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Monkey Business

Greg Schaber

As a science teacher, Mary Pat Schoeny Harris isn’t one to monkey around. But the double graduate—B.S. 1974 and M.Ed. 1977—did spend 12 days last summer in Sri Lanka studying monkeys. Specifically, she studied toque macaques, who live in and around temple ruins near the town of Polonnaruwa. The trip, sponsored by Lyondell Corp., and the Earthwatch Institute, was part of a 37-year-old project carried out in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution—the longest running study of its kind.

The multinational team studied social stratification and activities within and between groups of macaques, with a particular emphasis on the animals’ home-range habitat. On a normal day, Harris was up by 4:30 a.m. and off to the ruins to find her monkey troupe. She then spent the best part of each day observing a small troupe of about 20 animals, recording their activities minute-by-minute in a field notebook, until the macaques settled into their sleeping tree for the evening.

Her studies more or less confirmed previous theories and observations regarding the relative dominance of individuals and groups. But Harris, who teaches in the suburban Cincinnati school district of Milford, says the experience changed her life. And beyond the obvious advantages of sharing the scientific aspects of the study with her students, she says the first-person experience has other educational benefits as well.

“Kids get the idea from TV and the newspaper that the world is a big scary place,” she says. “I can say ‘No, the world’s a good place. There are a lot of good things going on. You’ve got to give it a chance.’”

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