A History of Many Missions

Research was the central purpose of the original field station—later to become the Duke Primate Center—established in 1960. That year, Yale anthropologist John Buettner-Janusch moved his collection of eighty prosimians, including both lemurs and bushbabies, to cages in Duke Forest. 

The concrete-block building—which now houses the Primate Center’s staff, administrative offices, gift shop, kitchen, veterinary rooms, tissue and cadaver storage, indoor animal quarters, and fossil collection—was originally built in 1968 to house the behavioral research of two scientists. At that time, the center was partially supported by federal funding, and the university continued to contribute heavily to its budget. In 1974, university budgetary shortfalls caused by a declining economy led to plans to close the center. However, a campaign against the closure led by Duke faculty brought about a foundation grant to support operating expenses, allowing the center to remain open. 

In 1977, Yale primatologist Elwyn Simons became director. Under his leadership, the center secured facilities-support funding from the National Science Foundation, which currently provides about $300,000 per year toward the budget. The animal colony grew in size to more than 600 animals, while Simons and his colleagues developed an extensive fossil collection during decades of expeditions to Egypt and Madagascar. Under Simons, James B. Duke Professor in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, the center also received research support from the National Institutes of Health and NSF. 

In 1991, Simons became scientific director of the center—a title he held until 1998—and Kenneth Glander, biological anthropology and anatomy professor, was named director. He was charged with spending 15 percent of his time directing the center, in addition to his teaching duties and research on the dietary habits of monkeys.

During his tenure, Glander became known among the staff and university development officers as a champion of the center. As director, he sought to balance the center’s research, teaching, and conservation missions, while accommodating its growing popularity among the community school groups and the public. This explosion of interest saw visitor numbers more than triple from about 4,000 annually in 1991 to the current 13,000. Besides increasing income from the paid tours, entrepreneurial staff members expanded the gift shop to augment revenues from the “captive” audience of visitors. 

Laboring under diverse missions of hosting visitors, educating students, and conducting research, the center has been described by Duke officials and external reviewer as efficiently managed and the animals meticulously cared for. Reviewers include Duke’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the federal agency charged with monitoring zoos and other animal facilities. Administrators also praise the staff’s dedication to the animals’ welfare, which goes beyond basic husbandry needs. For example, staff members recently launched an “environment enrichment” program in which novel objects, from surplus fire hose to children’s play houses, are introduced into the animals’ cages to engage them mentally and physically. 

Such high-quality care and management has resulted in “squeaky clean” reviews, says center operations manager Dean Gibson, who was hired in 1997. Under Gibson’s management, the center has also shown budget surpluses during the last two years. And, as directed by the administration, the colony size has been reduced from about 450 to 280 animals, with many animals loaned or donated to zoos, and many in the colony put on birth control.

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