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A Life In Science: From Housewife To Amazon Trailblazer

Aotus lemurinus, a type of owl monkey also referred to as the gray-bellied night monkey, seen here at the Santa Fe Zoo, in Medellin, Colombia.
Raul Arboleda
AFP/Getty Images
Aotus lemurinus, a type of owl monkey also referred to as the gray-bellied night monkey, seen here at the Santa Fe Zoo, in Medellin, Colombia.

It all started in 1968 at a pet shop called Fish 'N' Cheeps in New York's Greenwich Village. On the way to a Jimi Hendrix concert, Patricia Wright and her husband dashed into the shop to escape heavy rain. There, a two-pound ball of fur from the Amazon captured their attention. A few weeks and $40 later, this owl monkey became their pet; later on they acquired a female as well.

At the time, next to nothing was known of the social lives of nocturnal owl monkeys in the wild. Driven by intense curiosity about what she was observing in the monkey pair, especially the male Herbie's enthusiastic paternal care when the female Kendra gave birth, Wright decided she would become the first to explore those wild lives. Her memoir High Moon Over The Amazon, published last week, describes how she made that happen.

When I read the book, I was struck by the underlying message. Like many other anthropologists, I had read and taught her work on lemur behavior and conservation in Madagascar, and celebrated her being named a MacArthur "genius" Fellow in 1989. But the back story I hadn't known — the tale of Wright's struggle early on as a single mother without a Ph.D. to be taken seriously by male academics and granting agencies.

It's a story that may speak clearly to students, perhaps most of all to girls and young women who are seized by a fierce desire to observe and help save the natural world.

I enjoyed High Moon for its blend of adventure and science, and for the questions it raises about what credentials are needed to be taken seriously as a scientist. We are primates who love a good story; the power of Wright's story lays in showing how curiosity and persistence are fundamental keys to pursuing a life in science.

So, I invited Pat Wright to join me in conversation about the book via email. I hope you enjoy the exchange.

BJK: High Moon focuses on your years in the 1970s and 1980s studying South American monkeys. Yet you're most known for your later research on lemurs. Why did you choose to tell the early story?

PW: High Moon is the unique story of how a simple curiosity about my pet monkey's behavior led to my lifelong obsession with the wilds from where it came. The book describes my struggles as a young single mother venturing to a remote jungle of the Amazon with a toddler, on a quest many deemed impossible. When I set off on my journey to Peru, I was a city dwelling housewife attempting to find answers that qualified scientists hadn't been able to find, so the story is also about how a mother-daughter team made a dream come true. The Madagascar story is an important one, and certainly a big part of my life — that story will come later.

BJK: Do you have a favorite owl-monkey story from early field work that you could share with us?

PW: The first night that I was in the rainforest alone, I became very lost. But I knew the monkeys were overhead because they threw down fruits and made calls back and forth to each other. At almost dawn a herd of peccaries (wild pigs) thundered past me as I climbed up and hung onto a tree so not to be trampled. When the sunlight peeked through the canopy, I was glad to be alive, happy not to have been trampled by wild boars, eaten by a jaguar or attacked by a poisonous snake. Then suddenly I heard a familiar call. Above me, giving an angry alarm call was one, then two, owl monkeys. They scolded me for ten minutes and then disappeared into a hole in a nearby tree. That was the first time I saw an owl monkey in the wild, and I was ecstatic. That dawn the first study of the behavior of the owl monkey in the wild had begun.

BJK: High Moon is so much fun to read, and also conveys fascinating information about other primates and the process of doing research in gorgeous but remote ecosystems. I was surprised though that you didn't state emphatically that owning monkeys or other primates as pets is nowadays not only discouraged but seen as unethical and unfair to the animals. Isn't this an important message for readers?

PW: Indeed nowadays we know how unfair and unethical keeping monkeys as pets. Back then I didn't know about the evils of the exotic pet trade, and certainly not about the painful trials of owning a monkey. I hope that with the knowledge the public has now in regards to the pet trade, my book inspires people to care more about these amazing animals in the wild. I would never own a monkey now.

BJK: When you were age 34, with ground-breaking research on the monkeys already completed, your advisor Warren Kinzey told you, "Pat, nobody will take you or your results seriously unless you have a Ph.D." Of course, you went on to earn that Ph.D. Did you think back then that our system — with all its barriers to researchers with skill and insight but without doctorates — was fair? Has your view on this question changed in the intervening years?

PW: I didn't question it as being unfair, but rather as an opportunity to make myself a valuable player in this field. As someone who has trained almost 30 Ph.D. students, I still believe that getting a Ph.D. is an important ticket for success. I feel that my responsibility now is to use my Ph.D. to train the next generation of primatologists, tropical biologists and conservationists. But nowadays, for those who don't have a doctorate and want to do their part, there are certainly more opportunities to study and protect tropical habitat. The important thing is to take action.

BJK: Issues of women and science kept coming to the fore for me as I read the book. Does your book convey a message for young women?

PW: Absolutely! I hope that young women will read my book and become inspired to follow their dreams, and especially if they want to become scientists. There were years of tough slogging and being a single mother was also challenging. Not giving up is the key, and I think young women of today should know that it might not be easy, but they should not get discouraged, because in the long run the struggle is worth it.

Barbara's most recent book is How Animals Grieve. You can up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King
Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.