When the rainforest is your office….
Every morning, it takes SU alumna Stephanie Braccini ‘02 about 20 minutes just to get from the front door to her office. That’s because, on the way, she stops to visit five gorillas, nine chimpanzees and four orangutans. Her work even takes her to the forests of Congo, Sumatra and Borneo.
Braccini is the Zoological Manager of Great Apes at the Saint Louis Zoo, the largest free-admission zoo in the country.
“No two days are ever the same,” Braccini said. “If I get tired of working on my computer, I can walk 13 steps and observe an orangutan. I enjoy the fact that I have a relationship with each and every animal in the building.”
Braccini’s work centers around behavioral observation in order to give the apes the optimal living environment. She spends her days interacting with each primate and researching ways to improve their experiences with each other.
One of Braccini’s most recent and successful projects at the zoo has been introducing two new male gorillas to the habitat. The zoo originally housed three males − an older silverback, a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old − but they began showing signs of aggression, abandoning their former friendly and good-natured relationship. In order to reintroduce play and harmony within the gorilla community, Braccini and her team contacted the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative breeding program, to bring in another younger male. Instead, they sent two half-brothers − one who was 8 and one who was 11 − who had never been separated.
Braccini spent the entire summer introducing these two new gorillas into the group, first to the oldest male and then to the two younger ones. Because of this endeavor, the Saint Louis Zoo is now home to the largest group of bachelor gorillas in North American zoos.
Thanks to the hard work of Braccini and her team, the 15-year-old and the new 11-year-old are best friends, and the silverback, Juma, has taken the 8-year-old under his wing.
“It’s really quite cute,” Braccini said. “You spend an entire summer hoping to introduce these boys to each other, hoping they’ll be good friends and take care of each other, and then to see that pay off is pretty amazing. It has been such a great challenge and opportunity.”
The zoo has also successfully integrated a new male orangutan into the habitat, bringing its total to two males and two females. They hoped that the new, younger male would mate with their two females. At the moment, he seems to still be settling into his new home and getting to know his companions.
“We are the only zoo I’m aware of that has two unrelated male orangutans living together,” Braccini said. “And they’re the best of friends, too!”
Through her work at the zoo, Braccini recently travelled to Sumatra and Borneo to observe wild orangutans. Last month, she returned from a trip to the Goualougo Triangle field site in the Congo, which has been featured in National Geographic and on the Discovery Channel’s new series about Africa, where she studied wild gorillas and chimpanzees.
“The trip to Congo was just breathtaking,” Braccini said. “It’s great to see that the same behaviors that captive apes are engaged in are the same behaviors we see in the wild. It’s great to know that my conservation efforts as an individual and at the Saint Louis Zoo are really paying off to help with conservation and the preservation of these endangered species.”
Braccini also teaches a class at Washington University at St. Louis titled “Observing Animal Behavior at the Saint Louis Zoo.” This 40-hour observation course allows students to pick an animal and study them for the semester and gives Braccini the opportunity to show off her primates.
“I’m transforming how these students will go to zoos forever,” Braccini said. “They will no longer just stop and take a few minutes to observe. I’m having them dissect behaviors and really look into what animals are doing and why. Students really seem to like it, and I really like it because I get a different perspective of research that I use for management reasons. It helps me know what’s going on with the animals all day every day.”
Braccini graduated from Southwestern in December 2002 with a degree in psychology and a minor in biology. She said she initially picked Southwestern so she could work with Jesse Purdy, a psychology professor who specializes in animal behavior. Although her original goal was to work with killer whales, she soon found herself doing an internship in the Section of Behavioral Care and Enrichment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Veterinary Sciences Division in Bastrop, Texas. There, she worked closely with Steve Shapiro and the section’s resident chimpanzees, which quickly turned into the basis for her capstone research.
With Shapiro’s help, Braccini went on to earn her master’s degree from California State University-San Marcos, and her Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland while continuing her work at M.D. Anderson.
While still at the University of St. Andrews, she applied for an opening at the Saint Louis “Even in all my times working with chimps at the M.D. Anderson research facility, I really wanted to get into zoos,” Braccini said. “I really wanted to work with multiple species of great apes and from more of an educational point of view as well. So when Saint Louis became available, it was perfect because they have orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas all in the same building.”
To those looking to get into the zoological world, Braccini strongly encourages taking advantage of every opportunity possible, starting now. “Get as much experience as you possibly can, and from different angles,” she said. “Look at an internship in zookeeping, do behavioral research, look at enrichment or training or nutrition. There’s so many different facets of a zoo job that to really understand all of them would give you a huge advantage to getting into the industry.”
Braccini will be returning to campus April 2 to give a talk in conjunction with the 2013 Shilling Lecture, which features Jane Goodall. Her talk will begin at noon in the Dan Rather Room of the Red & Charline McCombs Campus Center.
Braccini said she was excited to hear that Goodall would be speaking at Southwestern.
“Jane Goodall is a pioneer for women in science and I owe so much to her for paving the way for future primatologists,” she said. “I know that I wouldn’t be on the career path I am had it not been for her. It has been an honor to meet her at academic conferences over the years and hear about her experiences in Gombe and all of her work since.”
- Devin Corbitt