Meet with Betsy Herrelko, primatologist

Susara R. Fariña & Marta Romeu, Máster en Primatología Universitat de Girona · Fundació Mona, 2014-16

We are with Betsy Herrelko, an American primatologist who began her studies in psychology at Fordham University, Bronx, New York (2003). She realized a Master of arts in psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York (2006), and her first purpose for her thesis was working with ungulates; but unexpectedly, something shifted his career, deriving her into the world of primatology. Since that time, her talent and motivation pushed her in a continuous journey of effort and hard work, reaching, gradually, their dreams.

Here you have an interesting interview with this wonderful woman:


“Hi Betsy, we have been investigating your amazing professional life and we have some questions.

When you started your studies in psychology, did you know you wanted to specialize in the animal field or did it appear as courses went by?

I always knew I wanted to study animals, I just wasn’t sure what options were out there other than being a vet. In high school I started watching Scientific American episodes on PBS (Public Broadcasting Station in the US) that followed the work of folks who studied animal behavior and cognition. That helped me focus on animal behavior through psychology.

Big part of primatologists have their beginnings in psychology. Sometimes this connection doesn’t seem very clear. How would you explain this fact?

There are many routes to studying animal behavior in primates or any other species. Psychology is a popular route because the field teaches you to about the brain and how it is related to behavior. One of the benefits of studying psychology in college is that students get a head start on the concepts of behavioral research from project design to statistical analyses and write up (it isn’t always covered in a biology or zoology undergraduate program). When it comes to applying for jobs in animal behavior, you might often see that job post that requests a degree in biology, psychology, or a related field. The more education you seek the more opportunities there are to cross study. Even though I have been in psychology programs for all of my degrees, I have taken biology, neuroscience, and anthropology courses. Every little bit of knowledge helps!

In the beginning we saw you expected to dedicate your investigation studies to the ungulates, but unexpectedly they offered you a job with monkeys for your thesis. How did this opportunity appear? How would you describe the experience? Was it the first time you worked with primates? What did this change mean to you?

The opportunity to study squirrel monkeys came up because of a change in their animal management/husbandry scenario at the zoo. A troop of squirrel monkeys were being relocated from an indoor-only exhibit to an outdoor island. The staff new I wanted to do a research study and they could benefit from having an extra set of eyes on their collection animals in the new environment. It was a lot of work in the hot summer weather, but I learned an incredible amount about behavioral research and zoo politics. It was a great experience! It formed the basis of my Master’s thesis and launched my career in working with primates. This was the first time I worked with primates and since it was an observational study, it was a great way to ease into primatology. It wasn’t a really big change for me because while I was hoping to study ungulates, I was still very new to the field and had a lot to learn. It helps to be open to every experience you can get.

Will you go back someday to your initial idea of studying ungulates? If it’s the case, what characteristics of these animals would push you to do it? Are they similar to primates in any way?

While my expertise is now with great apes and I would find it difficult to leave that field completely, I would love to design behavioral projects with ungulates. They are similar to primates in that they think and are intelligent for their own reasons, but they are different. Ungulates are gorgeous creatures that have behavioral sensitivities that are very different from primates. I have learned from my colleagues that managing hoofstock is a different art than working with primates. My research interested would be to focus on animal management- and welfare-related issues. What enclosure modifications can we make to help skittish animals relax and be more receptive to having visitors view them?

In your professional path, have you been inspired by someone to push you to follow their steps?

I have worked in zoos for the past 14 years (first as a volunteer, then staff) and have been fortunate to acquire incredible mentors along the way. From a distance I have always admired the work of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Frans de Waal.

As I have worked my way through education and zoo life, I have been excited to work with Hannah Buchanan-Smith (an incredible animal welfare scientist) and Sarah-Jane Vick (a wonderful cognitive psychologist). All of these individuals have inspired me to follow their paths in some way. But everyone’s experiences are different and I have taken advice from each of them for my own journey.

Imagen3 Imagen2 dewaal

You are an honorary member of the Research Associate of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. What does this title mean?

To be an Honorary Research Associate means that I am affiliated with an organization in a research capacity. When it comes to disseminating information about the research I have conducted at their facility, it means that I can list their organization on my publications and presentations.

Before moving to Scotland, you were working at The Gorilla Foundation in California. How was the experience of working in the care of big apes?

Working as an animal keeper with great apes is an incredible honor and responsibility. They are magnificent, intelligent creatures that require a great deal of attention and care. I was also able to gain experience from the business side of a non-profit animal organization. Overall it was a great learning opportunity.

Now you are working in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. What is your role there? What do you think about zoos? How do you think animals face aspects such as such a different climate or life in captivity?

My role at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is as a research fellow. More specifically, I am the David Bohnett Cognitive Research Fellow working on a cognitive bias project with gibbons, gorillas, and orangutans. I think that zoos are incredible resources for education, conservation, and research. Zoos are often the first experience the general public has with animals (other than domesticated animals); they are a window to the world and help folks relate to parts of the world that they might never see. Zoos face many challenges in caring for and working to save species. From the animal management standpoint zoos are always looking to improve animal care and while zoos cannot truly mimic life in the wild, they can provide many aspects of an animal’s natural history. One of the more important ones is the ability to problem solve and think through challenges. This comes in many forms and it might be as seemingly simple as being able to forage through substrate for food or a bit more complicated like participating in a research project using a touchscreen monitor.



You have also taken part in The Chimpcam Project. How was this project born, what does it consist in and what’s its finality?

The concept of the Chimpcam Project, a BBC/Animal Planet documentary, was developed by producer, John Capener. Late one night John was watching television, saw a horribly filmed show, and thought to himself, “a chimp could do a better job!” That’s how this project started. Through his production company under commission of the BBC and Animal Planet, they wanted to give chimps a camera that they could take around their enclosure and film whatever the liked. Whatever science we wanted to develop around that activity was up to us. From 2008-2009 we filmed the documentary as I worked on my PhD research. From the science side of things we developed a cognitive research program to give the chimpanzees experience with the concept of video (e.g. watching themselves in a mirror, then a tv monitor, touch screen training them and giving them video access to different parts of their large enclosure from the research rooms). The documentary first aired in January 2010.

Which primates have you had the opportunity to work with? What did this job consist in? With which has it been more difficult? And which would you like to add to the list?

I have had the pleasure of working with a few different primates over the years as a keeper or a researcher: squirrel monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and siamangs. Each species has its own challenges that are related to their natural history and motivation to participate in whatever it is you are asking them to do. My favorite species to work with so far have been chimpanzees and orangutans. They are incredibly different; generally speaking chimpanzees are very outgoing with their emotions and orangutans are a bit more reserved, but both are constantly thinking and manipulating their environment. I would love to add Old World monkeys to the list. They are clever in their own ways and would be helpful in understanding primates as a whole since I have worked with apes and New World monkeys.

From the big world of primates, is there one you like especially? Why?

I have a tremendous appreciation and respect for chimpanzees. Their social structure is complicated and as a result their social intelligence is incredibly impressive. They can be volatile, but also extremely gentle and kind to each other. They are challenging to work with in that they have a lot going on in their lives, but when you earn their trust, it is hugely rewarding. There is nothing better than playing with chimpanzees and hearing them laugh.

Betsy at one of the Research Pod test windows ready to record the behaviours of the chimps. (© Claire Gresswell)

We have seen that you have done studies about personality, mind theory, cognition… Aspects that in general are associated to an extremely continued tendency or on the oppositerupturist; to humanize or inhumanize these species. What do you think about it? Do you think it must follow this direction or maybe opt for a study at a intraspecific level and not an intraspecific comparative? We mean, studying these species without looking for similarities or differences to ours, abandoning that anthropocentric posture?

I am not quite sure what you mean by this question, so apologies if I miss the mark. I think it is very natural for humans to approach other species as being similar or different than ourselves. This can be good thing or a challenge depending upon what you are looking for in the outcome. As part of the scientific community we aim to approach these sorts of questions from a neutral perspective, but depending upon what we find it can be extremely helpful to translate the information in terms in which people can relate (often including information on how we, as humans, have impacted these animals). Often that means we are anthropocentric in our dissemination approach. If this is how we can best educate the general public, then it makes sense to include in one form or another. After all, we are living in the age of the Anthropocene.

In our master, we are making studies about personality, wellbeing and social networks. It seems to us that these three aspects are completely related, and for what we have read, to you too. Could you give us a brief explanation about what conclusions you have reached in your studies and how does this affect the balance between them for a good care of individuals in captivity?

Well that is a fairly complicated question, but I will do my best with this summary: I agree that personality, wellbeing, and social networks are related. The work I have done on all three of these things have been combined in different ways. The crux of personality and wellbeing can be cleverly portrayed through social network analyses, but can also be explored in other ways. Personality plays a role in everything we do in animal care and research and it can certainly reflect their wellbeing. Much like humans, who animals are (their personality/individual differences) impacts how they approach life: Extroverted vs introverted, optimistic vs pessimistic, etc. Good care for individuals in captivity must take these factors into consideration, but that has been happening for years. If you talk to any animal keeper about their animals, you will hear stories about their personalities. This topic has been a part of animal care for a long time and only recently (the past few decades) has become of prime interest in the scientific world. The challenge we now face is for the science of animal management to catch up to the “art” of animal management.



Of all the professionals that you’ve had the opportunity to work with, who have you been more comfortable with?

I have had the pleasure of working with many scientists and animal care professionals that I admire, but I am the most comfortable working with the Chimpcam team. This group consists of my mentors (Hannah Buchanan-Smith, Sarah-Jane Vick, and the animal care staff of Budongo at Edinburgh Zoo). The larger-scale project we worked on together had many ups and downs and by working through those challenges we became a well-oiled machine.

Do you know our director Miquel Llorente and Fundació Mona? Would you like to develop a study there? If it’s the case, about what?

I know Miquel through social media and the Fundació Mona though following their work online (and hearing about site visits from friends who also work with chimpanzees). I would like to develop a study in collaboration with Mona when the time and topic is right (everyone in the animal world is often so busy!), likely relating to the focus of the bulk of my work: linking how animals think to how they feel in pursuit of providing the best care.

You have always worked and investigated with primates in captivity. Would you like to try in a work camp? If you could teleport anywhere to see primates in their habitat, where and with what species would you go? Why?

I would appreciate the opportunity to work in the field, but since my expertise focuses on improving the lives of captive animals, my professional experiences have been limited to captive environments. I would love to teleport to various great ape habitats to experience life as they do (and while we’re teleporting, I’d like to add in the power of invisibility so I don’t disturb the groups).

What are your next projects?

My next projects are yet to be determined. My current contract (and grant) with National Zoo ends in August 2015 and I’m still working out the next step in life and the animal field.

How has your professional life affected your personal life? Is it possible to achieve a balance or have you have to leave something behind to achieve your dreams?

This is a great question. My professional life has a constant presence in my personal life because I found a career that feeds my soul. Working with animals is my identity and one I am proud to share personally and professionally. That said, it is possible to create a balance between the workload of your personal and professional life. I’m still working on this, but often this means leaving work at work and going home to focus on your friends and family (this includes pets). That focuses on more of the day-to-day challenge once you are working on a project, but one of the bigger challenges in this field is being able to “settle down” in one location. Often we work from grant to grant and have to move from location to location. In this sense my professional life has trumped my personal life. This challenge makes it easy to put your personal life on the back burner and routinely uproot your life to move for a new job. Since I am from a military family I approach it from the viewpoint that it’s not just where you are that’s home, it’s who you choose to spend your time with (through phone calls and in-person visits). In an ideal world we can work towards a job that we like that provides the security we desire (e.g. financial, fulfilling work, opportunities to develop close personal relationships, etc.). That stage is definitely an ongoing challenge.

If you close your eyes, where do you see yourself in a few years?

Good question! In a few years I see myself working to help improve care/the animal program within a zoological facility; working toward improved animal welfare, providing guidance on animal management issues, mentoring animal care staff, and helping an organization develop improved evidence-based management practices and disseminating information on the incredible abilities of the animals and the staff.

Thank you very much for giving us your time. We hope you’ve been comfortable answering the questions.

It’s been a pleasure.



Publicado por Máster en Primatología

Máster en Primatología organizado por la Fundació Innovació i Formació de la Universitat de Girona y promovido por la Fundació Mona. Cursos de Postgrado en Primatología. Prácticas reales e investigación con primates en santuarios, centros de recuperación y primates en libertad.


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