ASHEBORO, NC - Four North Carolina Zoo keepers have been named winners of prestigious awards given by the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK).

Three of the keepers, Beth McChesney, Becky Kloepfer and Kelly Murphy, were named winners of the Certificate of Merit in Conservation Award for their contributions on the "Kendall Project."

The fourth recipient, gorilla keeper Aaron Jesue, was named winner of the Mazuri Animal Nutrition Award for his work in gorilla diet, health and nutrition.

McChesney, Kloepfer and Murphy are the first recipients of their awards that are presented in recognition of outstanding keeper-initiated contributions to conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Their project, which is still ongoing at the zoo, centers around the integration of a former entertainment chimpanzee, named Kendall, into the zoo's established troop of 12 other chimps. Considered "socially inappropriate" for normal introduction, the chimp initially presented enormous challenges to the chimp keepers. Upon his arrival at the zoo from a private facility where he had been singly housed, the young Kendall "did not know how to be a chimp," according to one keeper. But the chimp's struggles touched the hearts of the keepers and inspired them to create the project.

In addition to the introduction of the young chimp into the zoo's established troop, the Kendall Project has three other missions: (1) to educate people about great-ape biology, husbandry and their endangered status in the wild, 2) to provide information regarding the "misuse" of great apes in entertainment and 3) to raise funds for organizations that promote the welfare of apes in entertainment and those that may provide assistance for retired entertainment apes.

The keepers partnered with the N.C. Zoo Society to start up a project website at Though the focus of the website is education, it also gives updates on Kendall and provides general chimpanzee facts along with information on current fundraising initiatives. The website also uses online fundraising by selling "Kendall Project" merchandise to help fund similar chimpanzee conservation projects.

Like the three other winners, Jesue's was the first recipient of his award, given to recognize individuals in the zoological community who have been actively involved in projects, studies and research concerning zoo- and aquatic-animal nutrition. Jesue was additionally recognized in his award for his dedication "that goes far beyond the daily care of his animals."

Studies have shown that captive gorillas often suffer from maladies, such as high cholesterol and heart disease, much more so than do their wild counterparts. Since June 2008, the gorillas at the N.C. Zoo have been offered a new diet high in fiber and low in starch and sugars--more like the diet they eat in the wild. Jesue and his coworkers closely monitored the animals and collected data as the gorillas adjusted to this new diet.

While all the zoo's gorilla keepers took part in the data collection thoughout the process, Jesue went one step further, compiling the initial data and presenting it at national zoological gatherings.

The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dee Freeman, Secretary; Beverly E. Perdue, Governor.