When Linda Koebner began her career as a research scientist, chimpanzees were kept in cramped, metal cages in laboratories for years, even decades, after they were no longer needed for research. The chimps, who are the closest living relatives to humans, had no chance to socialize, exercise or experience the world outside.
Thanks to Koebner’s research and advocacy, however, that is no longer the case. By working with scientists and animal rights activists, Koebner succeeded in 2009 in establishing a federally-funded, 200-acre reserve for “retired” research chimpanzees in Shreveport, LA. The reserve is paid for by the National Institutes of Health.
Koebner recently shared her inspiring story with fifth and sixth grade girls at the 17th annual Women Helping Girls With Choices Conference on Nov. 4th. Sponsored by Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services, the conference is designed to foster leadership and a “can-do” attitude in girls by connecting them with women of achievement.
Koebner was only 23 when she was asked to study whether chimpanzees used in research could adapt to living outside the lab. She spent four years re-settling chimpanzees in a reserve in Florida and observing their behavior, proving that the transition was possible.
“Chimpanzees have taught me about resilience. They have gone through so much, yet they are forgiving and whole again,” Koebner said in a film about her experience. In her speech to the girls, Koebner stressed following your passions, never giving up and working with others to accomplish your goals.
“She was very inspirational. She really wanted us to learn to follow our dreams and convictions,” said Karina Matalavage, a student at Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School in Croton.
After Koebner’s keynote address, the girls broke into small groups for leadership-building activities. Among other things, the groups read books about women who affected their societies through courage, perseverance and intelligence.
By day’s end, it was obvious the conference had made its mark. “I learned to not give up on myself,” said Nallely Valdovinos, a fifth grader at the Roosevelt School in Ossining. “Other people might not like what you have to say but if you are true to yourself, you can accomplish great things.”
In evaluations submitted at the end of the day, a staff person from Haldane said “this was a very inspiring workshop that exposed young girls to some great role models and prompted discussion on important topics.” An Elmsford student wrote, “I will remember this day until I die.” And a Tarryown student wrote, “I learned that being a leader is about being faithful, having freedom and being brave.”
Upon their return to their home school districts, the girls are responsible for sharing what they learned with others.
Photo Caption: Juliana Mormile (left) and Meredith Kehoe were among dozens of fifth and sixth grade girls from Westchester and Putnam counties to attend the Women Helping Girls With Choices leadership conference at Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Courtesy P/NW BOCES