Professor researches gorillas at Gladys Porter Zoo
For UTPA psychology professor Wendy James-Aldridge, spending time observing captive mother gorillas embrace their new bundles of joy at the zoo is not only research, but a heart-warming experience.
“I call them heart-stealers; they are all just fascinating,” James-Aldridge said about the primates. “You can’t help it; you get attached to them as you get more involved in their soap opera lives.”
The Kansas City native has been working on a maternal behavior study with a group of western lowland gorillas at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville since 2005.
The observational behavior study includes three gorilla mothers named Martha, Penney and Mary. The three are sisters, close in age, and have lived within the same group all their lives; all were raised by humans.
James-Aldridge explained that because of this, they were in danger of becoming unsuccessful mothers, meaning they would fail to raise their children.
The primatologist said that in the past it was common for Gladys Porter Zoo to exhibit baby gorillas and chimpanzees in the nurseries since their mothers would refuse to raise them. However, recent studies by James-Aldridge prove otherwise as more human-reared gorilla mothers are beginning to raise their own children.
Out of the three gorilla mothers observed by James-Aldridge, both Martha and Penney became successful mothers because they nurtured and raised their offspring. Mary, who was recently sent to a zoo in Tampa, Florida, was the unsuccessful mother who refused to nurture her children.
James-Aldridge, who received her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Oklahoma State in 1975, attributes this finding to each gorilla’s social behavior.
“The two successful mothers seem to be more social overall than the less successful mother,” she said of her discoveries. “It suggests that they find social interactions more appealing (and less stressful) than the unsuccessful mother does.”
Martha, known as the super mom, has not only raised five children but her sister Mary’s four children as well. Penney, the cautious mother, has only had two children but is expecting to give birth to her third anytime soon.
“We have a lot of data from Martha but not much from Penney. She hasn’t had a baby since four years ago. We will see if she is as careful and cautious with her new baby as she was with her last,” James-Aldridge said. “I also look forward to finding more detail in the different mothering styles of the successful mothers.”
James-Aldridge also attributes high and low rankings to the mother gorilla’s social interactions. Martha has a higher ranking than Penney, who is lowest ranking among the entire group. She explained that it may be due to both personality traits and physical characteristics.
“Martha is a good mom, very careful but she lets her kids go fairly quickly,” James-Aldridge said. “Penney is much more cautious with her babies. One of the reasons we think may be the case is that Martha is higher ranking in the group, which means they push their kids out to become independent sooner.”
Prior to the maternal behavior study, which brought James-Aldridge to the gorillas, she began primate research at the Gladys Porter Zoo in 1977 by teaching baby orangutans and gorillas American Sign Language until 1983. In 1987, she began observational studies with chimpanzees.
Primates are the human’s closest biological relatives, which offers researchers the opportunity to learn from them. This is the primary purpose behind James-Aldridge’s research.
“We are very, very similar to primates,” said James-Aldridge, originally from Kansas City. “Frequently, when I’m at the zoo I’ll hear visitors and kids say, ‘Oh gee, they’re just like us,’ and I think to myself, ‘Oh gee, we are just like them.’”
James-Aldridge said she tries to visit and conduct research at the zoo at least one afternoon a week where she also donates her time to the zoo’s research program. She described the experience as “therapeutic.”
The UTPA professor, who started her first job at the University in 1974, teaches courses in statistics for psychology and research methods. During the spring semesters James-Aldridge alternates in animal behavior and primate behavior courses, using the zoo as a lab for her classes. She also provides students the opportunity to assist in conducting research at the zoo.
“I don’t always have time to do research myself, which is why I have trained my research assistants to collect data,” she said. “It’s a lot of work but the students are very helpful.”
While the professor maintains a close relationship in studying primates at the zoo, the experiences were not always what she had in mind.
“As an undergraduate student, I switched my major three times in the first three semesters,” James-Aldridge said, laughing. “My last choice was psychology. I choose to call it my major since it allowed me the freedom to explore other fields, such as biology and anthropology. Primate behavior straddles all those disciplines. But I guess you can say I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
For now, James-Aldridge continues spending time researching captive primates at Gladys Porter Zoo.
“I love going to the zoo; it gets me out of the office,” she said. “It’s important to watch these animals (because) it helps me keep focused. When life gets complicated, spending time with the gorillas helps remind me of life’s simplicities.”