Monkey Business with Michelle Bezanson
Kayla Wells, Sustainability Programs Assistant
Whether it is a sloth moseying along or a spider monkey leaping from tree to tree, Michelle is always on the lookout for signs of wildlife. With a love for the great outdoors and a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Arizona, Michelle has dedicated her life's work to studying primate behavior. Since 2003, she has been researching the similarities and differences in posture and locomotion in infant, juvenile, and adult capuchins and howler monkeys. This research has led her from the rainforests of Central America all the way to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, Michelle has been researching the sustainability of anthropological field research, especially that of which is done in fragile ecosystems. She is consistently asking “how can we do this better?” Recently awarded a Hackworth Grant, the funds will allow her students Chonsa Schmidt ‘18 and Gabriella Carne ‘17 to look closer and “investigate the community, economic, and environmental impact of international immersion programs, while on-site in Costa Rica.”
For the past 10 years, Michelle has been leading groups of Santa Clara students to La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica to study primate behavior and environmental biology. Prior to departure, Michelle asks every student to sign a sustainability contract. This contract brings a mindfulness component to the trip in regards to water, energy, and waste. Students are encouraged to bring biodegradable soaps and pack out their waste, among other things. However, for Michelle, being sustainable during her travels means not only reducing waste, it also means being mindful and observant, asking questions, and establishing trust with the local community.
Engaging with the local community is a vital component of field work. During the interview, Michelle stressed the time it takes to develop relationships and the value in those relationships. “I have come to learn that it is my human interactions in the field where I learn the most whether from the local community members, my students, or my colleagues.” These interactions help her to recognize the broader ethics of her field and the impact visitors can have, both positive and negative. Michelle attempts to communicate this to her own students via lessons on sustainable development. In addition, every field class also spends a day with local kids playing soccer and taking them into the rainforest to engage with the natural environment that surrounds them. These lessons of engagement, diversity, and ethics, are unique to experiences outside of the classroom and play a large role in shaping the futures of participants. “One walk with someone that has grown up near the forest teaches us more than any book. It is this understanding of the human component that is critically important for our conservation efforts in fragile environments.”
Beyond her love for observing wildlife, she is also an avid drawer. Her illustrations have been used in many notable publications such as the International Journal of Primatology as well as on the cover of many books. Wherever she goes she makes sure to use her free time in a productive way. For her, sharing her illustrations is another way of communicating what she sees. Her expertise in anatomy allows for her to create accurate and detailed illustrations. Check out the logo she designed for SCU Gone Wild, a natural history on campus initiative that she started during her time here at Santa Clara.