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Karin Jaffe’s window into primates’ world

Friday, May 17th, 2013 | Posted by

SSU professor Karin Jaffe sits in front of the patas monkey enclosure at Safari West. (Crista Jeramiason / The Press Democrat)


By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent

When the San Francisco Zoo got a group of squirrel monkeys in 2010, they called on a Sonoma State University professor to help them understand the all-male population.

“In the wild, squirrel monkeys live in heterosexual groups,” explains Karin Jaffe, an associate professor of anthropology. “There was concern that a group containing only males would display high levels of aggression leading to injuries.”

Working with two students from her Primate Ethology Research Lab program, Jaffe was able to reassure them. After observing the monkeys’ behavior, the students determined that they were less aggressive than expected, vocalizing their objections rather than resorting to physical fights.

Jaffe, 41, considers that a perfect example of the win-win value of the unique collaboration between SSU and local zoos. Drawing from her experience doing field work in Kenya and with the San Diego Zoo, students can do real research while also helping zoos solve their problems.

She created the primate program referred to as SSUPER in 2007, but in the past six months, interest has heated up. As many as six students were enrolled in the 1-3 credit class this spring, observing animal behavior at Safari West inSanta Rosa and at the San Francisco Zoo.

At Safari West, two are studying cheetah mating behavior and the male-male aggression of patas monkeys. In San Francisco, one student is studying the behavior of mandrills.

Jaffe also is talking with Safari West about three more projects: water consumption of desert-adapted gazelles, cross-species fostering by gazelles and mating behavior of de Brazza’s monkeys.

As an undergraduate at UC SanDiego, Jaffe studied the behavior of Bornean and Mumatran orangutans, and from 1997-1999 she lived in Kenya, doing dissertation research by studying the ways vervet and patas monkeys struggle against predators.

A patas monkey at Safari West.

She uses examples from her own field studies as a way to enrich the classroom experience.

“I believe that being able to talk about concepts using my own experiences brings them to life for the students in a way that doesn’t happen if they simply read about them,” Jaffe said.

She also has the credibility to foster partnerships with organizations that teach her students while also helping the animals.

“This really gives the students a lower cost research experience without having to travel in the field like to South America, which has a very high cost,” Jaffe said.

“I think it is a valuable opportunity for students to work with zoos. Zookeepers already have a full time job, and it can be difficult for them to spend the necessary time to observe and collect data to answer some questions.”

Along the way, her students get the opportunity to explore their options after graduation, determining whether they like behavioral anthropology and want to pursue graduate degrees.

Dan Cusimano earned a BA in anthropology from SSU in 2011, accepting internships at Safari West and then going to work for the private wildlife preserve after graduation.

“It gave me a chance to see what I wanted to do,” Cusimano said. He now works at Safari West as the Research and Education Coordinator and has asked students in the SSUPER program for help with several projects.

“Good research is beneficial to our animals and the zoology world,” he said. He also has confidence is the student researchers because he knows they work with Jaffe much like he did, and because he is familiar with what they will have already have learned in classwork.

“The primary objective of our research program is ensuring a high quality of life for the animals,” Cusimano said.

Jaffe points to two other students who have similar success stories.

Natalie Hambalek worked on the squirrel monkey program in 2012 and graduated this spring with a BA in Biology. She will start a PhD program in Zoology at Oregon State University.

While enrolled in Jaffe’s primate behavior methods class, Marcia K. Brown studied mandrill dominance hierarchies at the SF Zoo. After earning a BA in Anthropology in 2010, she decided she enjoyed it so much that she returned for an MA in Biological Anthropology.

Jaffe is heartened by the increase in observation requests from SafariWest, which allows animals to roam in open range areas, and the San Francisco Zoo, which has more traditional enclosures. She also is pursuing the Oakland Zoo, hoping to develop a similar partnership.

“It might be something such as perceived animal aggression,” she said. “But the keepers aren’t able to observe an animal in the same way as a student.

“After research has been completed we might find that the animals are aggressive only 3% of the time, but it just happens that is the time they were observed by the zoo staff.”

Jaffe maintains a list of students who are interested in research from which she draws when opportunities become available. She and the student then come up with a general outline of what is to be accomplished.

More experienced students, such as those in a master’s program, are given more latitude to change the parameters of observation. Jaffe believes the SSUPER program will help attract graduate students as it grows.

“Potential students see the opportunity of doing this type of research rather than trying to absorb the cost of traveling to the field or interning at one of the larger zoos in the country.”

Along with providing the opportunity for students and helping zookeepers, Jaffe hopes to compile her data and present it to the American Zoology Society or the Applied Ethology Society as an example of what can be accomplished with this kind of partnership.



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Nick Walden is our Rohnert Park + Cotati correspondent.
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