The Call sat down with Lee Ann Rottman, General Curator at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, to talk about her two decades of conservation work with primates.
The Call: Wow! Twenty-four years working at Lowry Park Zoo, that’s truly an accomplishment! What inspired you to want to work with animals, especially primates?
Lee Ann: I’ve always wanted to work with animals, even as a child. Primates and primate intelligence always interested me so I began volunteering in the Primate Department here at the Zoo while I was finishing my Zoology degree from the University of South Florida. Once I graduated I was hired on as a full-time primate keeper in 1991. Fast forward a “few” years, and I’ll be marking my silver anniversary with the Zoo in September.
The Call: What does your job consist of as a General Curator?
Lee Ann: I’m responsible for the management of the Zoo’s 1,300 animals and nearly 60 animal care professionals. I also developed and oversee the Zoo’s animal enrichment, training, conservation and ambassador programs.
The Call: You’ve worked on multiple in-situ conservation projects. Tell us about some of those.
Lee Ann: In-situ conservation is the process of protecting an endangered plant or animal species in its natural habitat. I’ve had the pleasure of working on five different projects -- four with chimpanzees specifically and another at a location with chimpanzees, gorillas and a variety of African monkeys. The projects took place in different parts of Africa including Uganda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Gabon. All of these projects involved rescuing and rehabilitating primates that are endangered due to habitat loss, disease, political unrest and poaching for bushmeat (hunting of animals for food) and the pet trade. The threats to these animals are real, and without action to help conserve them, extinction becomes a greater possibility.
The Call: How has the in-situ work helped you in your job at the Zoo?
Lee Ann: It not only gave me a better understanding of the perils primates face in the wild, it helped me to become a better advocate and educational ambassador on their behalf. Primate social groups are complex, so observing and working with them in Africa helped better prepare me to care for the primates that live at the Zoo. Understanding an animal’s behavior is key to understanding their needs and creating a positive and engaging environment for them.
The Call: Why is in-situ work so important?
Lee Ann: Knowledge is powerful. The more we understand the challenges animal populations are facing in today’s world, the better equipped we can become to make a difference.
The Call: Your work with the managed population of chimpanzees has gained you both local and international recognition. What advice would you give to aspiring conservationists that want to get into the field?
Lee Ann: Get an advanced degree. There are many good programs designed to prepare students to deal with the complexities of working with both animals and conservation. I would also recommend getting some practical experience through internships or volunteering. For those aspiring conservationists, working with animals is both challenging and awe inspiring. It takes hard work, adaptability and at times a sense of humor. There is always something new to learn which is my favorite aspect of the job.
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| Interacting with "Clara", a female chimp in Gabon, Africa. ||Infant "Jewel" before his introduction |
to his chimp surrogate mother.
| Chimp Care Givers in Gabon. |