Caregiver Corner: Getting Started at the Foundation

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People interested in primates and interspecies communication often ask us how they should prepare for a career working with gorillas or other great apes. In her own words, our newest caregiver (and research assistant) Laura Mullen, describes how she came to be employed by the Gorilla Foundation. Getting Started at the Gorilla Foundation by ***Laura Mullen, Caregiver and Res. Asst. I guess this all started about 14 years ago. I was a young girl, about 12 years old, when I started hearing about Koko and her kitten. Being an animal lover and an owner of 3 cats myself; I was fascinated by this gorilla and her close and intimate relationship with the kitten. I wanted to know everything about her. I had my mom take me to the library and help me find all that I could about Koko. Soon after that we became members of the Gorilla Foundation and received a poster of Koko and her kitten. I hung it on my bedroom wall with pride. I started reading more about inter-species communication projects with Washoe, the language attempts with Viki, and Koko herself. That year I enrolled in sign-language class at the local community center. The class was mainly for adults, but there were no restrictions against children, so I joined right in. I studied sign language at the community center for five years. Towards the end of high school, I switched gears and began studying the works of Dr. Frans de Waal and his innovative research on peacemaking and conflict resolution in chimpanzees and bonobos. Upon reading his books I made up my mind to study at Emory University where I could hopefully intern under Dr. de Waal at his Living Links Center at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. When I arrived at Emory University I looked up Dr. de Waal’s office and office hours. The very next day I walked (a bit nervously) into his office, sat down and said, “I would like to work for you, anyhow, anyway.” He saw my determined face and offered me a job at his capuchin laboratory as well as an opportunity to help him with a chimpanzee study on food sharing. There began my official work with primates. I worked there for almost 4 years, staying there a bit after graduation. Shortly after graduation I moved to San Francisco and found a job working as a veterinary technician at the local animal shelter (SF SPCA). After about three years at the shelter, I began missing and dreaming about primates. I came across the job at the Gorilla Foundation, and I thought, “Wow, what a dream job. I doubt I could ever get it. I’m sure hundreds of people apply.” I was hesitant to apply because I thought if I didn’t get it I’d be so disappointed. A few more months went by and I kept checking the site and the position was still being posted. Then early November of 2004, I checked the site again and saw that the position had been updated to a job focusing more on enrichment. Finally I made the decision to apply. My plan was to have everything mailed into the Gorilla Foundation by November 15th, 2004. With everything in, I just waited for the reply. When I had not heard anything in a week, disappointed, I decided to email my cover letter and resume, since before I had just sent a hard copy to the Foundation. Well that seemed to do the trick, early Thanksgiving Day I received and email from ***Lucas Slavik, saying that he was interested in conducting a phone interview. I was ecstatic. After the first initial phone interview, Lucas asked if I would be available to come up to the Foundation for some interviews and a discussion of what the job would be. Mid-December I started coming up to the Gorilla Foundation for interviews and meetings with staff members, and most importantly the gorillas. After meeting with Lucas, Ron, Penny, Lorraine and Gary at the business office, it came time for my toughest interview yet, Koko. Koko asked to visit with me so I nervously climbed onto her porch and crouched in front of her. I was intimidated by her massive figure. She kept signing, come closer, come closer. So I did, and she got a good look at me, kissed at me and then asked me to close the curtains. I guess she had seen enough. Everyone assured me that the visit went well, and so I left relieved. After volunteering at the Foundation for two months, helping out on my days off from the shelter, I was finally offered a full-time job as a caregiver, whose focus would be on the enrichment of the gorillas. Basically my job is to keep them happy and busy, a dream job for me. I am now undergoing training to start working with Ndume, the silverback, and things are going very well. I have been in charge of setting up the morning browse in the outdoor yard, placing it on different levels and making it difficult for the gorillas to find. I have also been setting up Ndume’s “play room” building at night. The caregivers who work with him have told me that since I have started, he has been searching for morning browse longer and playing by himself in the play rooms more, and Koko has started exploring the play rooms in the mornings before Ndume joins her in the lard yard. I look forward to my years to come at the Gorilla Foundation, and can’t wait to see what is in store for me here. I am very thankful for the opportunity the Gorilla Foundation has given me.