Acorda award winners aim to improve gorilla welfare

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Grace and Kelly plan to use their research on gorillas to improve the lives of animals in captivity. Courtesy of Grace Passanante ’16

Convent of the Sacred Heart seniors Kelly Heinzerling and Grace Passanante earned the Acorda Scientific Excellence Award January 10 for their research on the behavior patterns of captive gorillas.
As part of the Sacred Heart Science Research Program, Kelly and Grace submitted their project entitled “The Effect of Zoo Visitors and Noise Levels on the Stereotypies of Gorillas in Captivity” to the Acorda Science Competition.  Stereotypies are types of non-human repetitive behavior patterns “with no obvious goal or function,” according to awionline.org. They include self-abuse, repetitive pacing, and over-grooming.

Sacred Heart seniors Grace Passanante '16 and Kelly Heinzerling '16 begin their research at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Exhibit. Courtesy of Grace Passanante '16
Sacred Heart seniors Grace Passanante ’16 and Kelly Heinzerling ’16 begin their research at the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest.
Courtesy of Grace Passanante ’16

Acorda Therapeutics awards the Acorda Scientific Excellence Award to one student research project per week during September to June and helps to encourage teens to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, according to acorda.com.
Kelly and Grace, along with other winners of the Acorda Science Competition, will receive the Acorda Scientific Excellence Award in the spring.
Grace first expressed interest in studying primates after watching “Moral behavior in animals,” a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) talk led by Dr. Frans de Waal.  In Dr. de Waal’s talk, he shows a video that demonstrates capuchin monkeys understanding unequal pay.
“I thought it was fascinating that monkeys could be so human-like and I decided to take the topic of primates to the science research room,” Grace said.
Grace later introduced the topic to Kelly, who has always been interested in animals and plans to study cognitive or behavioral science in college.
“When Grace showed me an interesting article on capuchin monkeys, we both became interested in primate research, especially how captive primates can demonstrate different behavior from wild primates,” Kelly said.
The two students met City University of New York professor Ms. Alexis A. Amann, who introduced them to the issue of stereotypies. With the help of their mentor, New York University Ph.D student Ms. Megan Petersdorf, Kelly and Grace collected data from the Bronx Zoo’s gorilla exhibit, the Congo Gorilla Forest, last summer and analyzed their results at the start of their senior year.
“We found that when there are more people in the gorilla exhibit, the gorillas showed more signs of stress,” Kelly said. “Basically, a crowded zoo can lead to stressed out animals.”
The number of stereotypies at the Congo Gorilla Forest increased from 53 to 73 as more people visited the gorillas. Noise level also impacted the increase in several stereotypies, such as scratching and regurgitating.
Kelly and Grace plan to present their research to the Bronx Zoo and propose solutions to improve gorilla welfare.
“If we only let a certain number of visitors into an exhibit at a time, the gorillas would be a lot less stressed,” Kelly said.  “I think if zoos could somehow enforce that it would have positive effects.”
Grace and Kelly plan to use their research on gorillas to improve the lives of animals in captivity. Courtesy of Grace Passanante '16
Grace and Kelly plan to use their research on gorillas to better the lives of animals in captivity.
Courtesy of Grace Passanante ’16

Some of their suggestions for the Bronx Zoo include regulating the amount of visitors in the exhibit and asking visitors to be silent when visiting the gorillas.
Grace also hopes that her and Kelly’s work on gorilla stereotypies could help improve the living conditions of other animals at the zoo.
“All captive animals, not just gorillas, can exhibit stereotypies,” Grace said.  “We hope that our research will encourage zoos all around the world to change their visitor policies and improve in the way that they treat their animals.”
Additionally, The Lisa Wexler Radio Show (AM 1490 WGCH) interviewed the duo about their project Thursday January 14. The show aired the episode Saturday January 16 and it will be available on SoundCloud and iTunes.
Grace and Kelly are thankful for their experience with the gorillas and their opportunity to perform research.
“Going to the zoo was so much fun for Kelly and me. We enjoyed seeing the gorillas every day and began to recognize their individual faces. Gorillas are incredibly human-like creatures and it was fascinating to see them so closely and so often, yet incredibly devastating to see them trapped behind a glass wall,” Grace said. “We are grateful that our research can be used to improve their well-being at zoos everywhere.”
– Izzy Sio, Co-Arts and Entertainment Editor and Co-Photo Editor