Local Author Spotlight: Keriann McGoogan
Keriann McGoogan has a doctorate in biological anthropology and a master's in primatology. For nineteen months, she lived and worked in Madagascar, spending twelve-hour days following groups of lemurs through the northwestern dry forests. Previously, she had spent six months in Belize studying black howler monkeys. From 2009 to 2017, she taught courses in anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, the University of Waterloo, and Trent University. Although she has left the world of academia and works now as an editor for an educational publisher, McGoogan finds time to volunteer as a board member for Planet Madagascar, a nonprofit that aims to conserve Madagascar's unique biodiversity while also helping the local Malagasy people.
Her 2020 book, Chasing Lemurs, was published by Prometheus Books and documents her time studying lemurs in Madagascar when she was 25.
You are a primatologist—what made you choose this area of study and career? Can you explain to our readers a bit more about what you do?
Primatology is the study of non-human primates. That is, monkeys, apes, and lemurs. One primatologist that almost everyone would recognize is Dr. Jane Goodall.
I never intended to become a primatologist—I started out at the University of Calgary studying English. To fulfill a science credit, I ended up taking an optional course about physical anthropology, which just so happened to be taught by a charismatic instructor named Brian Keating. At the time, Brian was the Head of Conservation at the Calgary Zoo, and he wowed us students with amazing images and videos of primates in the wild. He taught us about all the many varieties of primates as well as the conservation issues that they face. I was hooked and decided to pursue a bachelor of science in primatology (U of C was one of the only places in the country that had such a degree on offer at the time).
I didn't stop after my undergraduate degree. I completed my master's at the University of Calgary where I studied the loudest monkey in the world, black howler monkeys in Belize, Central America. After that, I lived and worked in Madagascar for more than a year, completing my PhD by chasing lemurs--the most endangered group of animals on the planet.
Are you planning on writing another book?
Absolutely! In writing Chasing Lemurs, I feel as though I have come full circle--back to my roots as an English major--and I am loving the creative process. I have completed a young adult fiction novel about a young girl whose father goes missing while on a research expedition in Madagascar--that manuscript is currently with my agent, Beverley Slopen. Now, I have turned to another work of narrative non-fiction. That project is a group biography about the many intrepid women who shaped the trajectory of the discipline of primatology--it will explore the lives of women like Jane Goodall with the chimpanzees to Dian Fossey and the gorillas, and many others that the world deserves to know.
What’s your favourite kind of monkey? (And why?)
It is always so hard to choose! Of course, I have a soft spot for the howler monkeys because I studied them for many months in Belize. I especially love their haunting calls, which I used to wake up to in the early mornings. The otherworldly roars are used to promote group spacing and avoid competition for limited food resources.
But, if you ask me what my favourite type of primate is, it is hands down the sifaka lemur (lemurs are another type of primate, related to monkeys). The sifakas I studied are snowy white with maroon patches on their legs and arms that make them look as though they are wearing a coat and trousers. I used to follow them for hours through the forests. They have a special form of locomotion called vertical clinging and leaping where they use their powerful hindlimbs to propel themselves through the forest canopy. One "step" for them can be ten meters long. In Chasing Lemurs I describe the sifakas as "hyped-up versions of Spiderman."
Where were you when you got the news that you were chosen as one of 2021 Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Rising Stars?
I wish that I could say that I was half-way around the world in the remote wilds of Madagascar. But, alas, I was under lockdown, at home in my makeshift-office that I set up on my dining room table.