By Mackenzie Evenson
Strolling into the Park Place Café at noon on a chilly Chicago day in January, Jesse Leinwand dressed the way he does every day, rain or shine: knee-high rubber boots, tall socks and khaki shorts reminiscent of the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. The 30-year-old Lincoln Park Zoo research assistant gives the apes daily cognitive puzzles on touchscreens and helps scientists with other studies of humans’ closest living relatives.
His position at one of the 216 accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States exposes him firsthand to these intelligent primates. “There’s just something about them that made me happy,” he said. “In some ways, they made more sense than a lot of people ever did.” The unparalleled happiness apes continue to give him, he said, comes from his belief that apes have a peaceful simplicity about them, while humans are often unnecessarily complicated.
During his senior year of high school, he worked as a summer tennis camp counselor and in an animal hospital. When he realized he was unlikely to become a baseball player for the Yankees, he instead pursued his love for animals. Although his dream job as a retired philanthropist is unrealistic, he said, “I would love to be in a position where I could support causes that I believe in, that are scientifically based and work to improve the world for both humans and animals.”
Because spending a lifetime studying these creatures in the jungle and being the male Jane Goodall did not appeal to him, he knew research was the best way to learn about and be around primates.
After getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and master’s degree from Georgia State University, both in psychology, he flew to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa for a year to figure out if he wanted to work in the field. While living in the jungle with limited contact with the outside world, he kept in touch with civilization through his father via weekly emails with updates on Liverpool soccer, the Yankees, tennis, basketball and other sports, depending on the season, to get him through the time in the field.
The readjustment to America after his field work was much harder than he expected. “There, we would get food delivered once a month and when you run out of something, you run out until you get more,” he said. “You live in a forest, you come back and concrete is everywhere. There’s wasted food everywhere. It’s a very different world to come back to after experiencing that.”
Leinwand imagines life from the perspective of the apes. They have minimal needs: food, water and shelter. “They don’t have a bad life, but they are contained in captivity. In the wild, they’re living their lives, but you’re in their world.” In the future, he may go back to the Congo. But due to his parents’ refusal to get him a dog as a child, he took advantage of the freedoms of adulthood and became the owner of a boxer/lab mix, officially ruling out any extended visits or more field work for now.
The simple lifestyle in Africa made Leinwand realize he wanted to avoid a wasteful life. He rejects the social media obsession of his generation but does indulge in cable to satisfy his daily sports intake. Twitter and Instagram appeal more to an audience whose livelihood is more centered around publicity than primates.
Leinwand wants people to know that apes are not the same as monkeys; monkeys have tails. And apes never physically gave birth to humans; apes have one more pair of chromosomes than humans. Although interbreeding has been attempted, it has never been successful, “It’s on our side as the zoo to make this information readily available and interesting,” he said. “But it’s also on the public’s side to be inquisitive, to not assume you know it all.”
He told a story about a couple of people who came to look at the gorillas and pondered the purpose they held in the world and why God created them. “The idea that one creature is better or worse than another? We have different needs, different desires, different lives — but we’re all living at the same time period,” he said. “Whatever we leave will go on, so we’re all connected in that way.”
At the zoo, people often make assumptions without reading a sign, assumptions which often leads to the spreading of misinformation. They may feel questions they have could be perceived as stupid for being asked. “I would say the best advice I can give anyone going to the zoo, is to not be afraid to say you don’t know,” he said.
While sharing a lively conversation about feces, he finished off a sandwich for his lunch, completely unphased by the topic. “I’ve been talking about this stuff while eating for years!” he reassured me.
He enthusiastically described certain animals’ personalities between bites of food. The mothers of the two baby gorillas in the Lester E. Fisher Center at the zoo raise their children much like humans do, he said. He compared one of them to a working mother raising her child in the city, telling them, “You’re gonna have to hold your own. No, go take the bus. I don’t care. You’re 5, you’ve gotta be OK.” Saying the other mother is the, “I’m going to drive you to your dorm room and stay in your dorm just to make sure you’re OK,” mom.
Humans and apes share a strong connection, and their similarities go beyond opposable thumbs. Primates often raise their children with human-like techniques, they can be lazy, funny and incredibly cunning. During grad school, a monkey escaped under Leinwand’s watch. The staff got her back in easily, but he noted that his co-workers were surprised about how calm he stayed over the radio. “It’s a capuchin, what’s it gonna do?” he said about the monkey on the loose, as though her actions were routine, and like humans, their behavior is predictable.
“My position is grant funded, it’s about three-ish years. I’ve been in it for about a year now,” he said. “In two years, I suspect I’ll be ready to move on to something different.” Always surrounded by animals whether working or at home, he seemingly cannot get enough. “I want to stay in the zoo world, always with emphasis on great apes; it’s my bread and butter.”