Emory Report
April 28, 2008
Volume 60, Number 29


Emory Report homepage  

April 28, 2008
Yerkes’ Sharpless at home in the field

By Sylvia wrobel

You think you have workplace challenges? What if those you were responsible for were smart but mischievous, enjoyed pulling apart their work space, expected you to keep them fed, clean, well and entertained, and sometimes woke you in the middle of the night with vociferous cries of pleasure or annoyance?

If you were Mark Sharpless, you would love every minute of it. Being operations manager at the 117-acre Yerkes National Primate Research Center field station in Lawrenceville is a 24-7 job, but Sharpless doesn’t have to take his work home: He lives in a house on the grounds, along with his two dogs and a pot-bellied pig named Ellie.

Charged with overseeing the field station’s daily operations, Sharpless is the go-to person for anything having to do with 2,200 animals living in open-air compounds in large social groups of 20 to 175. Sharpless facilitates research, the center’s breeding program, and good relations with the Lawrenceville human community, but his first priority is what’s good for the animals.

He oversees and manages training for 25 staffers who handle daily husbandry, making sure the animals are fed, clean, safe and secure. He coordinates efforts of on-site facilities staff and on-site contractors. Members of the veterinary care team report to the chief vet for medical guidance but turn to Sharpless to get things done.

Four Yerkes researchers spend most of their time at the field station, known worldwide for its studies of social behaviors among primates, and many others are at the field station for short-term studies. There’s a lot of balancing of research and animal care schedules, says Sharpless. Each animal is looked at every day by some combination of himself, associate operations manager Julie Moran, the animal care staff, veterinary staff and the researchers.

Already, 2008 has been a busy year for Sharpless, with a successful renewal site visit from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (the gold standard of animal care accreditation). As the breeding center for Yerkes, the station moved forward with the time-consuming, labor-intensive breeding of a colony of herpes b negative macaques, animals important in vaccine and transplant studies, and the recent groundbreaking for a clinical veterinary medicine administration and research building, scheduled to open later this year. Planning also is under way for a new garden to grow fruit and produce for the animals.

Visitors include neighbors, often bearing gifts of treats made by nursing home residents or old phone books for the animals to destroy, school children, visiting scientists, and actor Alan Alda, who filmed part of a new television program on research at the field station in March.

Spring is the best time of year at the field station, says Sharpless, because it’s birthing season — but every day is filled with excitement, the joy of living among the animals, and working with dedicated staff who love them as much as he does.

This article first appeared in the April 14 issue of Health Sciences Update.