Benjamin B. Beck
Assistant Treasurer and Founding Director
Ben is a comparative psychologist specializing in animal cognition and biodiversity conservation. Research on problem-solving and tool use by primates and birds led to a frequently cited book, Animal Tool Behavior, published in 1980. A second edition, co-authored with Rob Shumaker and Kristina Walkup, was published in May 2011. He published a novel titled Thirteen Gold Monkeys in 2013 that is based on the reintroduction of golden lion tamarins in Brazil, and another recently published novel, titled Ape, that is based on research, conservation, cognition and personhood of chimpanzees in Rwanda.
In the 1980s, Ben turned his interest in cognition to management and psychological welfare of zoo animals. He co-authored a 1988 survey of zoo gorillas demonstrating the importance of mother-rearing and early social experience for adult sexual and maternal skills. Beck also began to study the adaptation to the wild by reintroduced captive-born animals. Beck coordinated the preparation, reintroduction and post-release monitoring of 146 golden lion tamarins in Brazil between 1983 and 2005. The reintroduced population has now grown to 1,000, about one third of the entire wild population. He is lead author of Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-introduction of Great Apes, published in 2007 by the Section on Great Apes of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. He served as director of conservation for Great Ape Trust from 2003 to 2011, coordinating an initiative in Rwanda to found a national conservation park in the Gishwati Forest and conserve a small chimpanzee population living there. In fewer than three years, the protected area of Gishwati increased from 2,190 acres to 3,665 acres, and the chimpanzee population grew from 13 to 20, probably the first time the population has grown in more than 40 years. The government of Rwanda officially created the Gishwati-Mukura National Park in 2016.
Ben studied at Union College (NY), received his MA from Boston University, and his PhD from the University of Chicago. He was Research Curator and Curator of Primates at Brookfield Zoo from 1970 to 1982, where he was a principal in the design and construction of “Tropic World”, one of the first large-scale mixed species tropical forest exhibits. He served at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park as General Curator and Associate Director from 1983 until his retirement in 2003. He designed the National Zoo’s innovative free-ranging golden lion tamarin exhibit, and was project executive for “Think Tank”, a pioneering exhibit on animal thinking that opened in 1995. He was on the negotiating team that brought giant pandas from China to the Zoo in 2000. Ben was appointed Scientist Emeritus in the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in 2010. He received an Alumni Professional Achievement Citation from the University of Chicago in 2003.