smell or the noises I made stumbling through the rocks. What if there were more? The growth on either side of the river made it impossible to see what could be hiding in the foliage. I quickly used my radio to call Judi (who in the midst of her lunch hadn’t been able to pack everything and keep up) and told her what I saw and that she should probably stay put. I would make my way back to her. My heart pounded and my legs were weak as I staggered back to her. We met each other wide eyed and suck in more air than normal as we discuss our game plan. As we crept along the river bed, towards the monkeys but also possibly towards lions, we exchange nervous looks. It’s not like we were provided with lion defense training. As we made our way outside the forest and discovered no hidden lions, we laugh in relief.

“Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly” says Luke Dollar, director of National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative. “I would imagine that every other primate that co-exists with big cats is acutely aware of the position they hold relative to the top predators of the world.” Read more here.

Lions or no lions, we still had to catch back up to the monkeys.

And they were making their way down a strip of forest sidling Moporomoko Kubwa – translation: “big waterfall” (also dried up until more rains fall). Which meant we had to climb down the steepest trail in the study site – a trail that I’ve fallen down more times than not. With adrenaline still pumping, we cautiously made our way down the trail – only to find that the monkeys were nowhere in sight. Two hours spent searching the forests, up and down slopes – once again made difficult by the tangles of vines and thorny vines – yielded no monkeys. Which meant a climb back up the Moporomoko Kubwa trail in case we misread their traveling intentions. Then halfway up the trail, a downpour began. We were soaked before we could make it to the top to don our raingear. Chimp vocalizations began echoing through the surrounding woodlands and forests and we knew the chance of finding the monkeys had dropped to zero.

Red-tailed monkeys don’t like the rain and they don’t like chimps.

Although our days don’t normally end until 7:00pm, at 4:00, on this last follow day with this group, we didn’t feel bad about heading back to camp a bit early. After a 45-minute hike in a downpour, we crashed at camp. We tell our story. Everyone is shocked. Some are a bit nervous. And almost all the foreigners are jealous about our experience and excited about the possibility of having lions back in the area.

My fingers were so numb from the cold rain that it took about 30 minutes of clutching a mug of hot tea before I could text my supervisor the news of the day. With too many details to fit in one text, I basically just bullet point the day. The next day I typed everything out – as scientifically as possible.

A month and a half later, I’m finally typing out the narrative form. Lion encounters and the owl event are rare occurrences here (although there were several lion sightings over the course of the next week – I even saw some lion prints and scat a week later). But the rain, chimps, and treacherous hiking are very typical indeed.


I hope this paints a picture of how unexpected life in the field can be.


Karibu Tanzania

Karibu Tanzania. Welcome to Tanzania. These were the first words to greet me as I landed in the capital of Tanzania (Dar es Saalam); the first words to greet me after my puddle jumper landed on the dirt runway of Kigoma (a quaint town in eastern Tanzania, on the edge of Lake Tanganyika); and the first words to greet me as I arrived at the GMERC camp.

From the moment I stepped onto the dirt runway in Kigoma, I felt right at home (not so much in Dar – cities are not my thing). The researchers who picked me up were warm and welcoming. And the rest of that first day was spent at a beach, watching waves crashing on the shore (Lake Tanganyika is the second largest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world), eating baked potatoes and avocado salad as the sun set and the stars lit up the night sky.

The next day, after a whirlwind of shopping at the market, 6 people and 2 weeks of food and supplies for the 18 or so people at camp were packed into a Land Rover, and we trundled off to the bush. Three hours later, we left paved roads and dirt roads behind and were bouncing along a path so narrow we had to tuck in the side mirrors. A couple of broken eggs later (the stack of egg trays was perched on my lap, so this was slightly unfortunate for me) and we had arrived at camp.

The cooks, field assistants, and other researchers greeted me with “Karibu Tanzania” and “Karibu Campi.” On my tour of camp, when we were at the highest peak, I was greeted by panthoots and screams from the resident chimp community echoing across the surrounding valleys.

What a way to be welcomed to camp!

Camp Life

Immediately, I was comforted by the prospect of making a tent my home for the next 6 months. An added bonus: my tent contained a mattress and was large enough to actually stand upright! What luxuries! The prospect of bathing in a river seemed like fun as well until I gave it a go that first afternoon. It brought back too many memories of ice baths during track and cross-country season. From that day forward, I brought a cup to the river. No more submerging any part of me again.

Even though camp is only a few miles from a fairly well-traveled dirt road, it is truly in the middle of the bush. One of my first afternoons at camp, someone saw a black mamba looped around a branch next to the river while they were bathing. Recently, I almost stepped on a puff adder on my way to the toilet. Numerous other reptilian friends (ones with legs) sun themselves on the rocks at camp and I can’t even count how many days I’ve had to maneuver my way through a troop of baboons on my way to bathe. Blue duikers come sniffing around our tents at night. Packs of hyenas whoop to one another right outside our tents at night and occasionally we hear them near camp on our way out into the field in the morning. Leopards have been sighted traveling right outside of camp. And one recent morning, all of camp was awoken by chimps vocalizing 50m from camp at 5:30am.

The food at camp – consisting almost entirely of beans and rice – made for a rough adjustment period at first. But weirdly enough, two and a half months later, I’m actually beginning to crave beans when I get hungry. A good thing since beans are a staple of every meal! For dinner, we get a piece of fruit or vegetable. And instead of rice we either have ugali, potatoes or plantains, or (about once a week) mini loaves of bread or two pieces of chipote (circular flatbread). On bread nights, we typically get a hard-boiled egg. The best dinners are the bread nights after someone takes a trip to Kigoma because then there’s often the treat of a half an avocado.


The landscape when I arrived was unlike anything I’ve seen before. The rocky mountainsides were covered in sparse, bare trees and tall yellow/dead grass, while the valleys and plateaus contained thin strips of dark green forest. For the first month, fires were frequent, and we often hiked through ash and the smoldering trunks of fallen trees or branches. Two months later (after some heavy rains) and almost everything is now green. The woodlands covering the slopes and most of the plateaus sprouted leaves almost overnight and green grass is now poking out among the leftover dead grass.

This type of landscape is called a savanna-mosaic environment. Aptly named, because it is truly a mosaic of habitats. Fifteen-foot cacti grow alongside strips of lush green forests. And after more rains come, swamps will form in patches amongst the forests, woodlands, and grasslands. It’s difficult to become bored of this ever-changing environment.

My first day in the field I found myself trekking over 10 miles, sliding down rocky slopes, hiking through valleys, and scrambling up mountainsides. We were following chimps we had spotted from across a valley, but once we had caught up to them, we realized these were unhabituated chimps – not part of the semi-habituated chimpanzee community. Most of the other chimp days have been much more successful, although they often still involve lots climbing and sliding down slopes.

Some of my days entail following around a troop of baboons – the same troop that is often found wandering through camp or foraging by the river where we bathe. Other days consist of random shifts with some of the various projects here at Issa – phenology, termite mound research, and trail camera maintenance.

My own research, however, is on red-tailed monkeys. I follow two habituated groups of this species, each for 7-10 days every month. My main project is studying their diet. This species is typically found in rainforest environments and thus, the only dietary research conducted on this species has been in that type of habitat. Studying their diet in a savanna-mosaic environment will help extrapolate their dietary adaptability and to what extent they exploit the different habitats in their home ranges. For me, this means lots of group scans, collecting (and pressing) lots of plant samples, and trying to learn as many plant species as possible. This also means five consecutive 14-hour days of fieldwork for each group to collect the amount of data I need. Although I never expected to be doing feeding ecology research, I am loving this work. It’s exciting to collect a new plant species that the monkeys have consumed (almost like a treasure hunt). And it’s quite enjoyable to learn, and sometimes try, the numerous fruits that the monkeys eat (although more on that later).

I already have so many stories and experiences from these past two and a half months that I can’t possibly include them all in one blog. But I will try, in between the 14-hour days chasing monkeys, to type up these memories and share them.

Asante sana (thank you very much) for keeping up with this journey of mine!

A Summer of Lemurs, Foxes, and Opportunity

This summer, I spent 10-weeks as a research assistant for a project studying the spatial distribution of scent marks among free ranging ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center. In simpler words, my job was to note the location of each scent mark that my focal lemur distributed. The overall goal of the project was to determine if scent marks were distributed randomly across their habitat or if the scent marks were condensed along the borders they shared with neighboring ring-tail groups and around their feeding areas. We also collected behavioral data and amassed over 200 hours of observations. But in no time at all, I fell in love with the ring-tailed family I studied. Sophia, the dominant female of the group (female dominance is common in almost all lemur species), was a kind and gracious leader to her family. Randy, the male of the group, was astoundingly patient with his daughters, even when they pulled his tail or forced him to engage in play. Narcissa and Nemesis, the two-year-old twin sisters, were a constant source of entertainment with their wild antics and playfulness.

The natural habitat enclosure (NHE2) I worked in was 8.1 acres and was also home to a family of four Cocrquel’s Sifaka and a pair of Red Fronted Lemurs. The Sifaka instantly became one of my favorite lemur species. Their mode of terrestrial travel appears more like dancing as they take bounding sideways leaps across the terrain. And this species hated mosquitoes and flying insects more than any creature I have ever seen. They would swat frantically at the insects that swarmed in the ever humid summers of Durham, North Carolina. The pair of Red Fronted Lemurs also added a very special touch to my summer. I first encountered Red Fronted Lemurs in Madagascar and found them to be extremely curious and vocal creatures. The two at the DLC were no different. At twenty-four years old, they had been free-ranging in NHE2 their entire lives. They ran the show and were the most dominant species in the enclosure. They could displace any lemur, whether it was to get a preferred lounging area in the shade or to take custody of a feeding bowl.

Within the first week of research, I noticed something that completely changed my summer.

A grey fox in my designated lemur enclosure! The enclosure was predator proof, but grey foxes are excellent climbers, and can squeeze through small gaps or through drainage pipes, so there is no easy way of keeping them out. Occasionally, the fox would emerge in an area near lemurs (most commonly the lemur feed site to scavenge leftover primate biscuits). This presented a unique opportunity to study the behavioral responses of lemur species to a small, non-Malagasy canid species. Although the fox was not a threat to the lemurs (and in fact was more wary of the lemurs than they were of it), the lemurs responded to the canid with antipredator behaviors like alarm calling and vertically retreating. The behavioral responses suggest how lemurs may react to domestic dogs and cats in Madagascar, an actual threat to these endangered species. Because of the limited research on lemur anti-predator behavior to visually perceived threats, I decided to write a research proposal to the Duke Lemur Center and collect this data for further analyses.

I designed the methods of data collection, created an ethogram for the behavioral responses of lemurs and foxes within the encounters, collected data opportunistically using narrated video recordings, and input this data into excel. Overall, sixty lemur-fox encounters were recorded. The data is currently being analyzed and I plan to publish the results in a primate or animal behavior journal.

Just as I was beginning to formulate the outline of the lemur anti-predator behavior research, I noticed something else in the enclosure: baby foxes (kits). In the coming weeks, I determined that there were, in fact, three adults and five kits living in the enclosure. Because there is a very incomplete understanding of grey fox behavior and family structure, I started collecting data on the foxes at the same time I started the lemur anti-predator behavior research. The lack of scientific literature on grey foxes is largely due to the elusive nature of grey foxes. But the foxes in the lemur enclosure were semi-habituated to people due to the almost constant presence of humans in the enclosure, between researchers and animal care staff. This partial habituation allowed me to actually follow the foxes on my off days or while the lemurs were taking a nap (my coworkers graciously watched my focal lemur and alerted me if he or she woke up).

Luckily, my internships at Wolf Park included working with and analyzing the behavior of the captive grey foxes, which gave me the solid background needed to study this species in the wild. Kimber Hendrix, the fox curator at Wolf Park, also agreed to help analyze data, interpret behavior, and assist in the writing of the papers that will come from this data. Another valuable connection over the summer was Patrick Ross, a student from Appalachian State and an employee of the Duke Lemur Center, who happened to be preparing for a large-scale trail camera study in Madagascar. Patrick graciously loaned me a total of 17 trail cameras and set them up near the dens and commonly utilized fox areas of the enclosure that I had discovered. This allowed for the capture of behaviors on film that I might not have seen in person as well as provided information on their nighttime activity.

Not knowing how busy my summer would end up being, I accepted a remote internship with the Jane Goodall Institute’s Community Engagement Department. Despite the added responsibility, I enjoyed every aspect of this experience. I updated and organized Gombe research publication spreadsheets, summarized a Gombe Stream Research Centre Report, and wrote blogs for the JGI news site Good For All News to name a few things. I will still be writing blogs for the next month and will update my new Advocacy page on my website as new pieces are published.

My summer was a dream come true. I was able to spend almost every day with lemurs, one of my favorite groups of primates. I was able to conduct my own research on anti-predator behavior in lemurs. And I was able to study the interactions, behavior, and vocalizations of a grey fox family. Studying lemurs (the most primitive group of primates) and grey foxes (the most primitive canid species) simultaneously was surreal and something I never would have expected. The data entry involved with these research projects and the writing involved with my JGI internship left little time to relax. But the opportunities this summer presented and the potential for several publications was worth the late nights spent staring into a computer screen.

Wolf Park Round 2

For those of you who know me well, it probably isn’t surprising that I spent another three months at Wolf Park after returning from Madagascar. My first internship was truly life changing. The staff and volunteers were passionate about their work and so gracious in sharing their knowledge. And the animals of the park invaded my heart and soul. My experience at the park left me eager to return as soon as possible. And my wish came true when the intern coordinator and fox curator, Kimber, invited me to return for an enhanced internship.

So, I returned to rural Indiana in January. Nothing prepared me for the brutal cold of a Midwest winter. Thankfully, the warmth of the animals and people took away some of the chill. Within an hour of arrival, I was back in the fox enclosure to visit Scarlett and Joker, the red fox       ambassadors, and at the fence lines of the wolf enclosures. Even though icy wind was burning my skin, I had to say hello the wolf “pups” from last summer. The pictures from the past few months didn’t convey just how much they’d grown. No longer puppies, they were now hulking canines. They came bounding across the enclosure when we called. Every single pup seemed excited and clearly remembered me, which was my hope. Khewa, who chose to develop a close connection with me last summer, was ecstatic. She jumped up and down, rubbed against the fence, wriggled her whole body, and tried to lick me through the chain link. My heart melted.

The next day I was already back in with the “pups” and many of the other adult wolves. Over the course of three months, I was given so much opportunity to help train and walk the pups. I even had the chance to walk Wolfgang and Wotan, the rowdy 12-year-old males. Because of my established relationship with the wolves from last summer, especially the pups, I was able to continually advance to higher level interactions such as bringing a bait bag (treat pouch) in with most of the wolves each time I went in with them. Helping train and walk wolves, sometimes up to four times a week, was incredible and helped me grow exponentially as a trainer.

My first time at Wolf Park was for the wolves. This time was for the foxes (and Khewa of course). Enhanced interns get lots of free reign with the foxes, because unlike the wolves, interns and volunteers can be cleared to go in their enclosures without staff. This resulted in 3 months of constant fox time. Every day, I went in with the red foxes, Scarlett and Joker. My relationship with Scarlett developed quickly and it wasn’t long before she let me hold her upside down in my lap. Joker, a shier fox, took a little more time, but eventually, he too accepted my friend request and even started soliciting belly rubs from me.

The grey foxes were a slightly different story. Gypsum let very few people into his inner circle and Hunter was a very shy fox. But I was so excited to work on my relationships with them and attain higher clearances with them. Working with these two taught me so much about training. They were my favorite animals to work with. I worked up to the level 3 clearance with them, meaning I could bring a bait bag in their enclosure and train them without needing staff supervision. This was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at Wolf Park. And when Gypsum fell ill a week later, it broke my heart. I could write paragraphs about him, but his life and his legacy are preserved in the heartfelt words of Wolf Park’s fox curator, Kimber. I was just thankful I could be a part of his life for a short time and could join in the celebration of his life at his funeral, the day before I left the park.

My second three months at Wolf Park were filled with joy and happiness. But it was also filled with heartbreak and grief. And it was difficult to not let Gypsum’s death overshadow the good experiences. Especially because there were some really good times; like making a few excellent new friends among the winter/spring interns, developing deeper relationships with the staff and animals of the park, and even getting a visit from my mom, who got to meet almost every animal in the park. It was an incredible journey once again at Wolf Park and I’m so glad I was there this winter and spring, despite the heartaches. I’m already looking forward to coming back to the park next year!

Veloma Madagascar

I’ve been back in the United States for a month now. Adjusting to the eight-hour time difference and sixty-degree temperature change in the midst of Christmas celebrations was a bit difficult. But it was certainly nice to arrive at a time when family and friends were gathering together and wide varieties of food were both abundant and delectable.

As nice as it is to have certain amenities once again, such as hot showers, temperature controlled houses, and flushing toilets, these things feel almost like luxuries now, and I would trade these comforts for more time in Madagascar in a heartbeat. I have not stopped thinking about the people and wildlife of Madagascar and am eager to return one day. Although I miss the country so much, it is time for me to refocus and put all my energy into my next experience (which I will begin writing about in the next few weeks). But first, since I was unable to post any blogs during my last few weeks in Madagascar due to spotty connection, it is time for a short recap.

Being very disconnected to the outside world, with the eight-hour time difference and slow internet connection, had huge perks over the three-month trip. Throughout each week, I had time to study for the GRE (although not the most fun things to do in Madagascar), read books and scientific journal articles, keep a daily journal, write blog posts, and learn as much Malagasy as I could.

The weekends were either spent synthesizing and entering data for our bi-weekly reports, or traveling. The plague epidemic made travel more difficult so we were encouraged to spend the extra money required to rent a minivan and driver for our trips. The only other alternative was the cheap, but overcrowded taxi brousses that had contributed to the spread of the plague. Nevertheless, we traveled as much as possible.

Our first weekend trip was to Manajary, a little town on the coast of the Indian ocean about an hour and a half away. We spent our days wandering around the village, trying various street foods, shopping for souvenirs, perusing the market for fresh fruit, wandering down the beach and dipping our feet in the Indian Ocean. At night, we played cards and went to the karaoke bar down the street. We even saw Dadi Love, one of the famous Malagasy bands, arriving to eat at the same small restaurant where we were eating a very American meal of pizza and ice cream.

Our second weekend trip was to Ranomafana National Park, just two hours farther west into the mountains. We saw the famous Golden Bamboo lemurs for which the park was created, as well as the last two Greater Bamboo lemurs left in the park (a father and daughter), a group of Red Bellied Brown Lemurs with a few babies, a pair of Black and White Ruffed lemurs with two babies, and a group of Red Fronted Brown lemurs with several babies. We also happened upon some of the unique creatures that Madagascar is known for, such as the giraffe weevil, the ring tailed mongoose, a couple of streaked tenrecs, and a satanic leaf-tailed gecko. The park truly felt like a rainforest, damp and blanketed by heavy fogs, and made us reflect on how Kianjavato would have felt 30 years ago when there was continuous rainforest stretching from Ranomafana to Kianjavato.

Our third trip was to Anja Community Reserve, a six hour drive from Kianjavato. When we arrived, we were almost immediately surrounded by ring tailed lemurs. They were in the trees, on the ground, sunbathing on rocks, and leaping less than a foot away from us on their predetermined paths. The hundreds of lemurs in the park were completely indifferent to us, as it should be with well-habituated lemurs. This, of course, made for incredible photo opportunities and made us feel like true tourists. We also made the slightly regretful decision to hike the mountain towering above the reserve. The mountain was almost entirely composed of continuous rock, and our guide, with bare feet, sidled up the mountain with the ease of a mountain goat. We barely had ten minutes at the summit before our guide became anxious at the rain clouds quickly moving toward us so we were forced to hurry down the backside of the mountain after him. We didn’t even have much time to wonder why we hadn’t gone up this way, a much easier path, before the rain was upon us. The next morning, we were able to spend a few more hours with sunbathing lemurs before embarking on the six-hour drive back to Kianjavato.

A couple of our reporting weekends were even spiced up with some excursions to the highest peaks of Sangasanga and Vatovavy (our two study sites). We woke up at 3:30am for the Sangasanga hike, so we could see the sunrise. There could not have been a better way to start a Sunday morning than seeing the first light of day set the rivers and rainforests below us ablaze with color. Vatovavy was a longer and more challenging hike, so a sunrise hike was not a consideration, but we still started early to beat the heat. We saw and heard several groups of lemurs as we were hiking up, and were rewarded with a 360 view. The Indian Ocean could be seen in the distance, and our Malagasy friends pointed out Mananjary, and the mountains that lead to Ranomafana.

These trips could not have been possible without the help of Fredo, the field station manager, and the Malagasy graduate students at the field station. They were always so gracious in helping us arrange rental cars, joining us on trips and hikes to watch out for us, and translating for us when needed. Our time in Madagascar was so much more because of them and they all became our close friends.

Saying goodbye to them was so difficult, and our last week was full of farewells; we said Veloma (goodbye) to our field guides who we had spent almost every day with for the past 10 weeks, to the reforestation workers we had come to know, and to our English students who we had spent every Monday and Wednesday night working with.

Our last adventure in Madagascar was actually a last-minute decision to see Indri (the largest extant species of lemur) before we left the country. Mine was the first flight out of the country, so it was a race to see this species. We arrived in the capitol on a Saturday night, left the next morning to drive four hours to Andasibe, spent the remainder of Sunday as well as a couple hours Monday morning in the forest with Indri, and drove the four hours back to the Capitol to pick up my luggage and drive another hour to the airport to make my 5:00 flight on Monday. Every road block or traffic delay on our way back to the capitol raised my stress level, but I made it to the airport and caught my flight with a half hour to spare. Any rise in blood pressure was well worth it, however, because the Indri were awe-inspiring. Their large bodies reminded us of gibbons. But their piercing vocalizations, loud as a siren, have almost no comparison except for the calls of humpback whales. The forests echoed with groups of Indri responding to one another. And standing in the forest, listening to what is known by locals as the song of the forest, was a surreal experience.

When it came time to leave the country, I did not feel ready to part ways with the island of lemurs. But the memories and friendships will never leave my heart and mind. And I know that I did not say Veloma (goodbye) to Madagascar forever. I will return.

Fire and Rain

My time in Madagascar has been sandwiched between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. And indeed, the first five weeks of my adventures here in Madagascar were very hot and dry. Whenever I was exposed to the sun, whether hiking through deforested mountainsides or walking to the market, the repetitive chorus of a popular Malagasy tropical song ran through my mind: Mafana Mafana Mafana. Hot Hot Hot. The blistering temperatures signified the final weeks of the dry season, a window of time in which many Malagasy use for tavy (slash and burn). The dry trees and underbrush of the forest can easily be coaxed into lighting up in flames. As rainforests are naturally wet and rainy, it has taken many years and unbelievable deforestation to change the entire biosphere into one that is conducive for burning. It is not a pleasant thought to dwell upon.

But, this year the rainy season started early. These last two two weeks have brought endless downpours, showers, sprinkles, and drizzles. The forest is happy, and much safer than is typical in November. The rain smothers the fires from tavy and draws out the fire millipedes. The foot-long arthropods, wanting to avoid the flooded/saturated forest floor, crawl from unknown hiding places and into the trees. Their numerous bright legs seek dry branches in vain and mesmerize us with their fluid movements. Purples, reds, and oranges, their hues of their legs are taken from the same palette as sunsets.

I am still of two minds about whether I prefer the dry or rainy season better. Regardless of season, I am wet, either from perspiration or from rain. But at least in the rainy season, the forest is safe from fire. For humans however, the rain makes hiking through the forests much more difficult. We slip, we slide, and we fall whether we are going uphill or downhill. Last Monday in Vatovavy, I endured a particularly arduous day. It had been surprisingly sunny for a couple days during the weekend, but started pouring on Sunday night, continuing all night and into the following day. I was to follow a lemur that was markedly far away, so Edgard (my guide) and I set off at a brisk pace that morning.

The narrow paths had transformed into small creeks and our hiking shoes were soon soaked through and covered in mud. About half an hour into the hike, we came to the fields of rice paddies that stand between the tiny communities on the hillsides and the forest fragment that lays behind it. (pictured are the rice paddies during the dry season) I heard my guide say “uh oh” as he arrived at the bridge connecting the path with the dikes of the rice paddies. I rounded the corner and saw the reason for his dismay. The “bridge” (two small pieces of warped wood) was nowhere to be seen, under at least a foot of water from the turgid creek. And the “railings” (two tall sticks stuck vertically into the bed of the creek) were swaying with the current and too far to reach from land. (pictured is the bridge when during the dry season) Edgard hesitantly put one foot into the water, finding the makeshift bridge, and successfully inched his way across. It was my turn. All the warnings about avoiding contact with the rivers and waters flashed through my mind. But I had no choice; it was much too far to jump. I stepped into the dark water, finding the bridge, and made my way across. Little did I know, the bridge was the least of my worries. We began traversing through the dikes of the rice paddies. The fields are shaped to hold water, and even during the dry season traversing the paddies was treacherous and required small makeshift bridges to avoid swampy areas. In one such place, a couple pieces of wood lay several inches submerged under water from the flooding. The wood only stretched a couple feet, and I eyed the ground where the bridge ended. “I can make that”, I thought, thinking I would cleverly avoid soaking my shoes once more. Suddenly, one of my legs was knee deep in swampy waters. My jump had resulted in one leg on solid ground, and one engulfed by a rice paddy. I pulled my leg out with a squelching noise, the mud having formed a suction around my leg as if it was reluctant to let go. I scrambled to my feet again, trying to regain my dignity as Edgard glanced back and saw me sprawled on the ground, one leg disappeared into a rice paddy. After assuring him I was okay, we set off again to finish our hour and a half hike to find FIG, our focal lemur for the day.

I had somehow convinced myself while in the forest that the way back through the rice paddies and bridge would not be quite as unseemly. But alas, I was sorely mistaken. The way back resulted in going stomach down in the rice paddies, this time, my arm going elbow deep into the muddy waters. And the creek had fully claimed the bridge as its own, the water flowing at least a foot above the planks, and the muddy banks causing Edgard and I both to slip and fall while exiting the water.

I was soaked to the bone when I returned to the field station, and after drying myself, retreated to my tent for the dry, warm comfort of my sleeping bag. But thankfully, after a few hours, I was able to laugh about my misfortune when sharing my adventures with the other volunteers at dinner. Because really, how bad could it be, when I’m tracking lemurs in Madagascar.

A Madagascar Thanksgiving

It’s a little strange being in Madagascar during such a celebrated North American holiday such as Thanksgiving. It has no meaning to most people in the country. Nevertheless, we were served one of our favorite meals for dinner: pasta and beans. Because today is also the birthday of another volunteer, we topped off our Thanksgiving meal with a chocolate almond cake drizzled in pink icing. It did not taste quite like a western cake, but it was a welcome addition to our Thanksgiving feast and satisfied our cravings for dessert.

While writing this, I am in a tent surrounded by Malagasy mountains, something I have dreamt about for a long time. So as I would do if I was in the United States during this holiday, it is time to reflect on some of the many things I have to be thankful for.

Lemurs: This is an obvious one, but I have wanted to travel to Madagascar to contribute to lemur research for many years now and feel incredibly blessed to realize this dream so soon after graduating University. And as of now, I have seen 8 species of lemur in the wild: Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Red Fronted Brown Lemurs, Red Bellied Brown Lemurs, Greater Bamboo Lemurs, Golden Bamboo Lemurs, Aye Ayes, Dwarf Lemurs, and Mouse Lemurs.

New friends: The October – December cohort of volunteers has proved to be one of the easiest going and likeminded groups of people I have had the privilege to work with. We are a small group, with 3 Americans, myself included, and a German, but we instantly realized that we make a great team. Along with our cohort are the Malagasy Ph.D. and Masters degree students stationed at KAFS; they travel with us when we go on adventures on the weekends, or when we walk to Kianjavato for the market or a concert. They are always ready and willing to help us (whether translating for us or making sure we don’t get an unfair deal) and watch out for us. They have also introduced us to the vibrant Malagasy tropical music that has become popular across the country. They are some of the kindest people I have ever met, and we would truly be lost without them.

Learning a new language: Between working with Malagasy guides in the forest each day, befriending the Malagasy students at KAFS, and interacting with various members of the community, I have had the privilege to learn bits and pieces of Malagasy. I discovered a love for language while being here, and am delighted each time I am taught new words and phrases, especially ones that I can use to surprise the non-English speakers around me.

The fruit: So many kinds! Jackfruits, Mango, Papaya, Pokenel, Zebu Heart (the local name for a fruit related to the Pokenel), tamarind, apricots, leche, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts. Some I have previously eaten but that taste so much better here, to the point of seeming like a new fruit, while others I have never tried or heard of before. I am in heaven every time I eat fruit here, even if I have to wash my hands four times after eating Jackfruit and still can’t remove the sticky residue.

Learning to Live Rough: If I am to follow my dreams of becoming a primatologist, I need to be able to handle rugged living. And living in Madagascar has certainly toughened me and prepared me for future research endeavors, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Bucket showers, washing clothes by hand, and living in a tent have become second nature. And eating rice for every meal, and rarely being fully dry (I’m either wet from perspiration or wet from the rain), seems as natural as if I have been living here my whole life.

Malagasy Mountains: Anyone who knows me very well, knows that I have a deep affinity for mountains, forests, and hiking. And working and hiking in Malagasy mountains nearly every day has been exhilarating.

Becoming a Birder: Thanks to a couple of the volunteers’ infectious passion for birds, I have become an amateur birder. I can now identify almost 20 bird species here, some by their calls, and others simply by sight. This pales in comparison to true birders, but I now know more Malagasy birds than North American birds and have developed a new interest in birds.

Teesh: A medium sized brown dog, with upright ears, Teesh is our resident field station dog who is surprisingly vacant of fleas. This dog, though as independent as any Malagasy pup, spends most of his time at the field station acting as a canine garbage disposal for leftovers. But he has staved off some of my longing for my own dogs by always tolerating my showers of affection, and for this, I am especially grateful to him.

And these are just a few of the many things I have to be thankful for during this venture into a new country and culture. Life is good. Enjoy it. Count your blessings. And……Mas toa bestaka sakafo androany! Enjoy Lots of food today!


The shouts and giggles of small children echo through the valley as we walk past clusters of tiny houses roofed with Ravinala leaves. Sometimes we don’t see the body that the voice belongs to. Other times, the children are peering out behind a bamboo fence. If they are very brave, and this only happens when they are in a group, they will greet us while they are walking past us on the street. Regardless of location, the greeting is always the same: “SaluVasaha!” Salu is a French hello, and Vasaha means foreigner. Hello foreigner! My response is always the same as well; “Salama Zanika Gashy!” Salama is Malagasy for hello, Zanika is child or children, and Gashy is short for Malagasy, a common slang that Malagasy people call themselves. The children never fail to light up or shriek with laughter at the tall white foreigner speaking their language. And the adults nearby will often repeat my words and laugh themselves. We greet adults in passing with a more respectful greeting of “Akoryaby”; good day to you all.

                These are the interactions that can be expected each time we walk through the villages surrounding the field station that now feels like home. There are 9 villages in the Kianjavato commune, the largest being Kianjavato, where we travel every morning to buy snacks for the field and sometimes on Sundays for the market. And if we are working in Sangasanga and finish early, we will make the trek from Kianajvato back through the villages to the field station. Ambalahosy and Ambodibinary lie between the field station and Kianjavato. They look almost identical, the only difference being a small school in Ambodibinary. The villages stretch only for 100 meters or so before the clusters of homes give way to rice paddies that once again engulf the land on either side of the road.

Kianjavato is only slightly bigger, but is home to several tiny shops and a few more roadside vendors that serve up various types of mofo (bread) and fruit. On Sunday market days, however, the streets are packed with people, some walking from several villages away, to peruse the piles of clothes, the produce, and the electronics that are laid out on either side of the road, on blankets or in small bamboo stands. Roosters, chickens, and the occasional duck peck and waddle their way through the crowds, while loose dogs take shelter in the shade between houses or vendors. We see familiar faces as we walk through the crowds: reforestation workers, a lemur monitoring guide, our driver, one of the cook assistants. And we purchase bananas, slices of jackfruit, and bags of mofo, for less than 3,000 ariary ($1). On the way back to the field station, we never fail to stop at one of the road side vendors in Ambodibinary or Amalahosy for peanut brittle, usually buying them out with our insatiable appetite for the sweet, nutty flavor and the ability to buy 30 pieces for 3,000 ariary.

And seemingly regardless of the day, or time of day, encountering small herds of zebu, directed by small boys and their sticks, is almost unavoidable. They commandeer the sidelines of the roads, leaving rather large and slimy gifts behind. But neither the zebu nor the roosters and chickens occasionally strutting across the road, and no, not even the pedestrians walking from village to village have the right-a-way to the occasional taxi-brousse or truck flying through the curvy mountainous roads. Horns blaring, vehicles quickly clear the roads in front of them. It’s nice when you’re the one in the car, though not quite as nice when you’re the pedestrian.

Regardless of the constant need to watch for zebu poop or listen for taxi-brousses at every curve, I never tire of walking through the quaint villages of Kianjavato while returning the calls of “Salu Vasaha”. The walk not only provides opportunity to practice my Malagasy and load up on delicious snacks, but also gives a brief glimpse into the simple, but happy, lives of those in the communities that I feel lucky to be a part of, even for a short period of time.