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Brittany Dean

Brittany Dean

Brittany Dean

Primate Researcher (2008-present)
University of Calgary Primatology Studies
Expertise: Howler and Spider Monkeys


“I love working with nature. Its amazing. I love to watch the monkeys and watch how they interact socially and how nurturing the mothers are. The whole community becomes so interested in a newborn for example. It’s really nice to be able to share those moments with them and to have been accepted by the group as we look on.”
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What are your daily responsibilities?

I try and be in the bush as early as I can in the morning. This is usually around 6:00 or 6:30. We walk around and try to find monkeys and if we find them we will stay with the subgroup as long as we can. If not we’ll continue on. We’re currently collecting data on the latrine sites. The monkeys sleep in specific trees at night and have specific dropping piles that they will also occasionally use during the day. We note how much poop is in a pile to determine if they’re using the sites for parasite control. We collect GPS data on subgrups when we find them. We record the number of individuals in the group. And then we do scan and focal observations. When taking “scan” data we look at the monkeys and record exactly what every individual is doing at that one moment within a five minute period. We do that every thirty minutes. We also do one to two “focal” obsevations which involves picking one monkey and recording everything they do in that ten minute period.

It takes a certain type of person to be able to go into the bush day after day. I think you have to be really self disciplined and very tolerable of bugs, long hours, hiking around, frequent disappointment You need perserverence when you do find the monkeys to observe and follow them for hours. You need dedication and above passion. I’ve had rashes, worms, and had it all but I’m still here and I love it. There’s a lot to worry about. I worry all the time about finding food for the monkeys at the zoo.

Which of your responsibilities do you most fulfiling?

For me personally I love working in the bush every day. I love working with nature. Its amazing. I love to watch the monkeys and watch how they interact socially. I don’t know. It’s just very cool. I love to watch how nuturing the mothers are. The whole community becomes so interested in a newborn for example. It’s really nice to be able to share those moments with them and to have been accepted by the group as we look on. Howlers aren’t nearly as social but I still love them just as much. Sometimes I’m bug bitten, there’s pouring rain, and I don’t want to go outside but there are other days that just totally make up for it. They’re all just very special. It’s also really cool that there’s a lot of stuff that Kayla, Stevan and I have eobservered that has never been seen in other spider monkey groups. Runaway Creek is a brand new site and they’ve never been studied before in Belize. It was a huge investment for the researchers to habituate them. Hat’s off to Kayla because it’s incredible. They would camp in the bush and sprint after the monkeys and down the hills so the monkeys would get used to your presence so they can be observed without reacting to us as we observe them.

How did you initially become interested in studying monkeys?

When I was young I couldn’t stop watching Discovery Channel and National Geographic. My dream was to be involved in the rehabilitation of chimpansees. I wanted to work in a vet center or wildlife center. I never thought about primate research seriously until I learned about it. I didn’t even know there was a degree in primatology until my third year in college. I found out when I went with a professor on a field study. I was really fortunate. It fell in my lap and I fell in love with it. I got an NSWERK USRA grant to come down here and to cover my time here. I always knew I’d either want to work with animals or in humanitarian work. But I just love working outside too much to ever work in an office.

Do you feel like there’s an element of consevation in your work with primates?

In the sense that I feel that having a constant presence in the bush deters hunting and poaching, yes I do. We’re protecting the animals on a daily basis. I’ve made local friends and I constantly talk about conservation issues with them and their friends. Even though it isn’t formal I think it’s still education and makes a big difference. We talk about what we do, why it’s important to conserve. It’s a sort of education that they might not be getting otherwise. One thing I don’t understand is that in research people rarely take the time to educate the local people. The local people view jaguars at vermin. The cats are killing livestock, horses, etc. It’s a huge loss for them so they’ll kill the jaguar if they can. Sometime education is too slow but otherwise it’s extremely important. No one ever talks about socioeconomic factors in conservation. My original degree was in development studies so I think I have a very unique understanding of both primate studies and seeing the wider picture especially as I relates to the local communities.

How do you see education in the role of the protection of primates in Belize?

This is tough. I think about education in the sense that on the one hand education is great, but if a species is really vulnerable and you’re educating the kids it happens too slow if the problem is immediate and severe. On the other hand especialy for primates in Belize, tourism is the main income in Belize so it really makes sense when you tell people why they need to support the animals. People don’t know that most pet monkeys are taken by shooting the mother when it’s a baby. Monkeys also spread diseases among people. A really important aspect of education down here in Belize is the education of tourists. Tourists can have a lot of power especially in the cases when dealing with caged monkeys at resorts. In one case we had a tourist write a letter to the mangement staff of a resort explaining that they wouldn’t stay there because they had a caged pet monkey. We ended up getting that monkey into our program for rehabilitation and to be eventually released back into the wild. It was a real success story.

Did you have any turning point in your passion for primates?

This is really easy for me. It was when I first came to Belize three years ago and did the Belize field study school in Monkey River. My first day in the bush I knew I loved it. But Howler monkeys can be pretty boring. I love them but sometimes they sleep all day and don’t groom or have much social interaction. But there was one day when I was in a small group with just two other people. Then I got separated from them. I was in the forest alone and came across an adult Howler monkey grooming one of the females. It was the first time I got to see such an intimate moment between two animals in the wild. It was the first time I’d seen anything like that. I completely fell in love with them. It was such an amazing thing to experience. He was doing it so slowly and carefully and the way he was slowly grooming her and making these soft noises. It was just the two of them and they had clearly gone out of their way to find seclusion.

What was one of your most memorable days at Runaway Creek?

For me personally, it was in February of this year. We had five females that had new babies. It was a real baby boom. It was so cool to watch all these adult males and females that didn’t have babies to try and get the attention of the babies. They were so interested in them! The males were grooming the mothers and trying to get the babies climb onto them. Neither Kayla or I had ever witnessed anything like it. The monkeys are such aggressive jerks on a daily basis, but to see the males presenting themselves and trying to befriend the babies was just very cute. Kayla has a video of this. The male will be grooming the mom and you can tell he’s interested in the baby and he’ll try to get close and he will sometimes lean back and be very stable as the baby climbs all over him. Another thing is that when juveniles play together they make these high pitched screaming sounds that sound like someone is in trouble. It’s very funny and very cute.

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