BY LINDA BRENT
Update: Linda Brent, a primate behaviorist, is founder and past president of Chimp Haven. She is now retired and serves as a trustee to the board.
Nonhuman primates are used in many areas of research, education and exhibition. All primates in captive conditions need individuals to take care of them. These primates may live in a zoo, a research laboratory, a university or even a sanctuary. Not only do the primates need food, water and shelter, but they also need social companionship and a stimulating environment in which to grow and develop. Primate husbandry is a broad term which includes providing basic care (primate caregivers or keepers), basic veterinary care (primate veterinary technicians), supervision of primate facilities (primate supervisor, manager or curators), and increased environmental stimulation (environmental enrichment technician). These positions overlap somewhat. For instance, many caregivers also provide some veterinary care and enrichment to the animals.
A primate caregiver provides all the daily care for the animals. This includes cleaning the cages, feeding the primates, checking on their health and behavior, keeping records, providing special care or medication for certain animals and other duties. The veterinary technician provides medical care of the primates, usually under the direction of the veterinarian. The duties of a technician can vary greatly, but may include care for sick or injured primates, monitoring primates on medical studies, minor emergency treatment such as suturing wounds, assistance with surgery and maintaining the medical records of the animals. The primate caregiver and technician report to the supervisor, manager or veterinarian.
The supervisor or manager has responsibility for the operation of an animal care area, including training of new employees, bookkeeping, recordkeeping, ordering supplies, monitoring budgets, maintaining high standards of animal care, and assuring compliance with applicable local, state and national laws regarding primate care and handling. The enrichment technician usually implements the environmental enrichment program for a primate facility. They may schedule enrichment items for each day, give out enrichment items like browse or toys, monitor the use of the enrichment items, monitor the behavior of the primates and assist with group introductions. The enrichment technician may work directly for the colony manager, veterinarian, or a behavioral primatologist.
The requirements for working in primate husbandry are diverse, often depending on the facility and the responsibilities of the position. A few facilities will hire individuals without any prior training, but will provide you with the necessary skills and knowledge to care for primates. Usually such positions will be for a primate caregiver or keeper. However, most other positions require some type of previous experience and training. College coursework or training programs in animal behavior, laboratory animal science, biology, zoology, psychology, primatology and anthropology will be helpful, and a bachelor level degree is often required. For example, if you are interested in becoming a veterinary technician, you can take coursework and training to become a Registered Veterinary Technician.
Facility managers often take courses in business management, animal science and finance. People working with laboratory primates may become certified as a Laboratory Animal Technician through a training and certification program by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. Individuals often start out as animal caregivers, and move up to veterinary technicians or managers. Environmental enrichment technicians are not as common in all facilities, but often have some training or experience in nonhuman primate behavior.
Positions in animal husbandry are often very competitive, and it may be difficult to obtain the experience required for even entry-level work. At zoos and some laboratories, there are often volunteer opportunities in which you can gain experience with primates and other animals. Paid internships and seasonal work may also be available. This will help in obtaining a permanent job. Salaries for positions in primate husbandry vary along with the position and responsibilities of the job.
Working with primates can be a wonderful experience. They are a diverse group of animals, ranging from tiny tamarins that can fit on your palm, to the large gorilla, and everything in between. Their behaviors are very complex, they have various physical appearances and abilities, and their social and cognitive abilities are amazing. Because of these attributes, primates can also be difficult. It is necessary to have a good knowledge of each primate species’ natural history to be able to care for them properly. Some are very strong and dangerous, others are easily injured or stressed. In addition, they require a high degree of intellectual challenge and stimulation to keep their minds and physical condition in top shape.
Because of their close relationship to humans, many diseases can be transmitted from nonhuman primates to us. Primates are also susceptible to human illnesses and diseases. These zoonoses are not to be taken lightly, and special safety precautions are required for working with primates to protect them and you. There are also many regulations regarding the care and use of nonhuman primates. The primate husbandry expert must be familiar with the standards of care required by the Animal Welfare Act. In addition, zoos, labs and sanctuaries may follow specific guidelines to maintain accreditation by a national association.
If you think you may be interested in nonhuman primate husbandry, you are probably an individual who is fascinated by primates, who has a caring attitude, who has a “hands-on” approach, and who is not afraid to get dirty. You will need to have a lot of patience when working with primates. You probably also have an interest in simply watching animals, which is important since we can learn much about their health and welfare this way.
To learn more about nonhuman primates, check out some books from your library. There are many sources of information on nonhuman primates, including books, newsletters and journals. If you want to see if this career path is of interest, sign up to volunteer at the zoo, or talk to a keeper or veterinarian from a local zoo, lab or sanctuary to get advice. The more experience and knowledge you have about nonhuman primates, the better your chances of employment and the more valuable you will be as a primate husbandry expert.
Primate Info Net (PIN) is maintained by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with countless grants and contributions from others over time. PIN is an ever-growing community effort: if you’d like to contribute, or have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.