Primate Rescue Center

Eastern Kentucky University Students Practice Animal Enrichment With Primate Rescue Center Chimps

Erika Fleury August 04, 2014

Eastern Kentucky University students got up close and personal with 11 chimpanzees at the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville on Tuesday.

Dr. Radhika Makecha, assistant professor of psychology at EKU, is teaching a three-credit summer course about animal enrichment to seven animal-studies and psychology majors. When animals are enclosed, like at a zoo or a farm, much of their natural behavior is lost, Makecha explained. Her students are keeping animals mentally and physically stimulated by providing them with specific objects and interaction, and observing the results of that stimulation.

The idea for the course, which is in its first year, came from a discussion between Makecha and psychology department chair Dr. Robert Brubaker. “(Brubaker) said he wanted to get the students out and about traveling a little bit,” Makecha said. “I said, ‘One thing we can do is see if these facilities will collaborate with us and allow us to design some enrichment. That would be a fun class.’”

Students spent the first half of the course studying animal enrichment and researching the behavior of different species. In weeks five and six, they began designing objects for their species, in addition to data sheets. The final weeks of the course are designated for traveling to regional facilities such as the Louisville Zoo, where the students observed lions; and EKU’s Meadowbrook Farms, where they observed pigs.

Two students, Susanne Stermer and Sara Southwick, were assigned to study the chimpanzees at the Primate Resource Center. “I’m especially excited today because I built most of these objects with my partner,” Stermer said. “I’ve never had a class like this before.” Stermer and Southwick observed the chimpanzees before and after placing enrichment devices in the enclosure. Objects included everything from frozen-fruit popsicles to puzzles. 

Makecha said she has enjoyed watching not only the animals become stimulated, but her students as well. “I’m learning a lot along with them, and it’s just nice to have such a close-knit group,” she said. “In the classroom, you get to do some application, but not as much as we’re able to do with this work right now.” Makecha also said that the regional facilities have been cooperative and conducive to the group’s needs.

Eileen Dunnington of the Primate Rescue Center believes the center’s relationship with the students is mutually beneficial. “It’s really special to work with young students who are curious about animals in general and chimpanzees in particular, because we’re always trying to foster that interest,” Dunnington said. “And not only to have them generally interested in chimps, but interested in providing them with better lives in captivity.”

Our very own Sanctuary Manager, Eileen Dunnington!

Students like Stermer are considering their experiences in the course preparation for their future careers. “I decided I needed to follow my heart and do what I love, what I’m passionate about, and that’s animals,” Stermer said. “Hopefully one day I can do something to improve animal welfare.”

- The Jessamine Journal

All photos courtesy The Jessamine Journal. Additional photos can be viewed here.

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