Since I was a kid, I have wanted to work with animals. I initially focused on what most young people think of as the coolest animal job to have and started to pursue becoming a veterinarian. As an undergraduate at Franklin and Marshall College, I was exposed to another field, animal behavior. It didn’t take long for my academic focus to change. I majored in Psychology and Biology and geared my training to study animal behavior. I started my work as an undergraduate focusing on non-human primates, rhesus macaques to be exact, and did a study on environmental enrichment with them. Enrichment is a buzzword you have probably heard already, but back then it was not as common and all the “toys” for animals were just starting to hit the market. With dreams of working out in the wilds of nature, I graduated and went to work with acorn woodpeckers in the rolling hills of Northern California.Actually, doing fieldwork made me decide that, although I liked being in the great outdoors, I really wanted to focus my research on animals in zoos. Now I have the best of both worlds!
Colony Life with Koalas
For the past 10 years, I have studied mate choice with our colony of koalas. This species is not always as entertaining as the primates, but just as interesting. The work started at the San Diego Zoo, but since then has expanded into various research projects in Australia. This means that I get to play field researcher without having to make the long-term commitment that I originally thought I was going to have to make. My work has expanded into field research that focuses on the plight of the koalas in Australia.
Over the past ten years, koala numbers in Queensland (Northern) have plummeted while Victoria (Southern) has concerns about over population. The Australian government finally listed the koala as vulnerable under national law, but only for Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The growing concern in Australia from the koala researcher perspective, no matter where, is that this still doesn’t do enough and that the other populations of koalas need just as much protection. Unfortunately, the Northern koalas (Queensland and New South Wales) like to make their homes in beachfront property, which humans covet as well. Between human encroachment and global climate change, the koalas face an uncertain future. This does not mean that we should lose hope—I have worked with koala field researchers doing fantastic work at the forefront of this challenge and they are making a difference when it comes to policies and laws concerning koalas. I am also excited (like all of you) to see how the koalas at the San Diego Zoo adapt to their new home opening soon. The Conrad Prebys Australian Outback will be the source of new and upcoming research for me with our koalas.
Still Monkeying Around
Not to leave the primates out, I have also started doing behavioral research again with our great apes and other monkeys around the Zoo. Those studies harken back to my roots of enrichment and take a look at husbandry and care issues.
I am an avid gardener with two children at home. Watching the monarch caterpillars transform into butterflies or planting new flowers that hummingbirds can use as food, are a couple of ways I love bringing joy of the natural world to my kids.
Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.