Stories From the Field

Animals keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo regularly participate in field projects where their expertise benefits the species who are in danger of extinction.

In 2003, donor and former Zoo Commission President Shelby Kaplan Sloan established the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund, to provide keepers with opportunities for hands-on field experiences. Mrs. Sloan funded this program through 2015 at which point, former GLAZA Trustee, Dominic Ornato, took over its funding. The Ornato Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund continues to have a global focus and many more keepers have provided their expertise to help in the long-term conservation of species around the planet.

Upon completing their fieldwork, keepers share their experiences and insights with the Zoo Commission, GLAZA Board, staff and the animals at the Zoo.


Dani with a uakari in her lap

Animal Keeper Dani Cremona has cared for the Zoo’s group of three red uakari monkeys since 2005. In 2014, she received a grant from the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund that enabled her to learn about the red uakari in their native habitat at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage and Butterfly Farm in Peru. The exchange of ideas and experience was rewarding and memorable for Dani and the staff at the wildlife rescue center.

Small areas of tropical forests in Peru and Brazil are habitat for red uakari monkeys. Due to deforestation, illegal hunting, and the illegal pet trade, wild red uakari populations are dwindling. Conservation and rescue efforts are being made by a remarkable woman named Gudrun Sperrer. My journey began at her rescue facility and orphanage.

Pilpintuwasi is a wildlife rescue and temporary custody center located on 20 hectares of land in the village of Padre Cocha, 20 minutes across the river from Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon. Pilipintuwasi is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting animals affected by poaching and the illegal pet trade. The rescue center works with the ecological police to take in animals confiscated from markets, airports, and homes. Sadly, these animals often arrive malnourished and with injuries. Pilpintuwasi is a semi-captive environment, where many of the animals live free of cages in enclosures that mimic their natural environment. Nine red uakari, ages 1.5 to 7 years, reside there—the largest captive population in any range country. Pilpintuwasi is also home to jaguar, coati, ocelot, sloth, anteater, boa, pygmy marmoset, macaw, and several monkey species (saki, capuchin, squirrel, red howler) as well as a butterfly garden and more.

My mornings began with a 20-minute boat ride from the town of Iquitos to the rescue center. As I walked to the main house, I would be greeted by the free-ranging red uakari—one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen! I am already privileged to work with the red uakari at the Zoo, but to see a troop a hundred feet in the air, climbing, swinging from trees, naturally foraging, running past my feet, and wrestling on the ground—there are no words to describe the way I felt. I could have spent every day for two weeks just watching the red uakari. However, I did have a broader agenda. I was going to teach Gudrun and her staff how to train with operant conditioning, using positive reinforcement.

uakari-in-tree-looking-downOur goal was to be able to complete swabbing of the uakari for hormone and parasite testing. Training free-ranging monkeys who have no relationship with me was difficult. Over the two weeks, I built some trust, but with my guidance, Gudrun and her right-hand man, Secondo, did most of the behavior-shaping steps.

With instruction from wildlife biologist Dr. Mark Bowler and permission from a participating conservation village, we took a break from training for a few days to venture up river and into the jungle. Dr. Bowler is the only researcher studying the red uakari in the wild. He studies behavior and dietary intake, as well as teaching sustainable fishing practices to the loggers in an effort to reduce or diminish logging by providing an alternative livelihood. His group travels the territory during the year to conduct mammal surveys and set up camera traps. The dense jungle was thriving with thick green life. We came across a saki monkey, paca, various birds, and a jaguar den. Upon returning to the village, I saw a tree with more than 50 occupied oropendola nests—truly an amazing sight!

I learned so much from Gudrun and her staff. In return, I taught training methods, offered dozens of behavioral enrichment ideas, constructed a broom scratcher for a jaguar, and was even consulted about a capuchin exhibit that will soon be built for a troop of seven orphaned capuchins.

Pilpintuwasi participates in re-release of animals when possible, though due to the diminishing rainforest, this option is rare, and it is a last resort for many animals. With support from the Zoo, Pilpintuwasi, and Dr. Bowler, groundbreaking studies of captive and wild red uakari populations are continuing. I am lucky to be a participant in the conservation of this magnificent species.
—Dani Cremona

Past Sloan Grant Recipients

Read about prior?Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund recipients and their projects:

  • Jennifer Kuypers (2018)
  • Jeromy Chenault (2018)
  • Rose Legato (2018)
  • Chandra David (2017)
  • Roxane Losey (2017)
  • Mike Bona (2017)
  • Andrea Delegal (2016)
  • Lori Rogalski (2016)
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