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Shumaker joins primate sanctuary


This fall, Robert Shumaker joined the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary as head of orangutan research, the latest step in a career he dreamed of as a child. A few years ago, he was reminiscing with his mother about the trips they had taken to the Smithsonian National Zoo when he was a little boy. He vividly remembered watching the great apes interact for hours on end, but told his mother he couldn’t remember watching other animals, no matter how hard he tried.

“She told me, ‘Don’t try too hard. We didn’t watch the other animals. We got out of the car, went straight to the primates, watched them for a long time, then went home,'” he said.

Shumaker considers himself lucky that his mother shared his interest in great apes — a class of primates consisting of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans — and encouraged him to pursue his dream of working with them.

Shumaker grew up in Washington, D.C. He left for a brief time to study at the University of Georgia-Athens, but discovered the out-of-state tuition and living expenses were too high. He returned home to work fulltime at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and attend classes part-time at George Mason University in North Virginia, where he received his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees. Though it took him longer to graduate while working full time, so much experience with primates was advantageous to his studies, Shumaker said. He left the Smithsonian National Zoo to join the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary.

“From when I moved here Oct. 1 to now is the first time in my career that I have not worked with primates every day,” he said. “I don’t like it.”

He is anxious for the primates to arrive at the IPLS this spring so he can continue his research. The orangutan building is scheduled to be completed in March, and two orangutans, Azy and Indah, will move there from the National Zoo. Shumaker calls them his colleagues in a long-term research project on language. He has taught them a vocabulary of symbols they can use on a computer. Shumaker says it was not difficult to get the National Zoo to let the orangutans move to Iowa.

“Everybody at the National Zoo has been supportive,” he said. “They want this research to continue. I’ve worked with these individuals for 20 years, so it was an easy decision that they should come with me.”

Shumaker first heard of the IPLS when founder Ted Townsend and project director Kirk Brocker visited the National Zoo to consult with its workers about their plan. They were interested in Shumaker’s work on a project called “The Think Tank,” which allowed zoo visitors to watch primate research as it was conducted. Townsend and Bracher later offered him a job.

“I told them I had to think about it,” he said. “Then Ted outlined his vision, and I decided I would be stupid not to take this job, because it encompasses everything I care about personally and professionally.” Shumaker and his wife visited Iowa and fell in love with the state, deciding this was the place they wanted to raise their 2-year-old son.

Though he still loves Washington, D.C., Shumaker admits that changes to the city in recent years made life more difficult. Violent crime was on the rise. His wife was eight months pregnant on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the plane crash into the Pentagon as she drove to work.

“She’s recovered in a really positive way,” he said. “We’re glad to leave that stress behind. We made a lot of changes to move here, but we’re not missing one thing. We felt so welcomed.”

Shumaker hopes the great apes receive a similar welcome. The IPLS plans to give a home to great apes from zoos, private owners and the entertainment industry. Shumaker and his team will also perform non-invasive research that the apes will participate in on a voluntarily basis. Visitors to the IPLS will be able to watch the research.

Shumaker hopes getting to know the animals will help people understand great apes and dispel the myths that apes are aggressive or objects of ridicule. He also hopes understanding the animals will motivate the public to advocate conservation in the wild, where great apes are threatened with extinction in the next 20 years.

“People have been so enthusiastic about this project,” Shumaker said. “It’s been an overwhelming reception. The community has embraced everything about [IPLS]. I know we’ll exceed expectations, and people will be proud to have us as part of the community.”  

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