The Art and Science of Saving SpeciesSeveral years ago I remember slogging along a muddy trail in Rwanda thinking about one-health medicine. It made so much sense; it was so easy to explain. Healthy mountain gorillas depended on healthy people and a healthy environment, and vice versa. The problem was getting people to act on it.
For example, whenever there was an outbreak of respiratory disease in a gorilla group, we (the gorilla doctors) would reiterate the importance of preventive medicine for the gorillas. We recommended everyone visiting the gorillas wear a face mask. Our idea, later proven, was that international travelers were bringing respiratory infections to central Africa. We thought local people were getting sick in the same way.
It was so obvious what needed to be done. Yet there was resistance. It seemed the mask was an acknowledgement of our failure to protect the gorillas. It was somehow shameful, a statement of a problem rather than the solution.
I also remember feeling driven to do my work for the gorillas by a deep sense of responsibility. The relatively huge effort we were making for a single species did not bother me. I knew it was extreme. But I also knew the gentle giants I had grown to love depended on us for their health and safety.
Working with the gorillas taught me how readily our emotions, our sense of compassion, and our humanity influence conservation decisions. I finally understood that conservation is more than a science.
I realized it was time to shift gears in my career and start teaching. I no longer wanted to work to save the last of a species or focus just on the science of veterinary medicine. I wanted to help inspire the next generation of conservationists, especially college-age students interested in nature, animals, science, and health.
What followed was a year-long visiting Assistant Professorship at Brown University where I taught a primate behavior course, and a freshman seminar on human-animal interactions. Next came the opportunity to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, in the Liberal Arts Division, which continues today. So far, I have developed four new biology-based courses.
At RISD, I encourage my students to learn the science behind a topic first, and then apply it to their art and design work in the studio. I challenge them to find new ways to make scientific information more real, understandable, and meaningful. Their creativity has, in turn, inspired me.
The result is a new website, Creature Conserve, a gallery of works by student artists and designers who are researching and responding to the problems facing animals today.