You might say that Anne Savage was christened by the cotton-tops.
The personable primatologist from Wisconsin is widely admired for her conservation work with the Critically Endangered cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) in Colombia, and in animal tracking as senior conservation biologist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Early in her career, striving to habituate the primates to her presence in the forest, Savage was elated when finally they allowed her to get under a tree and observe them.
These small monkeys – they weigh less than a pound, with distinctive wild, white manes – take long naps, which allowed Savage time to complete her field notes.
Suddenly, it seemed to be pouring rain. Except, it wasn’t.
“I was amazed at how big their bladders were!” she recalls. “That’s how I learned not to sit directly underneath them, looking up, when they are napping.”
IN PHOTOS: The cotton-top tamarin is not the only endangered primate. View a gallery of threatened primates around the world.
Of course, this qualifies as one of her lesser perils. Savage has been working with cotton-tops for 20 years, venturing into some areas of Colombia where she risks running into the hostage-happy FARC guerillas.
In fact, when the Milwaukee-born Savage first entertained going into the field to study the cotton-tops, a lot of people discouraged her, citing her gender, her lack of field experience and Spanish fluency, and the unsafe conditions in Colombia.
Savage learned Spanish and taught the naysayers a lesson.
“One of the things I tell people when I speak publicly is if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen,” says Savage.
Her career was born through an interest in psychology. As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Savage took an introductory psych course taught by a primatologist. After a compelling lecture on monkeys, Savage set out to explore their cognitive development. Her subjects were twin orangutans born at the Milwaukee Zoo – naturally named Trick and Treat.
Then she met the (primate) love of her life.
“I was looking for a part-time job and a professor took me to the sixth floor of the psychology building,” Savage recalls. “There I met my first cotton-top tamarin. What a fascinating creature! And I never looked back.”
Savage, who also received her Ph.D. from Wisconsin, started going into the field in 1985. Because she had studied the vocalizations of cotton-tops, Savage could often hear the monkeys before she could see them.
“That’s where Felix Medina, my Colombian field assistant, comes in,” she says. “He can see them before he hears them.”
Savage is involved in a multi-disciplinary conservation project called Proyecto Titi, whose long-term scientific studies and educational programs have increased understanding of the cotton-tops and increased public awareness in Colombia to protect habitat for wildlife.
READ MORE: See what role Proyecto Titi plays in the local communities as well as the effort to save the cotton-top tamarin.
Her field work has also contributed to the biodiversity survey conducted in conjunction with Conservation International (CI) in Nepal and China.
“Anne is not just a researcher who is academically focused,” says Leeanne Alonso, an entomologist at CI, who accompanied Savage on the Asian survey. “She’s involved with the local community and the whole conservation aspect.”
Savage began her Disney career in 1997 as conservation biologist at the Animal Tracking Center of the new Animal Kingdom in Florida. Prior to joining Disney, she was director of research at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, and an adjunct professor in biology at Brown University.
She traces her love for animals to her paternal grandfather, who had a farm in Yugoslavia. During her frequent appearances before children’s groups, Savage tries to get them to imagine what might happen if one of their favorite things suddenly disappeared.
“Cotton-tops are very dependent on the resources in the forest, and other animals are dependent on them for survival,” she says. “So if you take them out, the system is no longer in balance.”
Savage loves to travel, and appreciates fine food and superb architecture. The easiest way to make her smile is with a bar of chocolate. And she believes she has the best job in the world.
“I always had a love of animals, but I never realized that I could spend my life working in conservation biology,” she says. “Growing up, I thought that was something only Jane Goodall could do.”
ACTIVITY: Learn about other endangered primates with our Interactive Primate Tree.