BY HELENA FITCH-SNYDER
Update: Helena Fitch-Snyder now works as a primate behavior associate specialist at the California National Primate Research Center
I work for the Zoological Society of San Diego at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES). As Research Associate in the Behavior Division, I study the behavior of selected species in our collection. I have had the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of animals over the past 17 years, but my primary focus has been on the behavior of primates and carnivores.
Primates have always been fascinating to me, not only because of their similarity to humans, but also because their behavior and social systems are so diverse. Since much of my work concerns captive propagation, I am especially rewarded whenever we have reproductive successes. I enjoy getting to know individual primates and watching how various behavioral characteristics are passed down from one generation to the next. There is always more to learn about primates, even in species that have been studied extensively.
Most of my primate studies are of the old world monkeys and Asian prosimians. I am especially interested in lorises, lion-tailed macaques, and Chinese golden monkeys. The focus of my research concerns captive propagation, management, and husbandry. Many of these projects are also linked with field research and conservation work.
There are exciting opportunities for primatologists in zoological gardens, but paid positions are very limited. Like most other fields, the keys to getting started are enthusiasm, persistence and experience. If you have a serious interest in this field, my advise is to get as much hands-on experience as you can. Research experience can be obtained in college by taking courses that give training in behavioral research methods. You may also receive class credit for doing an Independent Study at a local zoo or primate lab. If you have the money, you can get training through programs such Earthwatch and School for Field Studies. Volunteer opportunities are listed on Primate-Jobs, and other experience may be available through local wildlife and animal organizations.
Only a few of the larger zoos have research departments that are able to offer paid positions such as mine. Most zoo researchers are expected to find funding for their own projects, even if they are permanent employees. The majority of primate job opportunities include positions as keepers, technicians, and curators. A four-year college degree in zoology, conservation biology, wildlife management or animal behavior is usually the minimum requirement for these positions. Advanced degrees will better enable you to initiate your own projects, apply for grants, and compete for job openings. Work with primates in a zoo setting can be very demanding, and it may not always be financially rewarding. A successful career in this field requires a strong commitment and an appreciation for the intrinsic rewards.
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.