Missouri News

Career paths have taken her from anthropologist to service coordinator

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Feb. 9, 2019 8:40 pm

NEW LONDON, Mo. -- LeAndra Bridgeman's working career has followed two distinct paths.

The first path took Bridgeman into the jungles of Central America and Mexico where she worked as an anthropoloigst studying the behavior, habitat and ecological impact on primates -- particularly the Yucatan black howler monkey.

The second path led Bridgeman to Northeast Missouri, where four years ago she started working for the North East Community Action Corporation as the Ralls County service coordinator.

Bridgeman says she loves her job with NECAC because she gets to help many low-income families by connecting them to the programs NECAC offers, including assistance with energy bills, weatherization, housing, education and employment.

"I really enjoy being able to affect the lives of others in a direct fashion," she said.

Recently, however, Bridgeman received a pleasant reminder of her former life as a globe-trotting anthropologist. She received word in December that a long-awaited book was finally published containing some of her primate research from Mexico.

The book, "Primates in Flooded Habitats," is a collection of scholarly articles from researchers around the world who have worked with primates living in flooded conditions.

Bridgeman helped write two chapters for the book. One was an overview of studies conducted in certain parts of the world on primates in flooded habitats. The other chapter focused on behavioral ecology -- a synthesis of all the data available at the time on how the changing environment was impacting primates in flooded areas.

"It's taken us five years to get this book published," Bridgeman said.

Now that it's finally in print, the book serves as a lasting reminder of Bridgeman's first career path -- the one she began following while studying anthropology and psychology for her undergraduate degree at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Bridgeman got interested in primates while spending a couple of months in the Central American country of Belize, where she took part in an archeological field school. She also did some work in neighboring Guatemala and later taught at a field school in Costa Rica.

"All the time we were out in the forests digging, there were monkeys all over the place," she recalled in an interview.

"I had been doing some studies of primates in captivity, and I just loved being in the forests and loved watching them. And I just decided that was what I was going to do," she said. "I wanted to spend my career in forests and hang out with the animals and write about it."

Bridgeman went on to get two master's degrees -- one from the Univeristy of Texas at Austin, the other from Washington University in St. Louis -- and a doctorate in anthropology from Wash U.

While working on her Ph.D, Bridgeman spent a year near the delta of one of the largest river systems in Mexico that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. This particular area was in the state of Tabasco and featured a wealth of mangrove forests, which prosper in flooded conditions.

As it happened, a large group of black howler monkeys was living in that area, and they became the focus of Bridgeman's research.

"Flooded habitats -- especially mangrove forests -- are specialized habitats where you don't normally find primates," she said.

The howler monkeys, which live in trees, had little choice but to use the mangrove forests "because their original habitat (a lowland rain forest) has been destroyed," Bridgeman said. "It was all cut down about 40 years ago for pastureland and for crops. The only trees left were the mangroves."

The monkeys adapted to these new surroundings, though they had to adjust their diets. "They were eating a lot more flowers than you normally see this species eating," she said.

Since the flowers were in great abundance, the monkeys didn't have to travel far to find food, so they had lots of time on their hands. "They spent a lot more time socializing than their counterparts in so-called ‘normal' habitats," Bridgeman said.

Bridgeman shared her expertise about these primates in the new book, which comes on the heels of other writings she has published over the years from her anthropology work.

Bridgeman's career path started shifting about five years ago after her husband, Scott, a native of Canton, retired from a 23-year career with the Air Force. They relocated to Northeast Missouri.

Since there aren't many jobs available in Northeast Missouri in primate behavior and ecology, Bridgeman looked for something else to do. She initially got involved doing volunteer work with Madonna House in Quincy, Ill., and later decided to find a full-time job. That's when she heard about the opening with NECAC. She's been working in Ralls County ever since.

"I love it," she said. "I feel this is a new chapter in my life."

When not busy handling her duties as the Ralls County service coordinator, Bridgeman is heavily involved as a volunteer with several not-for-profit organizations.

For example, she organizes the Ralls County back-to-school fair each summer; she chairs a ministerial alliance in Marion, Ralls and Monroe counties; she chairs a state committee that oversees the "intake and assessment" system serving people in housing crisis; and she reopened and helps runs the senior center in New London, which offers free meals on Fridays.

Bridgeman said her work in Northeast Missouri is much different than her work in anthropology, but she finds it just as satisfying.

"I discovered other applicable ways to use my knowledge and my experiences," she said.

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