A New Dean with a Conservation Dream
January 4, 2022
Dr. Kelly Boyer Ontl Joins Unity College as New Dean of Environmental Conservation and Research
Finding your path in life is no easy task, for some of us it takes years, while others are born with an innate calling. For Unity College’s new Distance Education Dean of Environmental Conservation and Research, Dr. Kelly Boyer Ontl, her path was discovered along a long and winding red dirt road in the African savanna.
Dr. Boyer Ontl most recently served as an Assistant Professor at Ball State University and as a faculty member of their Environmental Science Doctoral Program. She has been working in the field of primatology and wildlife conservation for 20 years. From the classroom to the African bush, Dr. Boyer Ontl sat down to talk about the journey that led her to Unity College.
As a young girl growing up in Pennsylvania, Dr. Boyer Ontl had early ambitions about someday working with primates, specifically chimpanzees. It’s a dream that started with stuffed animals and long nights spent reading Jane Goodall books that eventually led to her becoming a renowned nationally published primate behavior researcher.
“All of my stuffed animals were monkeys. I remember one day my dad went out into the backyard and brought back tree branches to put in the corner of my bedroom so I could hang my monkeys in a tree … When I was in 6th grade my science teacher wanted us to paint a mural in the back of the classroom, and I painted a picture of chimpanzees in a tree from one of my Jane Goodall books. It’s just been a constant in my life.”
It was during her time middle school that she came up with a plan that would one day take her across the globe to study chimps in Africa.
“I had a vision at a young age that I would finish high school and find a college where I could study primates. I literally wrote in my notebook that ‘some miracle would happen, and I will find my way to Africa,’ and I didn’t quite know how that would happen, but I truly believed it would.”
That plan began taking shape when Dr. Boyer Ontl found herself at Franklin and Marshall College where she received a B.A. in Biological Foundations of Behavior on the Animal Behavior track.
“It was all about animal training, learning, and conditioning to understand the how and why animals do what they do.”
It was also during that time her dream of travelling to Africa first came true. She studied abroad in Kenya for 3 months while living out in the bush in canvas tents doing field studies, including animal population counts.
“I remember a very specific moment; we were in a Land Rover, and we had just stopped to see a rhinoceros. It was right then I looked straight ahead along this classic red dirt road winding its way through the African savanna – and I just looked, and I said this is my path, this is it, right in front of me.”
After college Dr. Boyer Ontl worked as a keeper at several zoos, including the Houston Zoo, where she was able to begin working full-time with primates.
“I was up close with the animals; I was learning all about what they ate, how they behaved and socialized. Understanding their behavior became part of my everyday life.”
And that’s where Dr. Boyer Ontl says she started finding her love of educating others.
“We began doing keeper chats and other forms of educational outreach, to help visitors understand what these animals are really like.”
After a short trip to study howler monkeys in Costa Rica, Dr. Boyer Ontl felt the itch to return to Africa in 2006. After doing some research she found an opportunity to volunteer at the Chimpanzee Conservation Center in the Republic of Guinea, but getting there wouldn’t be so easy.
“I said wow, I’d love to do this. I asked my boss for a 6 month leave of absence, but she told me that was too much time. I knew it was what I had to do, so I told her that this would be my resignation. I quit my job, took out all my savings, and relied heavily on my mother who did an amazing job of taking care of my two cats while I was gone. I just picked up my life and moved to West Africa, as any 25-year-old does [laughs].”
The work wasn’t easy, and at times the conditions while living in the middle of a remote national park could be brutal.
“It was an extremely intense experience. My job was to basically take care of orphaned chimpanzees. These are babies taken from their mothers, mostly due to the bush-meat trade, then sold to people as pets. They really didn’t understand that they were chimps. They had to be reintroduced to other chimps and brought into the forest to learn how to be chimps again.”
After seven months in Guinea it was time to come home and head to grad school, but as life does, Dr. Boyer Ontl was thrown another curveball. Her goal was to study under Dr. Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, but before doing that Dr. Pruetz presented Boyer Ontl with an opportunity to return to Africa to work at a field site in Senegal as a project manager.
“5 or 6 days a week we would be waking up at 4:30 in the morning to track down a group of wild chimpanzees to study their behavior.”
A lot like the work of her hero …
“Just like Jane Goodall did,” she says with a smile.
“We’d follow the chimps from the moment they woke up in the morning, and I would record their behaviors from sunrise to sunset. The researchers in the program had spent years slowly acclimating the chimpanzees to feel comfortable with the presence of an observer – a process we call habituation – so I could simply sit, observe, and feel accepted by the chimpanzees.”
Dr. Boyer Ontl would spend much of her time over the course of a decade researching in Senegal. She eventually set up her own field sites, which relied more on technology and less on habituating chimpanzees.
“I wanted to work with completely wild, unhabituated chimpanzees. Which meant I needed to get creative with how I would track them. Instead of following them closely, we set up camera traps and instead of being there when they woke up, we would find and count their sleeping nests.”
Through her research, she studied fascinating behaviors like how chimpanzees use caves to keep cool in the oppressive savanna heat, and grappled with difficult questions like how to conserve the critically endangered chimpanzees in the midst of active gold mining and widespread poverty.
While learning and researching in Senegal, Dr. Boyer Ontl never lost her drive to educate. With help from her former employer, the Houston Zoo and the non-profit Conservation Fusion, she was able establish summer learning programs for local children.
“We brought education supplies and fun things for the kids to learn and play with, like binoculars and magnifying glasses. It was not so much about telling them what’s in their backyard, because they already know. It was much more about getting kids to start engaging with the environment and learning about the animals and ecology around them.”
Now, Dr. Boyer Ontl’s path has led her to Unity College – where her experience will help her transform Unity’s Distance Education program.
“What I’ve found during my research in West Africa is that what is happening on the global scale effects all of us locally. It opened my eyes to understanding big processes throughout the world in wildlife conservation and this major connection between humans and the environment …The more that we’re able to educate people in their own communities and environments, the better chance we have at creating social and community change.”
“We need to get creative about solutions. From conservation to education solutions, we need to open the doors to an environmental education to people all over the world.”
Her goal is to graduate thousands of environmental superheroes every year.
“I love that all of our programs at Unity College are centered around environmental science education, and that we are creating the next environmental stewards to go out and make the world a better place. I am excited about working with students who are passionate about making a difference. Now, it is our job to create an experience that allows our students to do that.”