Dr. Jenny Campbell is the Zoology Coordinator for the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State University and a teaching professor. Growing up, she went to sleep every night with a dog on her bed and knows the comfort humans derive from their companion animals. After working with elephants, right whales, red wolves, and lemurs, she now focuses her attention on the human-animal relationship as a professor at NC State University.
Zoology is the branch of biology that relates to the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals both living and extinct.
When did you discover that you wanted to be a zoologist?
I didn’t discover I loved animals - I think I was born that way. I loved being outside. I grew up in the country and spent time down by the creek looking for crawdads, dragonfly nymphs, and animal signs. I’d use old Maxwell house coffee cans, with the latest shrew, snake, mouse, or vole I’d found to show my dad. I rode horses for years, and in my 20s worked on a horse farm for free so I could ride. As I got older, my personal interest in animals became more scientific.
What did you study in school?
I always thought I was going to be a doctor, like my dad, so I started out taking the typical biology classes in college, working towards a degree in Biology. I needed a job to cover expenses and someone told me about one where I could work with elephants, up at Kings Dominion Animal Park in Virginia. The first day I walked into the elephant barn, my life changed - I knew I wanted to work with these magnificent animals full time. I finished college and worked there for a few years before leaving to work with “wild” animals. To this day, though, working with elephants remains one of the most amazing things I ever had the opportunity to do.
Where did your career take you?
For the next few years, I cobbled together jobs, internships, and seasonal positions in order to work with animals in their native habitat. I went to Alaska and learned how caribou and moose were impacted by oil exploration, and that I hated mosquitoes. I worked in the Bay of Fundy, off the coast of Maine, collecting information about the North American Right Whale, the most endangered baleen whale in the world. I moved to Alligator River Wildlife Refuge to care for captive red wolves and track the released ones in the early years of their reintroduction. At night, they would howl when the jets from Cherry Point would scream overhead on their way to the bombing range. You can’t hear the planes until after they pass over your head, but for some reason that sound triggered the wolves.
Then I came to Durham to work at the Duke Lemur Center. I worked mainly with the sifakas—the ones that look like Zoboomafoo. At the time, we were still figuring out how to maintain them in captivity. We had babies but offspring often did not make it past weaning. I discovered that changes to their diet increased the babies’ success. The thing most folks don’t know about lemurs is that, like the marsupials in Australia, they are not just one kind of animal—they fill a myriad of specialized niches. The scientific consensus about lemur evolution is that only a few individuals rafted from India or Africa to Madagascar and then adapted to the empty niches on the island. Before humans arrived on the island, there were lemurs as big as baboons. Of the lemurs still alive today, some eat bamboo, some eat fruits, some eat insects, and some feed only on the liquid gum of tree sap. The nutrition in each of these foods is different, so you can’t just feed all lemurs the same thing and expect them to flourish. The highlight of that job was getting to go to Madagascar. That experience taught me just how small the world is becoming for wild animals.
And that’s when I decided to go to graduate school to learn about the nutritional needs of wild animals. Everyone told me I had to be a vet if I wanted to work with animals - well you don’t. There are a lot of disciplines that allow you to work with them.
What do you like about your job today?
While I was getting my Ph.D. at NC State, I did some teaching and found I loved my role as an educator. At the same time, I became interested in studying the relationship between humans and animals. I want humans to value their animal neighbors enough to provide space for them to flourish also. I wonder, as a researcher, how can we optimize our relationships with all the animals that humans interact with? What do we need to know about the bond between humans and animals—our pets, our iconic exotics in zoos, the animals we eat, the ones we encounter in our yards, even our house spiders - in order to create space for all?
Horses provide a great example of how complex the human-animal relationship truly is. North Carolina has a very large equine industry. The vet school at NC State has one of the few foaling programs in the nation. Humans have very strong feelings about horses and how they should and should not be used. In some places, eating horses is accepted but not here in the U.S. Unfortunately, our horse industry generates large numbers of unwanted horses yearly, horses that can’t be slaughtered here because few facilities exist. As a result, we ship these animals out of the country for slaughter, or worse, they end up neglected and abandoned. Our horse rescues are overflowing as a result. So our feelings about horses—what is and isn’t okay to do with them—has created an ethical dilemma. These are the things I debate with my students in class. I hope that thinking these things through makes them more caring and insightful about their own impacts on animal lives.
- Lucy Laffitte