Monday, June 17, 2013

Elephant "Tails" vs. Truths

           When I was offered a position as a research assistant for Think Elephants International I was an elephant newbie. I had never seen an elephant in person and certainly had never thought that I would be qualified to study such a high profile, charismatic species. This seeded a number of preconceived notions in my mind about what elephants were like. I can say that after being in the Golden Triangle working with the elephants for over a week, everything I expected about these animals was wrong.

            The first of these preconceived misconceptions stems from my background with horses and hoof-induced broken toes. I was very concerned when I first came in contact with the elephants that they would step on my feet and that it was really a poor choice by my colleagues to sport flip flops around. As it turns out elephants are incredibly self-aware and have very thoughtful control over their body parts. I watched over and over as one carefully placed her foot within inches of an exposed set of toes but never delivering what could be a crushing blow.

            To put my next preconceived notion bluntly, I expected the elephants to smell horrific. I have experience in horse barns and zoos and often times have been confronted by foul animal odors. Again I was proven wrong! Now I am not suggesting that anyone get up close and personal with elephant dung but I was amazed by the pleasant earthy smell that accompanies these creatures. Because elephants only absorb about 40% of what they eat most of what comes out the other end is the same plant matter that went in. Regardless this was one of the most pleasant surprises I had in my first week here.

            When I arrived I had a very firm belief that there was no way that a full-grown elephant would ever be able to sneak up on me. These animals are huge and in my mind that equated to huge sounds warning me of their arrival. As it turns out elephants have a thick padding of fat around their feet that makes them almost silent (when they aren’t busy pulling down trees or trumpeting to one another). On one of my first days watching the elephants bathe in the river, I was busy snapping photos of the joyful aquatic play when I felt a hot breeze across my head. I turn around shocked to find a full-grown female standing inches away from me questioning why I was acting as a barrier between her and her afternoon swim. This was a startling but still fascinating lesson to learn about elephants.

            I also assumed that the elephants would have slight differences in temperament but for the most part have similar dispositions. Well to my very pleasant surprise I have already gotten to witness a number of the different personalities that present themselves at TEI. There are the young and rambunctious and the old and leisurely but then there are the gentle youth and the spirited elderly. It is still too early for me to fully understand the breadth of personality hidden within the elephants here but I can say that is one of the things I look forward to most in this next year.

            To say that being here is unreal is an understatement. The fact that everyday I will be learning something new about one of the world’s most awe-inspiring animals is a dream come true. I love each moment that one of my pre-conceived notions is shattered and another quirky, fascinating lesson learned. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking Forward to ele-FUN with Think Elephants!

By Lisa Barrett (incoming research assistant)

This past spring, a friend told me about the research assistantship with Think Elephants International (TEI), and I was ecstatic. A professor had forwarded her an email from Josh (TEI Founder). After having grown up playing “vet” with my Brittany spaniel and observing the behavioral patterns of deer in my backyard, I knew I wanted to pursue a career involving animals—perhaps as a veterinarian. However, I decided against this career path after gaining some firsthand experience as a kennel assistant. I didn’t especially like seeing animals sick and having to appease their owners, but rather I preferred to contribute to animal research. It was after a trip to South Africa with People to People Student Ambassadors during which I observed a young elephant that I decided how I wanted to spend the rest of my life: as an elephant researcher or conservationist.

It may seem like this decision was a bit rash, but, driven by my intense passion to study animals, I quickly began searching for opportunities to whet my skills as an animal behavior researcher anyway! During the course of my studies in Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Michigan, I participated in several different research endeavors. I helped create molds and casts of an ancient whale from Egypt; I studied squirrel monkey ranging behavior in Costa Rica; I analyzed scaling patterns of mastication in mammals; I found relationships between quality of parental care and feather brightness of offspring in Eastern bluebirds; and I investigated fox squirrel tolerance of humans and social cognition as part of my honors thesis. This latter project, which comprised my independent honors thesis project with Dr. John Mitani, really piqued my interest and helped me to determine my specific research interests. Thus, my honors thesis work, combined with my longstanding fascination with elephants, especially makes me very excited to study elephant cognition with the Think Elephants team.

I am also eager to contribute to the education side of working with TEI. At Michigan, I learned about the importance of educating others, especially children, in order to make a lasting impact. I developed and coordinated an after-school dance program for first- and second-grade students in southwest Detroit through a student-run, service-learning non-profit organization called The Detroit Partnership. I was fortunate to be able to impart my passion (for dance) onto students through this weekly program, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the dancers learn and grow. Most importantly, I learned how to work with community members to give them resources to achieve their goals. As an intern at the Philadelphia Zoo (near my home town of Pottstown, PA), I translated my passion for animal research by educating guests about animal behavior and conservation and what they could do on a daily basis to help change the world. This experience was extremely rewarding, and I look forward to using my skills specific to these experiences as an RA with TEI. 

I am looking forward to the year ahead, both to contribute to important cognitive research with implications for conservation and to educate and inspire guests and children. I am already finding that the incoming research assistants and I share the same passion to study elephants—demonstrated first and foremost by our enthusiasm to move to Thailand for one year—!