Saturday, September 3, 2016

Chimpstravaganza and Primatepalooza

Last week and the previous weekend, I was at the biggest gathering of primatologists EVER. It was mostly very fun, and very amazing. And very tiring.

This was my first conference in which I live-tweeted, which was a lot of fun! I also got to meet some of my "twitter friends." Whale biologist Shane Gero (who presented in a symposium on the convergence of whales and primates) put together a pretty cool sociogram of the IPS/ASP twitter network.

Shane Gero's awesome sociogram--I'm pretty central!

At Chimps in Context, I presented an e-poster, Socio-behavioral Convergence of Female Affliative Behaviors in Pan and Ateles. Frans de Waal liked it, so I think it was a success :)

 Thanks to Alex Georgiev for taking the pic!

At the IPS/ASP meetings, I had a podium presentation on Grooming Networks in Captive Chimpanzees and Bonobos.

Thanks to my co-author Emily Boeving for taking the pic!

Here are some of my big take-aways from both meetings:
  • Spider monkeys and bonobos are my true loves
  • Comparative research between species yields the most interesting findings (which is why I keep moving on to different species!)
  • Female bonobos reach puberty WAY earlier than female chimpanzees, and immigrate earlier, but reproduce at the same age--what's going on?
  • Geoffroy's spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) have joined the Top 25 most endangered primates, and this breaks my heart :(
  • There's a site where female spider monkeys form linear dominance hierarchies, which is CRAZY! It's likely due to habitat degradation that is forcing them into more contest competition
  • Several spider monkey researchers (including myself), are highlighting the amazing convergence between  spider monkeys (Ateles) and chimps/bonobos (Pan)--but we really need to get the chimp and bonobo researchers on board!
  • Chimp research is still largely dominated by a few East African chimp sites--which is a shame because there are some great central and western chimpanzees sites (including Fongoli)!
  • Researchers studying other primates are frustrated with constantly being told that they should be studying chimps or that their research is less important/interesting/meaningful/relevant because it's not chimpanzees
  • This is particularly annoying because from my past interview experiences, if you want to study chimpanzees after studying other primates, it's seriously questioned why you are interested in them/if you are sufficiently qualified to study chimpanzees
  • live-tweeting can really run your phone battery down--so it's a good idea to bring your charger, and tweet selectively!
  • I had lots of close encounters with Jane Goodall, but when I was introduced to her I said "hi," shook her hand... and silence. I could have told her what I study, or asked for a picture, instead... awkward silence, Ooops.
  • My major fangirl moment was seeing Karen Strier talking to Jane Goodall! 
  • Several friends mentioned really horrible field experiences--no one really talked about them in detail, but it's a lot more common than I'd thought. 
  • My tattoo is gorgeous, and Stephen Nash is proud that I'm the second person to get a tattoo of his artwork... but it was not a strong contender in the tattoo contest. I just can't compete with the full-color ones! 
  • Primatologists have very mixed results when you tell them you are studying humans
  • There's still a lot of disagreement on the ethics of keeping primates in laboratory settings, welfare in captive settings across the board, and the retirement of lab primates to sanctuaries--and it's a VERY tense subject
  • The job market for primatologists REALLY sucks--and while it's bad for all of us swimming in a small, dried-up pool, it's also very concerning for the endangered primates who really need us
  • While primatology is a female-dominated discipline, seeveral friends and I had a few experiences that reminded us that it sexism is still an issue in our discipline
  • 10 days of conferencing is an endurance event, and there are a ton of talks/sessions I wanted to go do, but food, sleep, socializing, and recharging (my brain, my phone, and my laptop) won out.
  • IPS 2018 is in Nairobi, Kenya, and IPS 2020 is in Quito, Ecuador! Since I've been dying to go to South America for pretty much forever, I'm hoping to head to Quito in four years.
  • As great it is to talk about and learn about primates, it's always fun to ditch out on part of a conference to watch primates.
Macaques at Lincoln Park Zoo during Chimps in Context

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Identity Matters in Science

 In April, I went down to Chambana (U of Illinois, my alma mater and the location for my new postdoc) for the 21st Century Working Scientists meeting. The meeting was about engaging in science communication, public outreach, and broadening participation in science. Danielle Lee was the keynote speaker and spoke about bringing your identity into outreach. We all set goals for what we wanted to accomplish in our scientific communication, and the ways that we wanted to approach it. Danielle's approach to blogging (and scientific communication in general) was the opposite of mine. She was all about bringing her whole identity to blogging. That means stating exactly who she is, and what she thinks, and how that affects her science. The reason I stopped blogging a few years ago was because I was afraid to do that. I was overly-anxious about how others may perceive me based on my writing, particularly search committees. For a two-year period, I averaged about an interview a month, so I knew that they would probably be googling me and reading anything I put out on the internet. It strait-jacketed my ability to write at all. I worried that if I wrote about captive animal welfare, or my feelings about using primates in biomedical research, or the challenges of being a woman of color in science, that it could detrimentally affect my career prospects.

My perspective on this has changed. I used to think that if I highlighted my research background and focus on the science, that's all that mattered. But I've learned that it doesn't work that way. We don't conduct or disseminate our research in a vacuum, and we can't leave the sociocultural context at the door. It follows into classrooms and labs and field sites. It shapes the opportunities we get, the way our colleagues treat us, and the social and intellectual environment in which we try to do research, writing, and outreach.

Many of the events in the past month have made it hard to focus on research, writing and science. How do you focus on your work when social media is constantly blowing up with the latest tragedy? In the past month, we've seen the deadliest mass shooting targeting LGBTQA, predominantly Latinx individuals. With Trump's campaign egging on hatred and xenophobia, and anti-Islamic sentiment, Muslims and Sikhs are facing increased risks for hate crimes and racial profiling in the US. After the Brexit vote, hate crimes are surging in the UK as well. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Bangaladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, there's been a spate of attacks, some of which target either holy sites or Muslims celebrating Eid. While it's clear that ISIS is targeting devout, observant Muslims, many Americans are still equating Muslims (and Sikhs, and anyone that looks brownish or Middle Eastern or South Asian) with terrorism. And in the past two days we watched the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile streaming across social media. These murders are just two in a long list of police violence against black people. And then at the ensuing protests at Dallas, there was another deadly shooting targeting the police officers at the event. And it continues...I'm scared to hear about what might be next.

I'm tempted to block out all media, hide out, and try to focus on my writing goals for this summer. But that's hard to do. It's hard to live in country where there are so many ordinary citizens owning guns and harboring hatred for anyone who is an "other." It's hard to live in a country where the police target, harass, and murder for people for being black or brown. It's hard to sign into Facebook and see some of my friends liking hateful, racists memes. It's hard to live in country where the Republican presidential nominee is outrightly encouraging xenophobic and misogynistic hate toward pretty much anyone who isn't white (or Christian, or straight, or male).

In this social and political climate, it's hard to be an "other." I'm not part of a heavily targeted group, so I have it easier than many others (in case you were wondering, I'm Indian, Catholic, and my last name is Portuguese). But I've certainly encountered my share of microaggressions, some of which are based on either my actual identity, or what people perceive me to be (people usually assume I'm Latina, but occasionally I've also been mistaken for a variety of other ethnicities). My last international conference experience (to Canada, a place that I thought was racially progressive compared to the US!) was definitely marred by the "flying while brown" treatment. In the past year I've become increasingly anxious as xenophobic sentiment has increased in the US. It really hit home for me when a Sikh man was brutally attacked while driving in my community, just down the road from where my childhood church and high school.

It's hard to not feel anxious when this sort of violence is a reality. In the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Danielle wrote that she is Too Traumatized to Science, and I'm going to add to that. In a social and political climate where minorities and "others" live in a state of fear and anxiety, it takes a psychological toll. If want the culture of scientific research to actually be "inclusive" and "diverse" we need to recognize that, and make space to deal with it. As a whole, we need to acknowledge that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, that gay lives matter, and that when social and political issues affect some of us, it affect all of us.

I'm back in Chambana now, working with a girls science camp. We've been discussing with them the ways in which identity influences the scientific process, and how diverse perspectives result in better bioengineering. I'm glad that they are learning this lesson now--it's one that I think all of us would have benefited from a bit earlier in our scientific training.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What can we learn from Harambe's death?

Images of Harambe from the Gladys Porter Zoo 

Over the past few days, several people have asked me for my opinion on Harambe's death. Was his behavior aggressive? How much of a danger did he pose to little Isaiah? Could they have rescued Isaiah without shooting Harambe? Is it cruel and/or dangerous to keep apes in zoos?*

I've waited to respond to these questions in detail, because my full response is longer than I want to devote a Facebook comment, and I wanted some time to reflect. My initial response, like many, was to blame the parents for being inattentive, and to question if the zoo staff could have tried harder to find an alternate way to safely retrieve Isaiah. 

On reflection, I think it's a mistake to blame either the parents OR zoo staff. Yes, the parents should have kept a closer eye on their child. But almost every parent has had a moment when their kid slipped away. And the amount of hatred and vitriol directed specifically at the mother--not the father, who was also present--is disturbing (see Barbara King's NPR column for some perspective on this). I suspect that the harsh criticism and public shaming of the mother is partially rooted in both sexism and racism.

Some blame the zoo for not designing a secure, child-proof enclosure, but I also think that this is a bit unfair. Yes, every zoo enclosure SHOULD keep animals safely in, and human visitors safely out. But it passed previous inspections, and has been safe from human intrusion for decades. Unfortunately, no exhibit is completely human- or animal-proof, and often we don't recognize the flaws in barriers UNTIL a wily human or animal finds it. 

As much as I wish that the zoo staff could have found a way to safely retrieve Isaiah without harming Harambe, I know they followed their protocol and made a decision that prioritized human safety. I don't think that human lives are intrinsically more valuable than gorilla lives. Both are important and meaningful to me. But for obvious ethical and legal reasons, zoos are obligated to prioritize the safety of humans above the lives of the animals. Zoos have trained response teams whose job is to evaluate situations in which an animal is endangering humans, and make these split-second decisions. The keepers tried calling in the gorillas--the females in the group went in, but Harambe did not. Tranquilizers are almost never a viable option in these situations, because they will likely result in a more agitated animal who could behave unpredictably.  

I've seen a lot of different interpretations of Harambe's behavior from primatologists I respect--some state that Harambe's actions were aggressive display behavior, others interpret it as protective or playful behavior (I recommend reading/listening/viewing the perspectives from Frans de Waal, Craig Stanford, Scott Suarez, Barbara King, Ian Redmond, and Amy Parish). From the video clips I've seen, I can see both--Harambe stands protectively over Isaiah, and seems to be holding his hand and shielding his body at a couple points. But at other points he drags Isaiah around, and that looks like a display. It's possibly he was displaying, it's possibly he was dragging Isaiah around to protect him--but either way, human children are fragile, and Isaiah's life was in danger. I think it's possible that keeper staff might have been able to eventually calm and distract Harambe--but waiting to do so meant risking greater harm to Isaiah.

Can we learn from this?

Unfortunately, neither hindsight nor assigning blame will bring Harambe back. So instead, I think it's more productive to think about ways we can learn from it, and if there's anything positive that can come from it. I do find it encouraging that so many people care about Harambe, and hope this can be a learning opportunity for the public.

1. When visiting zoos we need to be mindful and respectful of the animals.

One thing that is striking in the video of Harambe and Isaiah is that it's clear the visitor noise and commotion is agitating Harambe, and contributing to the escalation of his display behavior. While, hopefully, none of us will be in this situation in the future, I've seen this play out in much more subtle ways while observing zoo animals. When zoo visitors see aggression, displays, or agitated animals, they react loudly. Sometimes particularly obnoxious humans will  elicit or exacerbate the situate by banging on exhibit glass, or making threatening motions and gestures. Many primates are threatened by intense staring (which is often perceived as a challenge), open-mouthed facial expressions (which is a threat behavior), and large, expansive gestures (which look like displays). Try to avoid making these sort of unintentional threat behaviors. If your kids are doing so, take them away from the exhibit and have them run off their energy at one of the zoo playgrounds instead. 

2. Keep a close eye on your children at the zoo, and read and obey posted signs.

Obviously no one intends to lose their kid, but often I have seen people keep less than a watchful eye on their kids at the zoo. Additionally, a lot of adults disregard signs that are posted for the sake of both the animals well-being and human safety. One summer when I was observing rhino behavior for a zoo welfare project, I saw some of the interesting reactions people had when thye read a sign that said that the rhino may spray urine. Some read the sign and immediately avoided the whole area. Others laughed and moved in closer--even when the rhino was backing up and lifting his tail (a sure sign that spraying was about to occur). 

3. If you care of the lives of gorillas, contribute to conservation efforts. 

All gorillas species and subspecies are endangered or critically endangered in the wild (see the IUCN red list). Their major threats are humans poaching (primarily for bushmeat, but babies often end up in the pet trade), Ebola, mining, and logging. Both hunting and disease transmission are facilitated by logging. Logging concessions establish roads and logging camps, which increase contact with humans, as well as provide infrastructure to bring bushmeat to urban markets. Furthermore, coltan mining similarly threatens gorillas in Central Africa. While we may believe we have little to do with these threats, it's our behavior within the global market that drive these activities. 

What You Can Do To Conserve Gorillas

4. Avoid sharing pictures/video of humans interacting with primates or other wild animals.

It may seem cute and harmless, but you are are contributing to industries of exploitation. This includes both the illegal pet trade, as well as individuals and organizations that keep animals in cruel and abusive situations for entertainment. Furthermore, it gives people (both adults and children), the idea that interacting with wild animals can be safe or fun. Kids are particularly impressionable, and if they see pictures/video of people playing with wild animals, of course they are going to want to do it to (I highly recommend reading  Please Do not Hug the Dangerous Wildlife  and watching Is Social Media Saving or Enslaving the Slow Loris for more information about this).

5. Remember Harambe with respect and dignity.

Gorillas are intelligent animals with complex emotions and social relationships, and I'm certain he will be missed and mourned by both his gorilla family and the humans who cared for him. My heart breaks for his keepers, and the female gorillas Mara and Chewie. Silverback gorillas are the center of gorillas social groups, and it will probably be difficult for Mara and Chewie to adjust to Harambe's absence. Silverback must protect their groups from takeovers from bachelor groups, as well as threats from human poachers. While we can't be certain of his intentions when interacting with Isaiah, I suspect that his actions were rooted in protecting his group.

* I believe it is ethical to keep great apes in zoos, and am confident that AZA-accredited zoos prioritize animal welfare. However, I've avoided addressing this subject here, because that delving into that topic requires it's own post.