Como Zoo ape expert's much more than a keeper

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 11:44 PM

Megan Elder lands a lofty position: keeping tabs on world's orangutans.

Megan Elder grew up visiting Como Zoo as a child, never thinking she'd return one day to care for its endangered orangutans and emerge onto the international stage as a leader in their survival.

And now, at 35, Elder has achieved a status held by only three other people in history: international orangutan studbook keeper for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Studbook keepers track captive animal populations and their genetics, playing a key role in improving the living conditions and understanding species and their survival. They maintain databases that can stretch back generations, often finding themselves in the role of foreign diplomat as they collect data from far-flung locals where political tensions can run high. (There are also regional studbooks for populations within a certain country.)

Elder's position places her square in the battle to keep the great apes alive in captivity as their numbers dwindle dangerously low in the wild, all the while bringing worldwide attention to a small family zoo in St. Paul that was founded in 1897 with three deer fenced in a pasture.

"I'm completely hooked into it," Elder said. "It's pretty much my life now."

Elder's work this summer took her to Borneo and Malaysia, where she collected data and conducted workshops with other experts on enrichment and training for captive orangutans. They also visited a rehabilitation center that reintroduces animals to the wild.

She manages a studbook of 950 orangutans living at more than 200 institutions in 56 countries. That number is bound to grow as she crunches new data from her recent trip. There are four orangutans at Como Zoo. A total of 2,853 animals have been recorded over time.

"It's a big responsibility," said Laurie Bingaman Lackey, a wildlife biologist in North Carolina who helps manage data for zoo animals worldwide. "She is kind of the designated expert internationally for orangutans."

Assigning the job is serious work; many studbook keepers hold onto their unpaid posts for decades.

Elder, dreadlocked and inked with tattoos, was an unlikely candidate when she entered the competitive selection process. International studbook keepers were historically zoo administrators with doctorates, working at bigger, more celebrated institutions -- not rubber-booted zookeepers tasked with feeding and cleaning up after animals.

But Elder, a Minneapolis native, knew she had to have it. She was selected in 2008.

"I equate getting that studbook to being Miss Universe," she said.

Elder earned a biology degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and worked at the Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown, S.D., before joining Como Zoo in 2002 in clerical and education work. She became a primate keeper in 2003 and is Como Zoo's first studbook keeper ever. (She is also the regional crowned lemur studbook keeper.)

"It was just amazing," said Como Zoo Curator John Dee. "We're a small institution. It reflects well on us."

The orangutan's plight in the wild is so dire that the Sumatran species is projected to go extinct in 10 to 15 years at the current rate of habitation destruction, due largely to palm oil plantations. About 5,000 to 7,000 of that species remain in the wild, as well as about 25,000 to 35,000 Bornean orangutans.

Elder wants to do more research on orangutans at rehabilitation centers in their native countries. She has already proved to be a go-to source for staff members in those countries, said Lori Perkins, director of animal programs at Zoo Atlanta and former international orangutan studbook keeper.

"A lot of their facilities aren't as sophisticated as ours because they're very poor countries," Perkins said. "Megan is able to put people at ease. It's not, 'Oh, here's a Westerner telling us what to do.'"

Elder once aspired to work with dolphins and whales. But these days her fate seems sealed with the great red ape.

"I'm pretty much married to it," Elder said. "And I love it."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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  • Zookeeper Megan Elder interacted with Jaya, at center, who was born at Como Zoo in 2007, and his mother, Markisa.

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