Rhode Island College Professor Studies Monkey Behaviors to Teach Environmental Awareness

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island College professor Mary Baker, back right, with students Patrick Afonso, back left, Taylor Ryan, left, and Amanda Coleman. (RIC)

Rhode Island College professor Mary Baker, back right, with students Patrick Afonso, back left, Taylor Ryan, left, and Amanda Coleman. (RIC)

PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Island College decided to appoint Mary Baker as director of its new Environmental Studies Program in 2015, it knew what it was doing.

As a professor of anthropology — the department in which the program is lodged — she had taught a wide range of classes since joining the college in 2005, from the basic “Methods in Anthropology” to “Anthropological Perspectives on Childhood” to “Evolution of the Capacity for Culture,” to name just a few. And she’d been in on the program’s design from the start of the discussions in 2013.

“We wanted,” Baker said, “a major that placed humans and human concerns within the environment. We wanted to emphasize that humans are part of the environment, of the biota.”

Then there was that immeasurable but essential component: her research brought a unique scholarly take on environmentalism to her work. That take was one that would fully support the program’s multi-disciplinary focus, which resembles the general approach of a number of environmental studies programs, but her fieldwork brought something else to the equation. It’s not that she’s not a supporter of “traditional” (whatever that might mean) approaches to environmental awareness and activism.

“A perfect example of the power of committed people to engage in change,” she says, “is the Last Straw Movement. An eight-year-old girl had the idea that we don’t need straws, which are causing major environmental damage, and now there are cities that are banning them. An idea, a simple idea, can lead to great change: Just say no to straws.”

Such a local approach to activism is evidenced by RIC’s Last Straw webpage.

Mary Baker brings RIC students with her to Costa Rica to study capuchin monkeys, to watch what and how they learn. (istock)

Mary Baker brings RIC students with her to Costa Rica to study capuchin monkeys, to watch what and how they learn. (istock)

Monkey business
Baker’s research, however, has brought a less familiar perspective to her understanding of environmentalism.

As an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, she found the interest that would continue throughout her professional career. Five years as a research assistant at UCLA’s Neuroscience Institute observing the lives of vervet monkeys sparked her interest in “the minds of animals.” She focused specifically on individual monkey personalities and behaviors, getting to know them and their places within the matrilineal social hierarchy over time.

Her academic future all seemed so clear.

“I thought I’d go to Africa and study vervets or baboons,” she said. “But then I got derailed. I learned about a fascinating process called fur-rubbing among capuchin monkeys in Central America, where they apply medicinal plants to their bodies. And that became my dissertation topic [at the University of California, Riverside], a basic social and ecological study of the monkeys, focused on their medicinal plant use.

“I don’t think they recognized the plants as medicine, but there was clearly some cognition, and social conditions were involved as they learned which plants to use, based on which group they were born into. It takes a while to learn this.”

Then Curú came along.

Since 1991 Baker has been returning regularly — often bringing RIC students with her — to Costa Rica to study capuchin monkeys, to watch what and how they learn. She continues to try to understand how their minds work by watching how they interact with the eco-tourists who regularly visit the Curú National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern part of the country.

As with the vervet monkeys, what has fascinated Baker was what happens over time, as new factors are introduced into the environment, and as the monkeys adapt to the changes.

“It all started with trash,” she said.

Over the years, she had watched the monkeys become more aggressive, raiding trash cans and stealing food from cabins and even from people. Such behavior, however, isn’t only a nuisance. It quickly takes on the status of an environmental issue — not perhaps on the scale of sipping-straw use, but having all the features of such a problem: human behaviors have changed the nature of the biome, altering the behaviors and even, perhaps, the genetics of non-human species, and posing unanticipated threats to those species and to the humans who interact with them.

For instance, when capuchin monkeys can scrounge enough to eat from humans, they stop eating insects. This changes both the biological makeup of the region and the health of the monkeys, and increases the risk of spreading infections within the monkey population and even to humans.

So, in 2015, Baker and several RIC students built wire-mesh trash containers. Two years later, another Baker-led RIC group put wooden containers in place. This spring, Baker and RIC students Patrick Afonso, Amanda Coleman and Taylor Ryan returned, determined that the wooden containers were more effective, and worked with Curú staff to put wooden containers in place throughout the park.

Problem solved, perhaps.

But what about the monkeys’ aggressiveness toward humans?

“People are following the rules pretty well about disposing of their trash,” Baker said. “The next problem is people feeding the animals.”

This has become such a problem that both monkeys’ feeding habits and the monkey population of the park has changed. Monkeys used to pass through the park every day, foraging. Now, during the drier tourist season, one troop of about 25 monkeys comes, hangs out and waits, sometimes stealing food from humans, sometimes breaking into cabins — but doing nothing that resembles foraging. As well, a smaller troop has stopped coming after being threatened by the larger troop.

Baker acknowledges that there, as in many places, getting people to quit feeding the wildlife poses quite a challenge. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management recently issued a press release reminding people not to feed coyotes.

Virtual classrooms
So that’s what has happened to the monkeys, to the tourists and to park staff. What about the students?

“There’s always a transformation where all of a sudden the students — I’m not sure ‘take control’ is the right phrase, but I’ll use it — become colleagues, not students,” Baker said. “Something very important happens as they begin to be scientists, and to think and write like scientists.”

As they have during every Curú visit, the RIC students stayed in touch with a number of Rhode Island classrooms throughout the trip. They created a visual fieldwork site via Facebook, where they interacted with children in elementary school classrooms at the Henry Barnard Laboratory School, Robert F. Kennedy Elementary and the Harry Kizirian Elementary School. The students were able to watch the RIC team observing the monkeys and follow the team’s research activities.

When they returned to Rhode Island, the RIC students visited the classes they’d been communicating with to answer questions and continue the conversations.

“This is really important for all of them. We want them to see that science is fun, not just people in a lab. I want to encourage the next generation,” Baker said, which is part of the reason that the major requires students to take a course in professional writing.

“When we developed the curriculum (includes classes in anthropology and political science and electives such as history, geography and English) we thought about jobs and skill sets that employers were looking for, so they have some basic foundations, but also experience in writing and writing for the public,” Baker continued. “For me, it’s terribly important to communicate science, so we have blogs and internship projects.”

Noting that Rhode Island College has graduated more than half a dozen environmental science majors and now has 67 such majors making their ways through the program, Baker said, “The students are aware of the environmental issues we face. We emphasize the fact that the environment is a thing we are a part of, not something separate. We cross-cut the sciences and the humanities to make this point.

“Humans are part of the environment. We can impact it positively or negatively. Change is a slow process, but it can happen.”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He lives in Providence.