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A Psychologist Goes To The Zoo: An Interview with Terry L. Maple


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I first became aware of Dr. Terry L. Maple when I read his article in the latest issue of The Observer, the magazine of the Association for Psychological Science. Maple is former president and CEO of the Zoo Atlanta as well as the Palm Beach Zoo, and is currently a professor in the departments of psychology and integrative biology at the Harriett Wilkes Honors College at the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University.

Dr. Terry L. Maple

Dr. Maple became the Director of the Atlanta Zoo in 1984 at the request of then-Mayor Andrew Young. As Maple recounts in The Observer, the zoo had become a “national disgrace,” following the mysterious death of an elephant uncovered in a shallow grave in North Carolina. “Twinkles” the elephant became the poster pachyderm for zoo mismanagement, and it was then that Young turned to Maple. As a postdoc at UC Davis and young professor at Emory, Maple had created a line of research that blended developmental and environmental psychology that grew directly out of his early research on social deprivation in rhesus monkeys. “I easily recognized the signs of psychopathology in just about every zoo monkey,” he wrote, and “zoo personnel, who are not trained in psychological science, for the most part, failed to recognize the deleterious effects of their standard management practices. Young wisely realized that Maple could establish an evidence-based approach to zoo management and animal welfare. (Related: Women and children first, by Eric M. Johnson.)

Gorilla, San Diego Zoo. August 7, 2011

Maple had many successes in his 24 years in zoo management, but a few are worth highlighting. One male lowland gorilla, “Willie B” had been confined and isolated to a small cage for twenty-seven years. Under Maple’s oversight, Willie responded quite well to new social opportunities, producing seven offspring by his forty-first birthday. In fact, he was the oldest gorilla to have successfully sired offspring in a zoo. Another gorilla named “Ivan” spent years as an “attraction” at a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington until Maple negotiated an agreement that transferred Ivan to the Zoo Atlanta. Once there, he was successfully integrated into a social group. In 2009, at the Palm Beach Zoo, Maple oversaw the opening of the Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex and Center for Conservation Medicine. The complex included the first LEED-certified zoo veterinary hospital in the United States.

As is the case in most scientific fields, there are more PhDs who graduate from psychology departments each year than there are openings in academic departments for postdoctoral researchers or for tenure-track assistant professors. Zoo management is one important alternative to the tenure-track (at least for those with a background in animal behavior or cognition) that seems to me to be off the radar of most late-stage graduate students. It was with this in mind that I reached out by email to Dr. Maple and asked if he would answer a few questions about his own transition from academia to the zoo industry.

What’s your scientific/academic background? What has your career trajectory been like since grad school?

I received my Ph.D. degree in psychobiology from the University of California at Davis. My first job was at Emory University in Atlanta. Recruited to the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1978, I was promoted to Full Professor in 1984 just before Mayor Andrew Young summoned me to his office to discuss the interim directorship of the failing Atlanta Zoo. Tech administrators worked out a deal that would keep me on the faculty part-time. My students and I embarked on a seventeen year journey researching and documenting revolutionary changes at the zoo. As part of this process the zoo was re-branded Zoo Atlanta in 1985.

Many people use animals in their research as a model for understanding humans. By contrast, you seem to have used what we know about humans to inform your work with animals. Can you describe how you arrived at the realization that the human-animal relationship was bidirectional in this way?

Indeed, by teaching Environmental Psychology at Georgia Tech, and from the work of my mentor, Robert Sommer, I learned early in my career that there was a lot more information about how the built environment altered human behavior. In spite of this fact, the earliest intellectual contributions to the EP literature came from biologists and anthropologists such as Calhoun and Hall, students of territoriality and personal space. Sommer’s two books, Personal Space, and Tight Spaces, were especially influential. One important and often ignored source was Abraham Maslow’s classic Toward a Psychology of Being. He was Harlow‘s first graduate student at Wisconsin and I found information in his book on humanistic psychology that was directly applicable to zoo habitats, standards, and practices. Founder of the “Human Potential” movement, I found his ideas useful in developing a kind of “Primate Potential.”

The bear enclosure from the "old" LA Zoo, built sometime in the 1930s, is not an enriching environment for any animal. In 1965, the zoo moved to its current location, a few miles away in Griffith Park.

How unique is your approach in the field of zoo management? Has the zoo management field been receptive to your ideas? What about the academic/scientific community?

My ideas have been accepted quite well among keepers, curators, and other scientists. We are seeing many of my ideas in the work of zoo architects and this design approach has been collaborative among many of my close colleagues such as Gary Lee of CLR (JGG: a Philadelphia-based design firm). However, many directors with a business background don’t appreciate the importance of welfare and due to criticism leveled by welfare/rights oriented critics they are a little gun-shy of overt welfare changes. I do think this will change however and some zoos (e.g. Detroit Zoo, Oakland Zoo, Brookfield Zoo) are beginning to embrace a welfare orientation.

I’ve had no trouble publishing my work in major journals such as Environment and Behavior and the Journal of Comparative Psychology. Our book Ethics on the Ark (1995) was one of the most successful Smithsonian books and it has been widely influential in the zoo profession. My recent talk (Building Ethical Arks) at the University of California at Davis brought a large crowd of interested students and young faculty, so I think there is a bit of a movement building. I wrote an important book chapter about elephant welfare in a Tufts publication (An Elephant in the Room) that caused a bit of a stir among zoo folks.

What would you recommend for graduate students who are interested in bringing a scientific, empirical approach to animal welfare and zoo/aquarium management? What kinds of jobs exist for those kinds of people?

I used to recommend they study with me at Georgia Tech. So many of my students are working in influential zoo positions now, so there are jobs for those who gain the skills we taught at Tech/Zoo Atlanta. You have to find a mentor who is doing this kind of work and then make contributions that get you noticed. You have to publish regularly in good journals and then find the right job. The scientist/practitioner model is represented by the scientific curator in modern zoos. Many of my students found zoos that wanted Ph.D. curators. They are currently working at Lincoln Park, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Denver Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, and Santa Barbara Zoo.

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), San Diego Zoo, November 20, 2011.

What new projects or ideas are taking up your time right now?

The one idea that I am pursuing with other zoos that is fairly new is the concept of “wellness.” I’m helping the San Francisco Zoo to implement a comprehensive wellness program that will inform exhibit design and help them to monitor and enhance wellness through advances in nutrition and training to activate/exercise animals in the zoo population. Wellness is a blend of biology and psychology and it also provides visitors with an example of how wellness in zoo animals can contribute to our understanding of wellness in our families and our communities. I think the wellness concept will be prove to be a very useful concept as we strive for optimal environments, standards, and practices for each and every unique species in the zoo.

Does blogging and social media (twitter, facebook, google+, etc) figure into your work at all? If so, how? Do you find these tools to be useful for outreach?

My daughter Molly is an expert in social media and she has taught me that it is an important means of communicating the power of our ideas. I’m working on a weblog in my current consulting work so I hope to export ideas and commentary in the coming months. Right now I’m helping non-profit leaders and scholars in Georgia, Florida, and California so I am getting a good response from professionals who need help. Tweets are not my style (too superficial) but I expect to do a lot of blogging.

Thank you for your time!

Related:
A Zoo Where the Animals Come First by Terry L. Maple
Social Cognition in Polar Bears – from The Thoughtful Animal archives
Sunday Photoblogging: Old LA Zoo
Women and Children First – by Eric M. Johnson at Times Higher Ed

Images: Terry Maple via The Observer. All other images copyright the author. Top: Malayan Tiger, San Diego Zoo, November 20, 2011.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sunbear 4:09 pm 04/4/2012

    “However, many directors with a business background don’t appreciate the importance of welfare …”
    FWIW, on a lighter note, that reminded me of reading this Onion article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/san-diego-zoo-lays-off-2000-animals,19933/

    Link to this
  2. 2. JoeErwin 3:54 pm 04/7/2012

    How nice to see this piece on Terry Maple, my long-term friend and colleague. We were collaborators as students in the same PhD program at UC Davis those many years ago, and have worked together on several projects since. I have close ties with zoo professionals, as the former curator of primates at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, but my career has also included professional editing (at National Geographic) and many years of applied ethology/comparative psychology work in breeding colonies and laboratories, much of it involving the design and implementation of environmental enrichment programs and innovative environments to improve animal wellbeing. My work has also involved collaborations on comparative primate neurobiology and field studies of primates in Indonesia. Like Terry, I am now a consultant. We get together from time-to-time, usually in Florida. Thanks for the great piece about Terry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. MegMasky 2:15 pm 11/1/2012

    I enjoyed this article Jason, thank you. I appreciated hearing more about Dr. Maple’s background, his work, and professional advice. In response to reading this article I have been studying through Maslow’s work mentioned above, which I’m finding enlightening.

    Link to this

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