Thoughts From Some Successful Primatologists


[Roger Fouts][Joe M. Erwin][Rob Shumaker]


"If you choose primatology, you should feel a responsibility built on the love for our fellow primates that brought you to this career choice"
Roger Fouts
Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute
Central Washington University

"Primatology has perhaps provided me with some of the greatest joys of my life, but at the same time it has made me feel great sorrow and above all a tremendous responsibility. The joy of discovering that Washoe is a person, not alike my own children, was a wonderful awakening from a dark Cartesian ignorance. The very most exciting experience of my life came on last summer when we visited Gombe stream. There is was clearly shown to us that the chimpanzee are a people, a people made up of individual persons, just like us. A people who hunt, care for their young, love their mothers, mourn, have tempers, and yes even harm the own kind, but nonetheless a people. My greatest sorrow comes from the realization of what we humans are doing to chimpanzees as persons and as a people. We are destroying their homelands, and when we have them under our control in captivity they have a good chance of being harmed at the least or tortured at the worst, but all of them will face a life of imprisonment without ever having committed a crime. The tremendous responsibility comes when you as primatologist realize that you can't hide behind your white lab coat and do harm to these people in the name of "science" or even the name of "human welfare". Using this excuse to exploit another people has been and always will be corrupt and unjustifiable. If you choose primatology, you should feel a responsibility built on the initial love for our fellow primates that brought you to this career choice. That responsibility should inspire you to do everything in your power to protect and save our fellow primates from our own species' arrogant exploitation of them. Unless you act, it is entirely conceivable that you may be the last generation that will the opportunity to actually see a chimpanzee as a free-living person among his or her own people."


"Something important can be learned from every primate. No primate is to old to teach us valuable lessons."
Joe M. Erwin
Department of Neurobiology and Behavior
Bioqual, Inc.

"Primatology is the scientific study of primates, including humans, in sickness and in health, in pristine and degraded habitats in the wild, and in captivity in breeding colonies, laboratories, sanctuaries, and zoological gardens. The purpose of primatology is to better understand primates and the biological processes that influence their health and behavior and to better appreciate and conserve the ecosystems in which they participate. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of primatology is that it is highly interdisciplinary--primatologists are trained in anthropology, psychology, ecology, zoology, biology, physiology, human or veterinary medicine, or any of many other fields--but they are united by their interest in and concern for nonhuman and human primates. Primatology helps people understand humanity in biological context and biology in the context of ourselves and our nearest relatives. There is no substitute for the use of science as a method of obtaining reliable knowledge, whether this is observation, systematic survey, or controlled experiment. All stages of the scientific method are used in primatology. Reliable knowledge is as essential to the development of effective conservation action as it is to the development of cures or prevention of communicable diseases. I urge those who wish to become primatologists to develop as many scientific skills as possible, ranging from careful observational skill and field methods to microbiological and molecular biological techniques. While you must be able to be able to be objective as a scientist, this does not mean that you should avoid developing emotional responses to nonhuman primates. It is very healthy (and nearly unavoidable) to feel strongly about the nonhuman primates you study. These emotions can help motivate you to provide high quality care for captive primates and effective conservation plans for wild primates. I urge you to become well-informed about the kinds of research involving primates that are done by primatologists and other scientists. The knowledge gained is fundamentally valuable. It may not be applicable today or tomorrow, but it will be someday, and our lives and those of the other primates will depend on the knowledge gained now. Something important can be learned from every primate. No primate is too old to teach us valuable lessons. Let's all work hard to promote care, conservation, compassion, and understanding of human and nonhuman primates."


"...I would strongly recommend...getting practical experience working around primates. Many people are interested in primates, but don't have a realistic picture of what the work is really like..."
Rob Shumaker
Language Project Coordinator
National Zoo

"I have been thinking about the advice that I would give to someone interested in primatology, and there are two things that I think are important. First of all, I would encourage anyone who has an interest in primates to read everything they can get their hands on. Not all authors agree, even when they write about the same topic, so it's important to understand both sides of the discussion. After all, that's a big part of the process of science. The more you read, the more questions will come to your mind, and you'll become much better informed about the things you are interested in. I think it is much better to have lots of knowledge about one or two topics than to have just a bit of knowledge about many topics. The second thing that I would strongly recommend is getting practical experience working around primates. Many people are interested in primates, but don't have a realistic picture of what the work is really like. Most zoos have volunteer opportunities, although each zoo has its own set of guidelines for things like how old you have to be, and how many hours a week you have to give, and so on. If you can spend time learning on your own, through reading and doing some work around primates, I think that puts you exactly on the right track for a career in primatology."

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