Gorilla experts' course focuses on fathering

One big difference from human dads: no eye-to-eye contact
2013-06-16T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T11:03:59Z Gorilla experts' course focuses on fatheringCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Fatherhood has a higher profile at the University of Arizona these days, thanks to a pair of gorilla gurus.

Husband-and-wife team Dieter and Netzin Steklis have spent years observing mountain gorillas in Rwanda, watching hulking silverbacks frolic with their young - experience they bring to the classroom in a new UA course: Men, Fatherhood and Families: A Biocultural Perspective.

The course, first offered last school year, looks at the fathering behaviors of different species and among human cultures throughout history.

It's said to be a rarity in academe, where parenting studies often focus more on mothers.

What makes primatologists suited to teach the subject?

"We're all part of the animal kingdom," says Netzin Steklis, 45. Humans and gorillas both are classified by science as great apes and have less than a 2 percent variance in their genetic makeup, DNA research shows.

The Steklises have worked around the globe for some of the biggest names in primatology.

They've done stints with the renown Dian Fossey gorilla research center in Rwanda and the Jane Goodall Institute in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They also are scientific advisers to the California-based Gorilla Foundation, where they're part of a research project with Koko, the famed "talking" gorilla who speaks a version of American Sign Language.

Dieter Stekils also teaches psychology at UA's Sierra Vista campus and is retired from Rutgers University where he chaired the anthropology department.

When it comes to fathering, there are similarities and differences between human and nonhuman apes, said Dieter Steklis, 67.

Gorilla dads, for example, will calm their young by making a low rumbling sound, akin, perhaps, to how a human father's deeper voice might soothe a child.

The simian fathers also play with their offspring, similar to how human dads might roughhouse with their kids.

"It's pretty hilarious," Netzin Steklis said of gorilla playtime. "They laugh and tickle each other and do spin moves. The babies use their dad as a Jungle Gym."

Monkeying around with dad seems to benefit both human and gorilla children, say the Steklises, who have two sons in their teens.

Research shows such interaction helps both types of offspring be less timid and more sociable, they said.

Gorilla fathers do not, however, gaze into a baby's eyes in wonderment the way many human dads do.

"Eye-to-eye contact may be very peculiar to humans," Dieter Steklis says.

"Some animals appear to have emotions like us, but whether it's across the board, that is unproven for the most part as far as we're concerned."

Animal comparisons are only one aspect of the fatherhood course. Students also look at different types of human fathers: from breadwinners to stay-at-home caregivers and everything in between.

Guest speakers have included a stepfather and a dad with joint custody of his kids.

Bruce Ellis, a UA professor of family studies and human development who helped create the course, says it's been popular so far.

The class takes in about 150 students a semester and there's always a waiting list. UA plans to make it available online by mid-2014, Ellis says.

Students who have taken it say it opened their eyes to the role of their own fathers - or ones they wish they'd had.

Caitlin Hawley, 20, a 2011 graduate of University High School in Tucson, doesn't know her dad because her mother used a sperm donor to conceive her.

"I wanted to get a sense of the roles fathers play," said Hawley, now a UA honors student majoring in psychology and anthropology.

"I thought it would be interesting to see what I missed.

"Sometimes it made me sad," she says of the class discussions, such as one that examined how roughhousing with a dad tends to make kids less timid.

"I cried a lot as a kid," when playing with others, she said. Now she wonders "how it would've been if I'd had a dad who would joke around and make you a little more able to joke and play with your friends."

Deon Benton, 22, who recently graduated UA with a psychology degree, grew up in a split parenting situation after his mom and dad divorced when he was three.

Benton, a Phoenix native who now lives in Tucson said the course taught him "how vitally important fathering is regardless of the species in question."

He says he feels better prepared to be a dad someday himself.

"I wish everyone could have access to a class like this."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

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