09 Aug 2017

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe

David Schwebel Taps Virtual Reality to Keep Kids Safe
David Schwebel
APA Fellow David Schwebel not only studies the effects of mobile technology on pedestrian safety, but also harnesses virtual reality to help prevent injuries caused by distracted walking.

A young girl prepares to cross a busy street, her face plastered to a smartphone. Will she step off the curb and run for it or wait for a gap?

It may sound like a phone-happy, distracted pedestrian but it’s actually the reverse: The girl is using a smartphone—coupled with virtual-reality technology—to help her learn how to cross the street safely.

The experiment is the latest brainchild of APA Fellow David Schwebel, a leading researcher in child-injury prevention and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he directs the UAB Youth Safety Lab.

Schwebel has created a sophisticated street-crossing training application that runs using software for a smartphone retrofitted with Google Cardboard—an inexpensive virtual-reality platform.

The user just places a phone into a cardboard or plastic viewer, and looks through its plastic lenses into a virtual world of traffic—complete with sounds and passing cars. The “traffic” moves at different speeds, with variances for car distances and gap sizes. When students judge it safe, they click a button and step off the virtual curb to cross the street.

“We record absolutely everything,” says Schwebel. “We know exactly when they choose to cross the street, their speed of walking, the speed of vehicles, which gaps they’re choosing, whether they enter soon after a car passes or if there’s a delay—which is a good proxy of their cognitive processing.”

The simulator lets Schwebel and his students study a dangerous task without putting children at risk—and it gives participants great practice for the real world.

While the intervention may be fun, the imperative for his work is deadly serious: Pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. leaped 11 percent to more than 6,000 deaths in 2016. Of the estimated 270,000 pedestrian traffic deaths worldwide, nearly half are youths.

Schwebel is among a surprisingly scant cohort of research psychologists working in the field of youth safety. His Youth Safety Lab is one of the few academic research centers in North America devoted to researching child safety, and is a major locus for research and student training.

“When you take a step back from pedestrian safety and realize that injuries are by a huge margin the leading cause of child death in America—and one of the leading ones globally—it’s pretty remarkable that more psychologists aren’t thinking about the behavioral aspects of it,” notes Schwebel.

Schwebel has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and conducts a wide spectrum of research at his lab: pedestrian safety, poisoning prevention, global injury prevention, dog-bite prevention, youth soccer safety, playground safety, lifeguard behavior, car-seat safety, among many others.

It’s enough potential danger to keep any helicopter parent permanently on high spin.

“Clearly at every age there are risks,” acknowledges Schwebel, “. . . but children as young as 18 months can be taught to follow rules and avoid injury.”

Although he has earned a reputation as a technologically innovative researcher, one of his most successful youth-safety interventions was decidedly low tech—and targeted caregivers as much as it did children.

He developed a “Stamp-in-Safety” program to help improve teacher supervision of preschoolers on playgrounds, where nearly 70 percent of preschool injuries occur.

“We said, the teachers are in the shade talking about their weekend and the kids are running around on the playground. How can we change this?” notes Schwebel.

The solution was simple: Give nametags to all kids and equip teachers with self-inking stamps. When teachers see a child playing safely they give him or her an ink stamp as a reward. “On the surface it’s rewarding the child for safe behavior,” notes Schwebel, “but underneath the goal was to change teacher behavior too.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Schwebel would become a psychologist. The son and grandson of psychologists—father Dr. Andrew Schwebel taught at Ohio State University, and grandfather Dr. Milton Schwebel was a dean at Rutgers University—psychology was “the family business.”

“I grew up with psychology as part of my life,” he says. “As a kid, I sometimes even went to APA conventions.”

Schwebel got a taste for applied research as an undergrad at Yale, where he worked with noted psychologist Jerome Singer. His mentor had been hired by creators of the Barney and Friends children’s television show on PBS to evaluate its effectiveness in teaching children.

“As much as parents got sick of the [theme] song, the show actually taught children a lot,” says Schwebel. “We had children watch the show, as well as getting lessons in school. Our research showed that children learned as much from the show as they did from their teachers on the same topics.”

Based on their findings, the show’s creators rewrote some episodes to increase their effectiveness. “That taught me how psychology could really make a difference,” says Schwebel.

He has carried that passion for applied psychology into much of his research, developing interventions that offer real-world tools based on data collected in his lab and in the field. In some cases, his work may have directly saved lives.

Several years ago, for instance, he was approached by an attorney representing a family whose toddler son had died from drinking torch fuel. It became one of several child-poisoning lawsuits against manufacturers.

In a series of studies, Schwebel and his researchers studied the shape, coloring and labeling of a variety of bottles to determine how likely preliterate children were to consider them as something safe to consume—or to avoid.

“We discovered, not surprisingly, that they were more likely to judge an opaque, black bottle as dangerous than a transparent torch-fuel bottle with juice-colored liquid inside,” says Schwebel, adding: “Then the company started packaging the product in a dark-colored bottle. I have to assume that my research played at least some role in that decision.”

Schwebel’s penchant for applied research and social justice also has resulted in many international research partnerships. He has worked with researchers to evaluate kerosene-safety practices in low-income South African communities and in rural Uganda, and conducted extensive research with partners in China.

”I enjoy working with people from other cultures and I also think I have some obligation,” says Schwebel, “because ultimately we conduct science to improve society. There is higher risk of injury in other countries so that’s a priority for me.”

One long-running collaboration with Iranian researchers, which because of political issues was conducted entirely through emails, highlighted self-immolation among young women in Iran.

“It’s devastating, culturally bound, and it tends to be low-educated young wives who . . . often have tough lives,” he says. “It sometimes leads to severe depression, and immolation is in many cases their only means to commit suicide.”

These days, Schwebel is focusing on getting his pedestrian-safety programs to scale big—and even hop continents.

A recent test run with schoolchildren in China was a big hit. The class went wild when the technology was introduced and the trainings netted great results. The PI on several grants from the NIH, Schwebel hopes to expand this work into other rapidly motorizing countries, including South Africa and Iran.

“With Google Cardboard all you need is a smartphone and a $3 piece of cardboard with a couple of plastic lenses and magnets. It’s not a high-priced device. And since smartphones are everywhere, even in low-income communities . . . it’s really feasible anywhere in the world,” he says.

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26 Jun 2017

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies

Charlotte Patterson, at the Forefront of LGBTQ Family Studies
Charlotte Patterson
APA Fellow Charlotte Patterson has done groundbreaking research on child development, most notably on the topic of children of lesbian and gay parents.

It was her career on the line. Could the publication of one paper “taint” a reputation built on 20 years of child development research? It was the question Charlotte Patterson asked herself when she went to work at her University of Virginia (UVA) office one morning in the 1980s.

“I can still remember walking up to this building, looking up and thinking, well, who else is going to do it if not me?” says Patterson, PhD, APA Fellow, Stanford grad, noted developmental psychology researcher. And lesbian.

The paper in question was her landmark work, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” It was among the first research that debunked then-prevalent beliefs that children with lesbian or gay parents showed compromised psychosocial development relative to children from heterosexual parents.

Published as the lead article in Child Development in 1992, it blew open doors for mainstream lesbian and gay studies and became a crucible for public and legal discourse about LGBTQ family issues for decades to come.

“In those days, and still today, if you write something on a LGBTQ topic as a professional research psychologist people will assume you have some connection to the topic,” Patterson says. “I was frankly worried that . . . it would be a real problem for my career. Would people let me work with their children?

“A lot of people were shocked that I wrote it,” she continues. “People saw that article as a kind of professional coming out. That won me some friends and lost me some, as you can imagine.”

Since then, Patterson has been at the forefront of LGBTQ family studies, worked as an expert witness on landmark child custody cases involving lesbian parents, and been party to changes in state recognition of gay marriage that paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court).

A major challenge for Patterson and other early LGBTQ researchers was the dearth of available data on lesbian and gay families. In statistics, as in life, these families remained hidden. To amass a review of the scant literature that existed in the 1980s, Patterson literally drove from campus to campus in search of doctoral dissertations.

“Information was strewn across many fields—some in social work, psychology, psychiatry—a few people here and there who didn’t seem to know one another. It wasn’t a coherent field at that point in time. I realized there were lots and lots of interesting things that nobody had studied, to put it mildly.”

As if to emphasize this, Patterson glances at a bookshelf full of gender studies texts at her UVA office, where she has spent her entire academic career. (“I arrived here at 25, when I didn’t even own a couch!” she laughs.) An entire row of publications are her own, including Handbook of Psychology and Sexual Orientation, the 2013 APA Division 44 Book of the Year. “In those days, it was this sense of seeing an open frontier in front of you and wondering where to begin.”

Patterson started by studying what she knew: the relatively large group of lesbians raising children in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, where she was then living on sabbatical.

“This was the perfect place to try to do that work,” recalls Patterson, who later had children with her own partner-then-wife. “It was the only place in the world at that time with a large concentration of lesbian families who had kids together. So it was my great good luck to begin research there . . . to meet families and to interview them.”

Much of the early work highlighted data on similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex parented households.

“The first findings of primary importance to policy issues were that [same-sex] parents in general were pretty well-adjusted people. That doesn’t seem surprising to people today but it did then. A second conclusion was, in general, that the children were also well adjusted, pretty much like their neighbors and peers in school.”

One study that gained wide media attention presented data suggesting that same-sex parents have a more equal division of household labor than their heterosexual counterparts do, findings corroborated by other studies internationally.

“The division of labor was the first big difference we saw,” recalls Patterson. “It’s so dramatic. A lot of people have taken up the finding and said, ‘Look! This is same-sex couples leading the way into a less gendered world!’”

But that was just the beginning of the story as far as she was concerned. Patterson wanted to understand the nuances of family systems—the distinctive qualities of experiences in families of lesbian and gay parents—and the differences among them.

She embarked on wide-reaching research that yielded significant findings: sex-role identity among children of same-sex headed families; adoption issues among gays and lesbians; division of household labor among gay and lesbian parents; and LGBTQ family issues within the context of changing legal and social policy environments.

Interestingly, it was the cross-examination by a prosecutor in her first of many appearances as an expert witness in lesbian-gay family legal battles that prompted Patterson to take her research to the next level.

“There was a 1993 trial that took place in Henrico Co., Va., not far from here,” recalls Patterson. “It involved a lesbian mom being sued for custody of her little boy by her own mother. It was a dramatic case, a sordid tale.

“Testifying as an expert, I was asked by the opposing attorney, ‘This research you’ve done, isn’t it about some crazy people in Berkeley?’ And of course, the research was about people who lived in Berkeley, not people who lived in Henrico. I thought his point was well taken actually, and it led me to want to know more about other groups and more carefully selected samples. It really made a huge impact on me.”

To obtain a more objective sample, Patterson teamed up with a sperm bank that had extensive records of all clients seeking help in getting pregnant. “It made a wonderful sample—singles, couples, straight, gay. We were able to invite every single woman who had come to this clinic to participate.”

A resulting paper in Child Development in 1998, “Psychosocial Adjustment Among Children Conceived via Donor Insemination by Lesbian and Heterosexual Mothers,” showed that these children were developing normally, and that their adjustment was unrelated to parental sexual orientation or the number of parents in the household.

Later, Patterson was able to tap into a large national data set—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—to develop a methodological innovation in the study of child development in households headed by same-sex couples. The study didn’t ask parents if they were lesbian or gay. But by teasing out details among their answers—Are you in a marriage-like relationship? What is the gender of your partner?—Patterson was able to identify families with same-sex parents.

“It was very challenging to do that,” she recalls. “There were lots of technical challenges; we were trying to discern the signal from the noise.”

Importantly, this work confirmed her earlier findings.

Patterson takes satisfaction in the role of her work in expanding knowledge and public policy about what determines a family, but expresses something more personal about its effects on her own community: “I sometimes see that my research has made an impact when people tell me that they used the work in many ways when they were considering having children.

“Most people my age in the gay community grew up assuming they wouldn’t have kids. A lot of us were affected with what I would call internalized homophobia,” she explains. “If you’ve heard people around you forever telling you that you’d be a terrible parent you wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have children. A lot of people told me they read my articles and said, ‘Hey, maybe I could be a good parent!’ Or they used the findings to reassure worried grandparents-to-be.”

She looks at a photo of her grinning children on her desk, reflecting on the wonderful adults each has become.

“There are so many stories!” she marvels. “This work on families continues to rivet my attention. I think families are the most interesting thing in the world.”

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25 Apr 2017

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren
APA Fellow Stanley Coren's research on dog behavior has brought him worldwide acclaim. (Photo: SC & Ripley UBC photo)

He wrote the textbook on sensory processes, published hundreds of papers on wide-ranging neuropsychological topics—and wrote a groundbreaking book on problems associated with left-handedness.

But it was his 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, which ultimately brought psychologist and APA Fellow Stanley Coren, PhD, worldwide acclaim.

The Intelligence of Dogs was the first popular book to apply multiple intelligences to dogs—including instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence—and it blended colorful personal anecdotes with a scientist’s understanding of the dog’s natural history, evolutionary relationship to humans, and trainability.

Notably, the book included data Coren collected from North American dog obedience judges that ranked 110 breeds by intelligence. (Unsurprisingly, Border Collies topped the list, while beautiful, but pea-brained, Afghan Hounds rounded out the bottom.)

It also employed aspects of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories to begin measuring canine language comprehension, an innovative adaptation of human psychological testing.

Speaking from his home in British Columbia, with his Toller pup Ranger whining for attention, Coren reflects on the meandering pathways his scientific explorations have taken him on, and the new concepts of canine research his work has unleashed.

“It used to be the case that you didn’t do research on dogs . . . because they were not considered a natural species,” says Coren, adding: “After my book came out, people began to see . . . what a wonderful genetics lab dogs could be because the breeds have been kept so pure that you actually can have genetically determined behavior differences.

“And then the later books that suggested that dogs have a mind of roughly a human equivalent of a 2- to-3-year-old began to impel people to think that maybe dogs are an important species to study.”

The dog book wasn’t his first brush with renown. Just a year earlier, Coren had published a bestseller on left-handedness, The Left-Hander Syndrome, which included nearly a decade of work on handedness.

His research indicated that left-handedness might be associated with birth stress and could cause some psychological and health problems—a highly controversial assertion that spurred new research in the field. Eventually, it also led to design changes in machinery to reduce hazards for left-handers, an accomplishment for which Coren enjoys obvious pride.

The book shot to the top of the bestseller list and landed Coren a spot on talk show couches from Oprah to Larry King to Charlie Rose. “I had been teaching monster-sized classes, hundreds of kids. That’s basically show biz, so I had lots of practice,” quips Coren.

What the two books shared was a deft, natural writing style that blended extensive scientific research with colorful personal anecdotes, examples from history, mythology, physiology and, in the case of handedness, advocacy. “All of my [popular] books are written as though I’m sitting across the table telling a story to my Aunt Sylvia,” he says, laughing. “She had a short attention span.”

Coren says he always knew he wanted to study the human-canine bond even as an undergrad in the 1960s, but in those days there was no precedent for “studying the critter at either end of the leash.”

“Anybody who claimed they wanted to study the human-animal bond at that time was looked at as if they had just gotten out of a flying saucer with a beanie [and] propeller on top,” says Coren. “There was no way for funding for that sort of thing.”

And so Coren pursued research in sensory processing, publishing his first paper in Science before earning a doctorate in psychology from Stanford. He established a prolific research career, publishing on wide-ranging topics that included vision and hearing, perception, laterality, birth stress, sleep, handedness, behavior genetics and cognitive processing.

“I always believed that a good scientist had to follow his interests and the questions which intrigued him,” notes Coren, who has amassed roughly 300 publications in publications including The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and American Journal of Public Health.

His body of neuropsychological work earned him the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed on a scientist. But even then, Coren was dogged by his “other” life.

“At the induction ceremony the governor general—who is the queen’s representative in Canada—shook my hand,” recalls Coren. “And all she wanted to do was talk about her Golden Retrievers. But, they’re the fourth smartest dogs in all of dogdom and they’re kissy-faced . . . so it’s an irresistible package.”

Coren has heard tales by besotted dog owners from movie stars to presidents. George Bush, Sr., once told Coren that First Dog Millie, his famed Springer Spaniel, routinely took showers with him at the White House.

“For a psychologist like me it was absolute proof of just how strong our bonds can be with our dogs . . .  that we would talk about these intimate moments with people we don’t know all that well when they involve our dog,” Coren chuckles.

Naturally, Coren has been a lifelong dog owner and longtime competitive dog obedience trainer—several of his dogs have won obedience titles. His books are filled with stories of pups he has loved and trained, and he even devoted an entire book to a clever Cairn Terrier, Flint, who could perform counting tasks and operate an answering machine.

Probably not surprising in the often siloed world of science, Coren’s success as a scientist-communicator would eventually undercut his work as a researcher.

“When I published The Intelligence of Dogs I was told by my colleagues it would be the end of my career,” says Coren, who nonetheless balanced his popular writing with neuropsychological research, until funding dried up in 2001. Undaunted, he continued research with his own funds before retiring from academics in 2007.

Coren has made peace with the price of success. He harnessed his own devotion to dogs to publish more than a dozen books on the subject. He writes a regular column on dogs for Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to the Canadian TV show “Pet Central.”

Coren says he’s excited about the explosion of dog research taking place internationally since his first book was published and the growing understanding of capabilities of service and therapy dogs. “In 1972, I remember there were 16 assisted-animal programs in all of America. In the year 2000, when I stopped monitoring, there were well over 1,000.”

All of Coren’s dogs are certified therapy dogs, he says, and he also trains them for competition-level obedience trials, whether they compete or not. But even in his household, dogs will be dogs. He confesses: “When my wife is not around they sometimes sneak on the sofa.”

At this Coren lets out a roaring laugh, which Ranger answers with an urgent whimper. “Okay puppy,” he says. “Okay. Time to go out.”

Dog Tips

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08 Mar 2017

Norweeta Milburn Wants to Prevent Teenage Homelessness

Norweeta Milburn Wants to Prevent Teenage Homelessness
APA Fellow Norweeta Milburn, PhD, has developed a psychosocial behavioral program to help homeless adolescents.

Chronic homelessness among young people often is traced to factors such as family violence, substance abuse and negative peer pressure—issues that are difficult to address and whose impact is hard to measure.

Leading community psychologist and APA Fellow Norweeta Milburn, PhD, thinks she may have developed a surprisingly simple intervention: She is teaching teenagers and their families how to fight fair.

Milburn and colleagues at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center have developed an innovative, on-the-ground behavioral intervention that brings together young people and their parents/guardians for training on some basic communication and problem-solving skills.

“We argue that when a young person leaves home there is an unresolved conflict,” says Milburn. “The intervention is devised so that young people can argue with their parent or guardian in a more effective way so that they don’t have to leave home. We’re teaching them how to communicate better.”

The five-part psychosocial behavioral program, called STRIVE (Support to Reunite, Involve and Value Each Other), is highly adaptable and can be delivered on the teenager’s home turf—it’s been field tested in living rooms, teen centers and fast-food restaurants—wherever a client agrees to meet up with his or her guardian and a trained facilitator.

A STRIVE facilitator helps individuals identify family strengths while pinpointing sources of conflict. The facilitator introduces tools for emotional regulation, such as feeling thermometers, to help them gauge their levels of emotional arousal.

By setting small, winnable goals, the family members learn to identify a conflict, apply some problem-solving strategies, and work through concrete solutions. In the process, they often create a more positive family atmosphere—as evidenced by the “before” and “after” photographs facilitators take of participants, the latter often showing parents and children with their arms around each other.

Parents need the skills just as much as the kids, notes Milburn. “It may be a mother who is really exhausted, and part of her homework is to just get an hour of her own space. We’re trying to help them be the parent, be in control, but to do it in a way that is positive for their child and age appropriate.”

The idea for the intervention came out of her years of research on homelessness. Milburn, currently Professor-in-Residence at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, was among the first social scientists to establish differences among homeless young people.

Her 1999 study of homeless adolescents in the Los Angeles area showed that newly homeless youth who still maintained some ties to family had fewer risk behaviors than did their more chronically homeless counterparts. More than two-thirds returned home within six months, particularly if they had maintained contact with mainstream peers and with family.

Milburn cut her teeth on social research as a postdoc at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It was the 1970s, and she was among the first wave of students working with pioneering social research psychologist Richard Price in what was then the nascent field of community psychology.

“It was the aftermath of the Vietnam War and we were still dealing with the tumultuousness of the ‘60s,” she recalls. “Social action, political action and social movements were important areas. What community psychology did, and part of its appeal, was to really understand people’s behavior in the social context within which they lived or experienced the world.”

In 1977, Milburn contributed several survey questions to the groundbreaking National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA).

The large, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) -funded study was the first to use cutting-edge social research methods to understand the behavior and life experiences of black people in the U.S. and has shaped public policy for decades.

“A lot of work prior to that talked about how dysfunctional black families were, how underachieving black children were,” recalls Milburn. “There was a lot of negative focus in the psychological and sociological literature.”

The NSBA greatly expanded measures relevant to the quality of life for black Americans and identified cultural and social strengths including family relationships, community involvement and religious supports.

“It really shaped my work, even now with homeless adolescents,” says Milburn, adding: “Even in the poorest communities, you still have good things that are going on. How do you capture some of the good, the strength, to build interventions?”

For her work on homelessness Milburn is building on the strongest, and most vulnerable, support of all: family love. It is a bond that too often is obscured in layers of blame and misunderstanding.

“So many are highly dysfunctional families but we try to take them back to their last positive experience with each other, to the point where the love was much more visible,” notes Milburn. “We know it’s there.”

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03 Jan 2017

Suzanne MacDonald Helps Threatened Species Survive

Suzanne MacDonald Helps Threatened Species Survive
APA Fellow Suzanne MacDonald is an animal behaviorist in Toronto, Canada. She studies memory and cognition in primates and other animals in the wild.

At the edge of the northern Ontario wilderness, three orphaned polar bears roam the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, a five-acre tract of woods, rock and natural lake.

Although they are not free to roam beyond the perimeter of the conservation and public education center, the bears are faring better than many of their counterparts in the wild who face starvation as prime seal hunting grounds melt into the warming sea.

Soon, the bears will enjoy even greater freedom. With the use of “smart technology” under development and some new, learned behavior, the bears will be able to control their levels of light, temperature, amount of mist they get in the summer—and maybe even their playmates—with the thrust of a snout in a laser beam.

The brains behind this innovation is APA Fellow Suzanne MacDonald, PhD, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, who has recruited 11 undergraduate engineering students to help develop the unique technology.

It’s just the latest project for the animal behaviorist, who has studied a wide range of animals around the globe in an effort to help threatened species survive.

“Large carnivores particularly have a hard time in captivity because they typically range over many, many kilometers in a day,” says MacDonald. “Replicating their environment in captivity is impossible, so what I think will help is to give them control over what they do.”

Psychologists, she says, have a special role to play in creating and monitoring habitats—be they wild or human-built—where threatened species can survive with a minimum of disruption to their natural behaviors.

 “We can’t just go, oh no this is terrible,” she says. “We have to actually do something about it. We have to go in and take our expertise … and help in the real world.”

For MacDonald that imperative has included a mix of behavioral research and conservationism. She has studied elephants, lions, gorillas, rhinos, marmots, orangutans and hyenas in countries including Kenya, Costa Rica and South Africa. But it may be her volunteer work with animals in captivity that has brought her the greatest satisfaction.

MacDonald has been the on-call behaviorist at the Toronto Zoo for 26 years, where she acquired a deep fondness for and understanding of orangutans. The primates love to be silly, she says, recalling her first shared joke with another species. She hid an object in her hand, then did a big reveal, which sent the orangutan howling.

“They go, ‘Aaaaaah!’ Just like kids do,” she says, throwing out her hands and grinning widely. “To do that for the first time, you go, this is the greatest thing in the world. I’m having an awesome time with this other mind.”

Orangutans also love to look at photos on a computer screen, a technology that is increasingly in use at zoos around the world. “They love it,” says MacDonald. “You can get them to scroll through photos and you can tell which photo they like by how long they spend looking at it.”

Number one with orangutans? “They love the babies,” she says.

MacDonald came by her love of animals honestly. Raised in northern Alberta, she grew up with cats, dogs, horses, ducks, rabbits and a constant backdrop of wildlife. “I’m Canadian and animals are kind of in our blood,” she says, adding conspiratorially, “I actually prefer the company of other species. That’s pretty bad!”

After undergraduate studies in zoology and genetics, she earned her PhD in animal learning and behavior from the University of Alberta and began studying the unique quirks of how animals think.

It was during a postdoc visit to a now-defunct zoo in Vancouver that MacDonald first began approaching cognitive research as one way to promote psychological well-being in captive animals.

“The zoo was terrible,” she recalls. “The primates had nothing to do so they used to abuse each other.” Including, apparently, biting each other’s fingers off. “I was so upset by that,” she says. “You can’t just give them food in a lump in the corner and a place to live and expect that primates are going to be happy. They’re like us. You’ve got to give them things to do.”

MacDonald upbraided the zoo owner and made a laundry list of recommendations, including housing them in normal social groups and giving them tasks to do, including searching for food. He incorporated them all, and MacDonald used that work as the basis for some of her earliest primate research studies.

Modern zoos have come a long way since then, and MacDonald says zoo staff has been among “the best people I’ve ever worked with.” Still, she says, each species reacts differently to captivity and requires a depth of cognitive understanding that psychologists are uniquely trained to provide.

“Now that zoos are probably the last refuge for many, many species, we’d better figure out how to keep them at least sane and breeding and as happy as possible,” MacDonald says, adding: “And it can be done, it really can.”

A spatial theme runs through much of MacDonald’s research. She has studied the spatial abilities of a variety of primates—from migrating elephants to raccoons to human babies.

Her ongoing research on roaming raccoons in the city of Toronto has earned her renown in the public press, including a documentary on her research called “Raccoon Nation” on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Nature of Things.

“There are so many more raccoons in people’s backyards than they thought,” she says. “In one backyard I have counted over 50 raccoons in one night.”

She is conducting a new study this spring comparing urban vs. rural raccoons to get data on her hypothesis that Toronto is developing so-called “uber-raccoons,” city slickers who have developed more wiles than their country cousins.

“The differences I’ve already found between the adults in the city and country were quite substantial. So I want to find out if those are innate or not,” she says.

Not all of MacDonald’s research has gone as planned. There was the time in Kenya a couple of years ago when she was testing vanilla as an attractant for elephants. It was hoped that vanilla could be used to entice the pachyderms to migrate away from crops, roads and other human encroachments that might engender danger to either.

Trouble was, she had inadvertently dosed herself and suddenly found a bull elephant barreling toward her. “You go, ‘Oh my, I have misread the situation and now I’m going to die,’” she says, laughing. “I did at one point recite my will into the video camera but luckily the elephant stopped just in front of me and I was fine.”

Watching a woodpecker land on a tall tree in her backyard, MacDonald becomes more serious.

“The wild isn’t wild anymore,” she muses. “The places in Kenya where you go, ‘Wow this is extraordinary,’ is only so because it’s fenced. Places in the wild are becoming like a zoo. And that’s really going to be the way it is.”

This blurring between captivity and the wild, she says, is an irreparable consequence of environmental degradation caused by humans. “I don’t know what to say anymore,” she says. “It seems like you’re trying to drain the ocean with a thimble. Still, you gotta do something.”

She thinks psychologists must play a much larger role: “We learn how to work in a lab, and work with control and variables. And we manipulate them. Well, the wild is becoming like that … we are used to dealing with those settings but we just have to do it in a much larger sense. We can extrapolate and put it into real life.”

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