If you ask Eileen Dunnington about her career choice, she is quick to smile as her eyes light up.
“I just got lucky — the right place and right time,” Dunnington said of her nearly 10 years working at the Jessamine County-based Primate Rescue Center.
Dunnington said her career odyssey began simply enough as a college student looking for an internship in 2003.
“As a psychology major (at the University of Kentucky), they require an internship or for you to work with a professor,” she said. “I ended up wanting to do both, and as a part of my internship, I knew I wanted to work with animals, somehow. I ended up calling the humane society, thinking that I could do an internship up there, but at the time, they didn’t have internships.”
So the humane society suggested Dunnington call the Primate Rescue Center — a place Dunnington — though she grew up in Lexington and attended Lexington Catholic High School — didn’t even know existed.
“At that time, their internship program really wasn’t up and running, so (director April Truitt) wasn’t quite sure exactly what they could offer me,” Dunnington said.
But the ambitious college student took what was available — an opportunity to volunteer at the yearly member event held in May. And that’s all it took for Dunnington.
“I jumped on that opportunity and immediately fell in love with it,” she said. “It’s an amazing and magical place, once you experience the animals and see what the mission is down here and see how important the work is down here.
“You can even really picture it until you actually drive down and you make that drive down the driveway with the canopy of trees and it just sort of seems surreal as you’re making your way down here.”
Dunnington said making the drive down the driveway leading to the PRC was like going into a different world.
“But the minute I set foot down here, I knew that I didn’t want to leave,” she said.
Truitt said Dunnington’s enthusiasm and professionalism have rubbed off on other employees and her dedication to the animals at PRC is remarkable.
“She has been a tremendous asset to us in her approach to what can be at times an overwhelming diversity of workload,” Truitt said.
Following her volunteer experience in spring 2003, Dunnington interned with PRC during the fall, and soon had herself a full-time career lined up after college.
She started off as a caretaker and quickly climbed up the ladder to her current position as animal-care and staff supervisor.
“I make sure that their nutrition guidelines and diets are at the appropriate health level (because) diabetes is a large problem in captivity,” Dunnington said.
Many of the chimps and other primates PRC houses have been confiscated from people who owned them illegally, and Dunnington said their health conditions are usually deplorable.
“I work closely with the veterinarian, and I do my own research to sort of coordinate not only their medical needs are met, but also their nutritional health, and their enrichment — make sure that their mental health is up to par as well,” she said.
Dunnington said her psychology degree plays a key role in her daily duties.
“As funny as it sounds, their behavior and their interaction with each other is very psychology based,” she said. “They’re political in their social interactions with each other and how they relate to each other. They’re very human-like in their interactions with each other. Although I’m not necessarily sitting down with them and asking them how they feel, I think in terms in analyzing group dynamics and understanding how the group dynamics are changing as the younger males are growing up and sort of beginning to challenge our alpha males, I think that my psychology background helps me understand the group dynamics.”
During her nearly 10 years working with PRC, Dunnington said there have been many rewarding stories for each primate, and each day, she said the 11 chimps who call PRC home manage to put a smile on her face.
“Gosh, every day, the chimps will make you laugh with some of the things they do,” she said. “They’re so much like us.”
On the flip side, the tales of primates abused by those who keep them as pets never cease to amaze her, and she has hopes that other states will follow Kentucky’s lead when it comes to making exotic animals illegal as pets.
“All the surrounding states hardly have any laws prohibiting ownership of all kinds of exotic animals,” she said. “There’s lots of other states in the U.S. that do not have any laws. So we’re hoping to influence other states in following that lead, because you find these animals just living in the worse conditions possible.”
Looking back on her experience at PRC, Dunnington said she was simply one of the lucky ones who discovered her calling.
“Growing up, I thought that maybe I wanted to become a veterinarian, but I don’t really have the stomach for that, and I thought maybe it was going to be one of those things where I loved animals but I never really could find that niche where I wanted to be around animals. It was like, ‘Yes, this looks nice, but — ” or, ‘Hey, this looks nice, but — ” she said. “Then finally, I was able to find that perfect hole that I fit right into.”
“How fortunate for us,” Truitt interjected.
“And now, they can’t kick me out of that hole,” Dunnington quipped.