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Lenoir-Rhyne University student blazing trails with North Carolina Zoo
Lenoir-Rhyne University student blazing trails with North Carolina Zoo

HICKORY, N.C. – Natural resources are a precious commodity that are increasingly threatened across the world.

It's why Lenoir-Rhyne University senior Charles 'Lonnie' Fox III is making it his mission and passion to shepherd wildlife populations as a researcher and animal conservationist.

Fox spent the summer interning at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro studying chimpanzee behavior. This semester, he's completing the research and preparing to present his findings in presentations and published works.

"We have a very unique and large chimpanzee troop," said Dr. Corinne J. Kendall, curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo. "As would occur in the wild, we use a fission-fusion system where a few of our chimps get to decide which troop they want to be with each day. Lonnie has been looking at chimpanzee behavior in relation to the group structure, which will help us better understand the needs of our chimps."

"The zoo is a great resource for learning and education, and we enjoy partnering with universities both to learn more about our animals and to help train the next generation of scientists."

Fox said his interest in studying animals began at a young age.

"My passion started early on with the show 'Zoboomafoo,'" he said. "I absolutely loved that show. When I got older, it was 'Crocodile Hunter' and Mutual of Omaha's 'Wild Kingdom.' My parents always wanted me to watch educational shows if I watched TV, so that was just what I picked."

"I'd have to say I owe it to Steve Irwin though. Every kid wanted to be like him, and I was no different.

A 21-year old Stateville, North Carolina native, Fox has focused his academic sights on natural sciences, while completing his degree with a major in biology. He said the ultimate goal is to continue his research, while pursuing an advanced degree.

Fox recently spoke with a Harvard professor in the organismic and evolutionary biology program who is changing the focus of his research toward great apes and was interested in Fox's experience with chimpanzees in Asheboro.

"He's put 110 percent into this (study), and the skills he has developed while doing this make me think he will be outstanding in graduate school," said Dr. Carly York, LR biology professor. "I've been encouraging him to shoot for the stars with applying to Harvard. I'm hoping he'll apply to Duke and Emory."

Originally, there was not an internship partnership between LR and the North Carolina Zoo; however, Fox said York contacted the zoo on his behalf with the ultimate goal of fostering a relationship for future LR students.

"This was on my mind from the get-go to start a partnership with the zoo," York said. "When Lonnie started talking about wanting to do animal behavior research, it was exciting. We went to the zoo and met the research director, and they laid out a few potential areas of research that the zoo was interested in supporting. We also wanted to do something that was going to help the zoo."

During the summer, Fox spent each day visiting the chimpanzee enclosure from open to close. He followed individual animals, took notes, and built an ethogram of data on the animals in the troupe.

"There isn't a class that caters towards field observation, so it's something I had to learn by myself," Fox said. "Dr. York gave me ethograms she has used in her research, and I adapted one for my needs, which catered more toward animal behavior. Are they walking around, eating, head nods, body rocking, any kind of configuring lips, anything out of the ordinary."

One animal in particular made an impression on Fox.

Kendall is the chimpanzee once known as the primate who picked the winning numbers in Pepsi's Play for a Billion contest, and he once even appeared in front of Oprah Winfrey.

However, he has spent the last 12 years as a resident of the North Carolina Zoo, and he spent this past summer as a companion to Fox.

"He's very atypical," Fox said. "He's the reason why there are two groups at the zoo. He doesn't act like normal chimpanzees. He likes to look at people's phones and at pictures. He came to the zoo at the age of 7 or 8, but 3-to-5 is that critical period where they have to be around other chimps to see those everyday behaviors. He didn't know those, so other chimpanzees were attacking him."

A whimsical story among zoo staff is that when Kendall arrived at the zoo, he had a pizza and some M&Ms. And, that was it.

"He's very animated; he's very funny," Fox said. "We're pretty sure he's upset with me because I'm not there every day anymore. He used to come out and sit by me. He'd watch everything I was doing and spent time with me. Now when I go down there, he walks up to me, looks at me, and sits down with his back to me."

Fox still makes weekly trips to check on the animals he's grown to know and gather more information for his research.

He is scheduled to present his findings to the North Carolina Academy of Sciences in March, the undergraduate research event—Symposium on University Research and Creative Expression (SOURCE)—on campus, in addition to presenting his research to the North Carolina Zoo to help them provide a higher standard of care for the chimpanzees on exhibit.

York said she also will encourage Fox to present to the Ecological Society of America.

"I think he's really set himself apart from the average undergraduate student, even the average honors undergrad," York said. "He's gone above expectations, and I see no reason why he won't be successful."