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Dr. Kristen Lukas
Walking & Talking with the Animals

Dr. Kristen Lukas was born on June 15, 1970, one of four children. Her older brother, Mike Lukas, is a stand up comedian in Los Angeles. Her older sister, Jenny Whitehead, is a children's book author and illustrator with two children. Her younger sister, Mary Lukas is a high school teacher in New Hampshire and has even taught English in Hungary!

Kristen grew up on the East side of Cleveland (Eastlake). Her parents came to this area when she was only four because of her father's work. In the vernacular of a true zoologist, Kristen says she was "mother-reared".

She remembers a wonderful childhood filled with laughter and creativity. She attended St. Justin Martyr grade school and then Lake Catholic High School in Mentor. While at Lake Catholic she did volunteer work in physical therapy at Lake West Hospital. It seemed natural then that when she went to Bowling Green she chose Physical Therapy as her major.

Two years later she knew this was not what she wanted. She took her first psychology class and it opened her mind to a completely new arena. She was intrigued with the study of the mind and behavior. She quickly changed her major to Psychology.

Kristen Lukas at her desk

Kristen Lukas at her desk

In her sophomore year she met Corey Taylor, the man who would become her husband. "I was 19 years old, but I knew that this was the love of my life. He is one of the most amazing people I have ever met."

One night she and Corey watched a National Geographic special on gorillas and she was hit with an overwhelming attraction to the animal. "What happened next was a pivotal moment in my life. I went to the head of the Psych. Department and said 'I want to study gorillas'."

Although she was warned that it was very hard to get into Zoo work, she was introduced to the Curator of Mammals at the Toledo Zoo, Gleneous Favata, who put her to work.

The very first day she was put to work cleaning the gorilla exhibit and discovered a severe allergy to hay. Naturally, she couldn't be a zookeeper.

At the time there was a new male gorilla coming to meet three females and Kristen was awarded the opportunity to study them. She was told to develop an ethogram and a protocol and her first reaction was akin to "what are they talking about?" But rather than run and hide Kristen confronted the issue and simply asked what the terms meant.

An ethogram, it turned out, was simply a list of the animals' normal behaviors and interests. The protocol described how the information was to be collected.

So for the next few weeks she watched the gorillas for several hours every day. "In order to really appreciate the animals as they are, you must become a fly on the wall. If you become part of the situation you cannot gain an accurate understanding."

From her vantage point she has been able to watch and overhear zoo visitors viewing the animals and making observations such as "oh that poor animal is bored or sad or angry." She knew better, however, because she watched them for so long and new what they had been doing for hours before that moment and what was ahead in the hours to come.

Gorilla poster from Atlanta Zoo

Another pivotal moment in her life came as the result of a book on gorilla behavior by Terry Maple and Michael Huff. She wrote to them at the Atlanta Zoo. They inspired her to earn her PhD in Experimental Psychology at Georgia Tech with an Emphasis on Animal Behavior. During her six years in Atlanta she focused on gorillas before branching out to other primates.

The title of her dissertation was "Regurgitation and Re-Ingestion" and the focus was on improving the lives of animals in captivity. In her studies she noticed that when the gorillas came inside they would regurgitate and then re-ingest their food. She wanted to know why.

She looked at what else was going on. She noted that the practice often took place at the end of the day, and often though not solely, when they had their milk.

Dr Kristen Lukas explains her dissertation

Dr Kristen Lukas explains her dissertation


"Zookeepers really enjoy the time when they give the milk. It is a good time to give meds and do a physical check on the animals and create a positive interaction."

In her study she replaced the milk with diluted fruit juice and one trial of non-diluted. She noted that the vomiting decreased and hay-eating increased. As a result of her study zoos throughout the country changed their system and replaced milk with diluted fruit juice.

"Food in captivity is not equal to food in the wild. The gorillas were still looking for the high fiber content they need." She further noticed that the gorillas were attempting to control feeding time themselves by regurgitating and re-ingesting and eating the hay when they chose.

Gorilla handprint from Kristen's office

Gorilla handprint from Kristen's office

Kristen received a fellowship to Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. She collected data there and at the Brookfield Zoo. She became the very first Curator of Primates at Lincoln Park Zoo. Under her guardianship the Gorilla collection became world renown. In addition they had a magnificent chimpanzee collection as well as thirteen other, smaller primates.

Kristen Lukas with Gorilla at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 2003

Kristen Lukas with Gorilla at
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 2003

As Curator her job involved research, conservation, new ideas and, decisions about species. In addition she set the tone and directed the collections at the Zoo.

All zoos actually work together. The AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) is a "clearing house" of sorts. For example, there are 362 gorillas in captivity in all of North America. There is a stud book maintained on each one to keep careful track of kinship.

Within this AZA there is a Gorilla Management Group, of which Kristen is one of ten members. This team decides where and when to send gorillas from one zoo to another for mating or research or one of any number of other reasons.

"Gorillas are an endangered species. There are only Western Lowland Gorillas in the zoos. Of the gorillas Dian Fossey studied [Gorillas In the Mist] there are only about 700 left."

Gorilla mask from Kristen Lukas' wall

Gorilla mask from Kristen's wall

Kristen explains that some of the threats to gorillas come from loss of habitat, civil unrest, government corruption, disease and even bush meat. Although the locals do not eat the gorilla meat, some thrill seekers do, resulting in an underground trade in the U.S. and Europe, especially among ex-patriots who have left their homeland.

"It is sadly simple. If there are no animals in the forests the forests fail to live. If the forests fail to live, humans can no longer thrive. We rely on forests to keep our air and water clean."

Kristen remained at Lincoln Park for four years. When she first started there, they had an old exhibit "It was state of the art in the '70's."

Her first job was to renovate the Great Ape House. In order to do so it was necessary to document how the animals used their space as well as how the visitors looked at the space. Then they would put up the exhibits and re-examine these same issues.

Dr Kristen Lukas in front of her zoo

Dr Kristen Lukas in front of her
zoo display on Gorillas


Dr Kristen Lukas display

Listen to Dr Lukas at the zoo display

For example, she discovered that the gorillas preferred corners to sit in. Of course, if they were off in a corner the visitors could not see them. So Lincoln Park was designed with a lot of corners - but they were made of glass.

About six months into her project actress Bonnie Hunt approached the Zoo and said she wanted to do a movie about a fictional curator designing an exhibit for her favorite Gorilla. The curator in the movie was dying and it was her desire to make the gorilla happy before she left him.

Needless to say this was the perfect setting and Kristen was the logical choice to be consultant. The movie was "Return to Me". In addition to Bonnie Hunt (who also directed) the movie starred Minnie Driver, Jolee Richardson and David Duchovny.

Jolee Richardson "was basically playing me" and David Duchovny "was so nice and so cute!" The movie also starred Carroll O'Connor, Jim Belushi, David Alan Grier and, Robert Loggia.

One of her tasks was to train the gorilla to come to the glass and touch the glass at the same time that Jolee did, to make it look like a love connection. Through a series of behavior modification techniques and the use of a clicker and a laser a very touching and realistic scene is included in the movie.

"Even though I knew it was all about training and not a love connection I was so moved by watching it. It was really touching." Kristen is listed in the movie credits as providing "Behavior Advice."

Kristen says it was her training in psychology that brings out what she is naturally good at. "I am terrible at memorizing facts. My forte is figuring things out." She loves math and anything she can analyze rather than "remember".

Kristen Lukas collecting data

Dr. Kristen Lukas collecting data

Kristen became aware of a job opening here at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "This was my dream job, plus my family was all here in Cleveland." She became the Conservation and Science Curator and is, of course, part of the Animal Management Team.

Kristen Lukas with Blanding's Turtle

Kristen with a Blanding's Turtle

"There is a lot more to animal conservation that meets the eye. For example, did you know there is a "Do Not Breed List" for the animals? Most people would think the more breeding the better because of the shortage of a species."

She goes on to explain that many of the animals are on contraceptives to prevent birth. It could be because the opposite sex partner they are living with is a relative, or it could be as simple as they do not allow animals to produce if they can not adequately provide food and shelter for them.

Kristen also sits on Ape-tag (Ape Taxon Advisory Group) whose goal it is to control and manage apes in captivity. In addition she teaches Zoo Biology and Management for Kent State University, though the classes are held at the Zoo.

Kristen Lukas-Taylor family 2005

The Lukas-Taylor family 2005

Kristen has three children: Henley (6), Holden (2) and, Hyatt (less than a year). "Every morning as I'm leaving Holden says "To the Zoo!".

"My oldest is a budding conservationist. As we were driving one day and saw some people doing community service along the highway he said "That's what I like to see - people picking up garbage." And he gave them a big thumbs up as we drove by."

"I did not grow up with animals in the house until I was in high school when a cat adopted us and my mother reluctantly let him in - and then proceeded to fall in love with him."

Now she has two dogs and two cats. Zeus is her 100 lb. German Shepherd and Quinn is a shepherd mix. "We call Quinn the three legged wonder - he lost one leg to cancer but it hasn't slowed him down." They also have two cats: Hobbs and Relix.

Her husband is an elementary school teacher in Cuyahoga Heights, teaching second grade. He has been very supportive of her and her career and all of the moves that came with it. He was a "stay at home dad" the first two years.

"He was just great. He was kind of like the gorillas - a gentle giant. Gorillas make excellent dads. They let the kids play all over them but have the strength to take and maintain control when they need to. My husband is just the perfect father - and husband too for that matter."

Dr Kristen Lukas at work

Dr Kristen Lukas at work

When Kristen was in school she couldn't wait to leave Cleveland, thinking she was missing something "out there." Now that she is back she is very grateful for the opportunity.

"I love Cleveland and this is where I want to be! It is such a great place to raise a family. There is so much to see and do here. Atlanta was great in the spring, and that's the only thing I miss about the South. I just love it here."

Often times when people get involved in something as deeply and are as committed as Kristen is they lose sight of what surrounds them and focus only on their one area. There is no question that Dr. Lukas is committed to the gorillas and conservation and the science involved in making captivity a better solution. But she is more than that.

Dr Kristen Lukas at the zoo

Dr Kristen Lukas at the zoo

In addition to being amazingly smart, she is funny and energetic and possesses tremendous people skills. And on top of all of that she has a family that she loves and is now back home working in her dream job.

Some would say she is very lucky. I would say she has earned her position through dedicated hard worker and by being a sincerely good person.


Profiled by Debbie Hanson



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