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In celebration of International Women’s Day, we wanted to draw special attention to some of our wonderful female leaders in science at the Zoo. Dr. Elena Less is an Associate Animal Curator at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and we got to ask her some questions below!

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What inspired you to study science?

I always loved animals since I was a young child and knew that I wanted a career that focused on them in some way. In high school, I started getting interested in Michael Crichton books. In his one book, The Lost World, there was a female ethologist (animal behaviorist) studying wild hyena behavior and she was this great, tough female character. I thought I would like to be like her. That inspired me to study biology in college. I was initially pre-vet, but an inspirational professor there talked to me about my interests and encouraged me to pursue graduate work, which I then did and went on to get my PhD.

What type of work do you do at the Zoo?

My job here involves working with the animal keepers in the Primate, Cat and Aquatics area on every aspect of their day to day and caring for the animals in our area. I also work closely with our veterinary epidemiologist on helping work out logistics for much of the diet, behavior and health work that she is pioneering.

How do you use science daily in your work?

We apply any findings from research that might provide objective data on how best to care for the animals and adopt them into our operating procedures to constantly improve animal care. I often look at data and trends to help best manage the animals, anything from weight trends to other parameters that might impact behaviors we see. We provide fecal, urine or saliva samples to our endocrinology lab to understand reproductive cycles, stress hormones or signs of health, all of which provide information to help us better manage the animals. I also serve as the Species Survival Plan coordinator in Association of Zoos and Aquariums for the pygmy slow loris so I manage a lot of data, work with other institutions and a population biologist to look at population sustainability for this species.

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Dr. Elena Less consulting at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

What excites you about your work?

The people and the animals. It is amazing to have the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of exotic animals. It is especially rewarding when we come together to successfully solve a problem in animal husbandry, whether that is trying to understand an abnormal behavior and remove it from the repertoire or figuring out why an animal hasn't successfully been able to breed and correcting that, to everything in between. There is a lot of strategic problem solving that is involved in my job and I really enjoy that. I also love working with the animal keepers and seeing them achieve great things. I have a great team and I love to support their ideas.

What advice do you have for young women wanting to work in science?

Make sure you are doing what you love and what feels rewarding. If science is that for you, then you should absolutely pursue it. Pursuing a career in science is a lot of hard work and can take a long time, so it is important that you truly enjoy the process and enjoy what you are studying. You may start out studying one thing and find your interests have you studying something else entirely. I recommend finding people who inspire you, try to find out what they did to get to where they are and really explore internship opportunities that will let you test out your interests. Put in the hard work and enjoy the ride!

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Dr. Elena Less speaking at the 2015 David Steffee Address

What is something you want to study in the future that you haven't done yet?

We still have so much to understand about animal diets and the link with behavior and health from every animal from a northern tree shrew to a saki monkey. Our veterinary epidemiologist has great ideas for how to improve these aspects and I love collaborating with her to answer these types of questions.

What is your favorite thing about working at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo?

That you never know what each day will bring, animals always keep you on your toes and there is always so much to figure out and learn. I also love doing the best I can for animals in our care with the collaboration of the keeper staff I work with and the various teams throughout the zoo.

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