Health and Medicine Primate Behavior Research

Kara McSpadden, UT Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research

I quickly realized the value of an internship when I discovered how competitive it is to obtain a career researching and working with primates. This is why the University of Texas Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research (KCCMR) was a perfect choice for my internship. Established in 1975, by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the research center provides veterinary and research services along with specialized animal species, such as nonhuman primates, for biomedical and behavior research. The center has many ongoing research programs, which focus on cancer, blood born and infectious diseases, cellular immunology, aging and behavior, just to name a few.

The Keeling Center encompasses approximately 381 acres, where I had the privilege of working in a special area dedicated to the National Chimpanzee Biomedical Research Program. The chimpanzees live in a variety of indoor and outdoor enclosures that provide ample opportunities for exercise and enrichment. The largest enclosures are called “corrals”. There are ten corrals total, eight of which are located together in the older, main area and two corrals located close by in a newer section.  Each corral has an adjacent indoor den and is big enough to house social groups of 7-12 adult chimpanzees with offspring. The facility also has 15 smaller living areas called Primadomes.  These domes provide housing for smaller groups of 2-8 and are also used to help quarantine new arrivals and chimpanzees that may be on infectious study protocols. I will note that the chimpanzees are used very sparingly in research. They are reserved for studies that pose a significant threat to human health and for which no other animal is available.

My first few weeks were spent with my mentors learning how to collect data along with learning the chimpanzees’ names and distinguishing them from one another. I did this by sitting at each enclosure with picture flash cards, calling out names while feeding an occasional graham cracker to whoever responded. Since I am helping with behavior studies, the first weeks were also spent learning various data collection techniques. The main study I am focusing on is a transport stress behavior study. I am responsible for collecting and summarizing the data on the most recent chimpanzees to arrive at the facility.

This study will determine behavioral effects of transport and relocation, and also establish if there are any physiological changes in the chimpanzees. When the study is completed, the findings will hopefully provide insight into the time required for physiological measures to return to normal levels after transport and relocation.  The physiological adjustment process has consequences not only for captive primate welfare, but also for questions related to the suitability of subjects for biomedical research. These complications may be critical when determining how long after their transport and relocation experimental protocols should begin.

Even though the previously mentioned study is my main focus at KCCMR, I also had the privilege to attend a weeklong primate training and enrichment workshop held at the center. People from all over the world came to attend this training course.  It was developed to help individuals involved in animal husbandry learn how to problem solve and provide training and enrichment to their animals. At first I was just there to sit in and listen, but the next thing I knew, I was involved with all the activities planned for the week. I even had a chance to make my supervisors proud by developing an enrichment device for the chimpanzees!  The device my group developed was a puzzle feeder. Since the chimpanzees are very intelligent and are easily bored, it is good to have feeding devices that cause them to work and forage for their food.  We drew plans on how to build the apparatus and then sent them to the onsite machine shop. Once our enrichment devices were developed, we filmed the primates using them. After filming each one, we then watched the footage and everyone voted on the best one; and guess who won? My group!  Everyone in the group seemed to think I had a gift for gab so I was in charge of explaining how we came up with the concept and how it was supposed to work. I must say, it was a good way to start my first few weeks at KMCCR.

The experience I have gained while at KMCCR has been invaluable.  Everyone has been extremely helpful during my internship at the research center.  I have been privileged to work around such beautiful and intelligent creatures and I have learned a lot about myself in the process. If you are still wondering if interning during your college career is the right thing to do, just know that the experience you will gain will only help you in the endeavors of your life.  It is hard work and a bit time consuming but the challenges you will face will only help you in the future.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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