FGCU Student is ‘Monkeying’ around in South Africa


Emma Rodriguez, Staff Writer

Broadening one’s horizons is the vehicle to knowledge, experience, and growth. This March, FGCU Environmental Science Masters student Ella Guedouar embodied this sentiment and traveled abroad to study vervet monkeys at a South African nonprofit, Umisizi Umkomaas Vervet Rescue Center.

Guedouar initially discovered vervet monkeys while pursuing her B.A. in Psychology. During her human memory and cognition class, a professor mentioned the species method of communication when discussing language in animals. She was immediately fascinated, even citing the lesson as what piqued her interest in animal behavior.

As for what sent her to South Africa, Guedouar explained that her relationship with a staff member at the Talkin’ Monkeys Project in Clewiston, Florida, is what gifted her the opportunity. The staff member sponsored her visit, allowing her to work with the South African nonprofit.

“My normal day consisted of getting up and taking care of the baby monkeys because baby season was just in December,” Guedouar said. “The babies required a lot of attention. Throughout the day we’d get rescue calls. Somebody from the community would see an injured monkey and call us.”

Guedouar added that the team at the nonprofit would keep the injured monkey safe in a cage or crate. If medical attention was needed, a veterinarian would provide necessary rehabilitation, and release the monkey back into the wild.

Alongside caring for the monkeys, there were other implications of Guedouar’s work. There were striking regional differences between Southwest Florida’s perceived treatment of monkeys and other exotic animals than that in South Africa.

“Here we would respond to monkeys like, ‘Oh, cute monkeys!’ if we were to go to the zoo,” Guedouar said. “But [in South Africa], they saw monkeys as a complete disturbance to their daily lives, they hated them, they would shoot them. A lot of the injuries that were reported to us were human-made.”

Despite the negative attitudes against vervet monkeys in South Africa, Guedouar was also able to see the effects the species had on the ecosystem. For example, vervet monkeys eating food from the ground helps eliminate waste, which, in turn, benefits the environment.

In addition, Guedouar realized the impact of one person’s passion. She stated that even though there was just one woman who kept Umisizi Umkomaas Vervet Rescue Center functioning as intended, the nonprofit was still able to collaborate with other organizations, and push for change within the community, and even the world.

This gaining of knowledge and experiences is the intended effect of student research at FGCU. When students expand on their learning abroad and apply what they learn within their courses to real-world scenarios, it allows for a revolutionized educational experience.

Dr. Billy Gunnels, FGCU’s Director of Scholarly Innovation and Student Research and Associate Professor in Animal Behavior, accompanied Guedouar throughout many of her decisions regarding research opportunities and experienced her motivation to learn firsthand.

“Student research is probably the first time that a person has an opportunity to learn something that they discover,” Gunnels said. “As a student, what we learn is what other people tell us… somebody else has already learned that information. In research, you become the person… that, for that moment in time, is the only individual who knows and understands that information.”

Gunnels also explained that students taking ownership of their learning, whether that be through research, going abroad, or other methods, equips them with important life and career skills. These include creative problem solving, establishing projects, communication, and many more.

With the help of Gunnels and other connections, Guedouar was able to increase her knowledge about her field of study in ways pursued by few. However, she is by no means done. Within the next few weeks, she’ll be in Peru to complete her Master’s thesis. She also intends to complete her Ph.D. research in South Africa, though she is undecided on which country.

This theme of going above and beyond in terms of academics has been a theme throughout Guedouar’s life, a sentiment echoed by her mother, Maura Guedouar.

“It’s just kind of who Ella has always been,” her mother said. “She’s never satisfied with an answer, she’s always looking for the ‘Why, why, why?’”