Graduate student Renee Gainer is an animal behaviorist with the UAB Animal Resources Program and was a zookeeper at various zoos for fifteen years. What do these things have in common? Anthropology, believe it or not.

Graduate student finds anthropology to be the tie that binds us all

Graduate student Renee Gainer is an animal behaviorist with the UAB Animal Resources Program and was a zookeeper at various zoos for fifteen years. What do these things have in common?

Anthropology, believe it or not.

Renee GainerGainer's job with the Animal Resources Program at UAB gives her the opportunity to combine her favorite parts of her zookeeping career with her undergraduate interest in physical anthropology and apply it in the biomedical research environment  at UAB.

She makes sure that the investigators and researchers are trained to handle and care for all of the animals used in biomedical research. She also coordinates the care of the animals and engineers environments that are fun, safe, and promote healthy breeding.

Gainer co-authored an article for "Obesity: A Research Journal" on how perceived food environments affect the body composition and reproductive health of female mice and their offspring. Though the mice are much smaller an animal than she is used to working with, Gainer enjoyed her first step into research, collecting data and overseeing the care and environment of the mice.

“Learning what the mice would actually eat, what their favorite junk food was, what they just absolutely wouldn’t touch was the best part,” she says. “I’d think ‘Wow, if mice won’t eat this, why are we eating this?’”

In addition to her work with the Animal Resources Department, Gainer somehow finds the time to be a graduate student on the side. She is now pursuing a master’s degree with the Department of Anthropology.

Gainer first found anthropology as an undergraduate at Florida State University where she was able to explore the diversity of the field studying bones in Osteology courses, satisfying her lifelong interest in primates, and learning about human social trends and behaviors. “[Anthropology] really is an encapsulation of a lot of things,” Gainer explains. “Part of it is biology based and then part of it is history based. You kind of get the best of both worlds.“

Originally, Gainer thought that she would graduate and go into fieldwork in exotic places studying primates -- gorillas in particular. She says, “I really thought I was going to be the next Jane Goodall. But I realized really quickly that it is not a vacation in paradise, and I am not a person who can sit in the rainforest.”

Instead of Goodall-esque fieldwork, Gainer went back to school to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, FL for a degree in Zoo Animal Technology, which led to a fulfilling career as a zookeeper throughout the southeast, including a stint with the Birmingham Zoo.

Gainer says, “When you work with primates, gorillas especially, you have a relationship with them. Those animals get to know you. You get to know them. You have a special relationship with them that no one else does.”

Her dream job, she says, would be in more of a sanctuary setting working exclusively with gorillas. Gainer continues to move forward in her work and education with this dream job on the horizon.

As if being a full time employee and a grad student isn’t enough, Gainer also leads tours at the historic Oak Hill Cemetery, is a member of a local historic costuming group, and rescues Chinese Crested dogs.

Her co-authored article can be found in "Obesity: A Research Journal," accessible through the UAB Libraries.
Brodie Foster is a 2015-16 UAB Digital Media fellow and an English major with a concentration in Literature and a minor in Digital Community Studies. She works with videography, editing, and writing.

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