ADELAIDE animal psychologist Carla Litchfield travels the world as a passionate defender of animals.
"We were miked up and people were yelling out to us, people just wouldn't shut up," says Litchfield, who in 2001 completed a PhD at the University of Adelaide in psychology (animal behaviour). "At the end of the day I think I was quite exhausted from being around people whereas I'm used to being around animals."
It became increasingly obvious to Litchfield that humans, like other primates, have a weakness for unhealthy food and some of the caged group began begging passers-by for treats. They were being fed a nutritious diet but from behind the glass they would gaze at the crowds devouring ice cream and chips.
"People in the enclosure were struggling with that and they were food-begging from the public," Litchfield says. "People were throwing chocolate bars over and we were observing every item that went past."
The 2007 Human Zoo project in which four groups of six people were caged during daylight hours, was partly a fundraising idea for the now-completed chimp enclosure at Monarto Zoo. But for Litchfield, an academic and animal welfare activist, it was a chance to know more about being a caged animal in a zoo.
Although she stayed for the full 27 days, the project had limited human ethics research clearance and was not classified as a behavioural experiment. But Litchfield was able to make some general observations which in some cases have triggered change.
The most significant finding was that parts of the enclosure were uninhabitable in the summer due to the heat. While reptile keepers pay close attention to temperatures, no one had examined systematically the temperatures of different parts of the zoo's enclosures to assess their suitability for mammals. Litchfield has since co-written a paper with other scientists from the University of South Australia called Lessons in Primate Heat Tolerance; A Commentary Based on the "Human Zoo" Experience. It is due to be published in April in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
"I realised that no matter how big a zoo enclosure is, if it's not the right temperature a lot of the space is unusable," she says. "We could be heat or cold-stressing animals without realising it."
Litchfield also appreciated to a greater degree the importance of handling food around animals. When a treat was thrown into the cage, some of the group members would stash their share to eat later, just as the cleverer primates do with food given to them by their keepers.
"That made me realise that you really shouldn't eat in front of animals as well," she says. "If an animal sees you with food - and they don't usually have it - they will try and get it off you."
Over the past 15 years of her research career, Litchfield has come to realise that small steps in the improvement of animal welfare are all that can be realistically hoped for. No single person can save animals from mistreatment and harm, even though some animal lovers might wish otherwise. In the 1990s she began visiting zoos around the world to see the conditions in which animals were held. Her first instinct was to run and hide from the pitiful sight of bored gorillas in European zoos huddled in cramped, cold, indoor enclosures.
"I thought I could never visit another zoo because it was so depressing, the conditions in which animals were kept," she says. "I thought this was hideous, I didn't want to do it."
Instead, she made a conscious decision to try and better the lives of animals in general by working with zoos. She works with all animals, from bears to lions and wombats, but she admits she became addicted to chimps after spending a year observing them in Uganda. She was the first Australian to study wild chimps in the Kibale National Park and it was an introduction to what Litchfield calls "the heaven and hell" of animal conservation. No one prepared her for the fact that a third of these chimps, supposedly living in the wild, would have missing hands and feet from being trapped in poachers' snares.
"Here I was thinking wild chimps had this amazing life all free and out in the wild and protected and a lot of them were disabled," she says. "The poachers put out wire snares for other animals, small antelopes mainly, and if the chimp steps into it the wire snare pulls tight and embeds in their flesh. They either die from gangrene poison or they lose a limb."
But she spent incredible days with them, watching the community leave their night nests and set off for a day in the forest. The chimps knew the researchers were there and, when she first arrived, they stopped and peered at the sight of a new face.
"An incredible day would be where you spend the whole day with them, the youngsters are with them, you rest when they rest and you belt around after them when they are moving quickly and stay while they build their night nest," she says. "Then the next day could be hell. It's very much an emotional roller-coaster."
Litchfield came to terms with what she calls the myth of the wild created by animal documentaries that purport to show animals interacting beyond the reach of humans. In fact, everywhere there are tourists and poachers and frequently farmers, as well, who are trying to preserve their crops from animal damage.
"We have this myth in our head that there is pristine wilderness but there just isn't," she says. "When, for example, you see those snow monkeys in those natural hot-spring baths in Japan, there are actually people in there with them but the documentaries don't show that. It's the same with the bears catching the salmon. There are loads of people watching on the banks or in hides."
Realistically, it is not possible for animals to live away from human contact which means solutions have to be found in compromise and cooperation. Even national parks have roads. By way of a sad example, Litchfield mentions the seven elephants who died in India last September when they were mowed down by a speeding goods train. They died after two calves became stuck on a railway line and the adult elephants surrounded the young ones to protect them. "That was in a national park through a forested area," she says. "How is that different from Monarto or an open-range zoo?"
Litchfield is a crusading scientist committed to communication in an age when science likes to separate itself from everyday practice by speaking through peer-reviewed journals and research outlets. She prefers to get involved. Her approach is a far cry from the 1960s when scientists frowned on the idea of befriending animals. Litchfield, a single mother whose young daughter Kaitie travels with her around the world, accepts life as it is and works with that.
"If someone says, 'I don't have favourites', that wouldn't be true because there is always some special animal that has meant more to you perhaps than 50 other ones you have worked with," she says. "So I think it's being honest that you can be a good scientist, collect data and be objective but acknowledge that you have feelings - and you have to be prepared to feel."
Science is also slow to respond and she believes direct action can short-circuit a problem while the process catches up. Her Human Zoo paper on cage temperatures
is about to be published three years after it happened but why should animals be left to suffer in the meantime?
"I could be telling that message and I do, in talks, from the day that it happened," she says. "Science is slow but you can still talk to people, and you can do other kinds of publications."
She knows she has raised eyebrows in the scientific community by writing three children's books. The first two were essentially simple science stories about gorillas and chimps with a strong message about everyday things people can do to help conservation. More recently she has written for five-to-seven-year-olds about pandas and tigers with an overriding message about love and respect. Kaitie, 12, has also written a book, The Little One, about caring for an orphaned red-tail monkey when she was four. The monkey was brought in after a farmer had killed its mother and Kaitie, in Uganda with her mother for a project, became its surrogate mother.
"People frown sometimes at writing children's books because it's not a peer-reviewed journal article but it's better if 20,000 children read something than if three academics read stuff that they know anyway," she says. "So I think it's really important to talk to anyone."
Litchfield, who was invited to speak at a recent TEDx event, Ideas at the Edge, at the Royal Institution in Adelaide, is best known for her work with chimps. In Uganda she helped develop guidelines for eco-tourism, favouring a restrictive model where travel is expensive and visitors are few. She also campaigns against the lucrative bush-meat trade that sees illegally traded primate and other wild animal meat served in trendy UK and European restaurants. In 2002 she helped conduct a series of problem-solving experiments with chimps on Ngamba Island, Uganda, where the chimps, many of them bush-meat orphans living in a sanctuary, would queue every morning at the door because the experiments were such fun for them. "They loved the contact," she says. "They thought it was playtime. We would piggy-back them around and tickle them and play with them and they absolutely loved it."
While chimps have captured her heart - she led a tour group last year to Uganda and Tanzania to visit gorillas and chimpanzees, and to Borneo to visit orang-utan projects and this year she will visit Rwanda and Uganda - she goes wherever she is needed. She lists as one of her life-changing experiences her work with a leopard seal, Brooke, at Taronga Zoo and in 2012 she hopes to see a colony of 300 Asiatic lions surviving in India's Gir Forest.
Scientists have known for years that animals have personalities and feelings but it has taken them a long time to admit that a passion for animals can coexist with scientific rigour. Litchfield tells the story of rhesus macaque monkeys who will tolerate all manner of laboratory experiments only if they have another monkey "friend" with them. Laboratories keep them in pairs because scientists know the rhesus macaques are social and need friends to survive.
Litchfield, who happens to look like a rock star, was awarded the Unsung Hero of Australian Science in 2000 by the Australian Science Communicators for her work with the African Great Apes. Her passion is animal welfare and human-animal interaction but she's a proud animal lover as well. "Animals are smart and they have personality and feelings but not every scientist would admit to that yet," she says. "But I certainly do."