A passion for primates: CSU student studying orangutans at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Gregory at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Gregory at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

In the wild, orangutans spend most of their days foraging and on the move, so it’s important that zoos figure continue to give their orangutans the most authentic experiences possible.

This intrigues Ryann Gregory, a master’s student in the Professional Science Master’s in Zoo, Aquarium, and Animal Shelter Management in Colorado State University’s Department of Biology. She is studying methods to increase foraging behavior with orangutans at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for her capstone this summer.

Gregory first started her research by taking a baseline, a set of measurements to figure out how long the orangutans foraged for scattered snacks in their enclosed area, without any additional stimuli.

For the research treatment, she’ll be using an animal vending machine that delivers a handful of snacks in exchange for a plastic token. The goal is to measure if the animals increase their foraging behavior with the presence of the vending machine. The animal vending machine was created by CSU graduates, Nick Naitove and Emily Cain, as part of their master’s project. They now co-run an organization called Wildthink aimed at creating novel enrichment for many different animal species.

“Great apes are a very intelligent species, and need a lot of mental stimulation on a daily basis,” said Gregory. “So, zoos are always trying to find new ways to get them to engage with their environment.”

A unique connection

Gregory, who was raised in Salt Lake City, said Utah’s Hogle Zoo was an important destination in her youth.

An orangutanShe recalled one cold day at the zoo with her father when they went into the great ape building and noticed that one gorilla was pestering another. She said she and her father spent hours that day observing their behavior and started to come back each weekend to keep tabs on the animals.

As they started to visit more often, the animals started to recognize them. When a particular orangutan, named Acara, began to come up to the glass each weekend to see the 12-year-old Gregory, she knew she wanted to maintain that connection.

Because of this, she started to volunteer for Hogle Zoo and eventually took on paid positions as a seasonal staff member. In college, her passion for zoos and primates have continued to flourish.

The importance of zoos

Gregory with an orangutan at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo this summer.
Gregory with an orangutan at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo this summer.

Gregory said she hopes to one day work at a zoo in animal care with primates, and eventually wants to become a primate or behavior curator. She discussed the ethics of zoos by noting their history, and their transition from status symbols to institutions of conservation and learning.

Education is an essential part of conservation, and Gregory’s childhood is a perfect example. Her passion for primates was sparked in a zoo, and she hopes to further that magic by giving back to the animals that gave her so much.

“Zoos give the animals the healthy and enriching lives while also teaching the public about [the animals’] natural world,” she said.

Education is an essential part of conservation, and Gregory’s childhood is a perfect example. Her passion for primates was sparked in a zoo, and she hopes to further that magic by giving back to the animals that gave her so much.