FULFILLING HER LIFELONG PASSION
This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the September 2022 edition of The Guideway, Vol 76 No. 2, our newsletter. To sign up for The Guideway or for other information, please click here.
When she was 12 years old, Shawn Makepeace fell in love. “I saw my first dolphin,” at the Minnesota Zoo Aquarium, she says, and she stayed at watched them for hours. “I knew right then and there what I wanted to do”: when she grew up, she wanted to work with marine mammals like dolphins and whales.
Today, Makepeace is an animal interpreter at the St. Louis Zoo and has her PhD in animal bioacoustics, a field of study that combines biology and acoustics and how animals communicate by sound.
An ‘interesting’ childhood
Makepeace calls Belleville, Illinois, “home base,” but growing up, she was a military brat. Her father served in the Army Reserves, and she’s used to moving from place to place. In fact, she says, “I moved five different times across the country for college.”
When Makepeace was 18 months old, she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Although it is a disease of the joints, it can also affect the eyes. In Makepeace’s case, she developed chronic uveitis, which is a chronic inflammation of the inner parts of the eye.
From the ages of 7 to 9, she underwent multiple surgeries and cryotherapy, but nothing seemed to help for very long. “I also had type 1 diabetes. It was an interesting childhood,” she says with a wry laugh.
Makepeace’s vision loss was gradual. She attended regular classes throughout primary and secondary school, but “first I sat in the back of class, then the middle, then the
front,” she recalls. “I started borrowing my friends’ notes, then asking for the slides from teachers.”
For a while, Makepeace even drove, although, “I probably wasn’t supposed to.” But when she was 17 years old, her world changed forever.
“I was walking to school one day and I reached up to brush something away from my face. I had my hand over my left eye and my right eye was open, and I just suddenly froze because I realized that I could not see anything out of my right eye,” she says. “I freaked out, of course, turned around, and ran back home.”
She was diagnosed with a detached retina, and there was nothing that could be done to save the vision in that eye. When her doctors checked her left eye, they realized that
she was legally blind and probably had been for a while.
Makepeace did not let her diagnosis deter her. After graduating from high school, she spent three months at the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation of the Blind, learning orientation and mobility and how to manage the daily life skills she’d need as someone with vision impairment.
While at the center, Makepeace roomed with someone who had a guide dog. “While I was struggling to use my cane, I noticed my roommate was prancing on by me with her guide dog,” she says. The next night, “I said to her, ‘You have to talk to me about your guide dog,’ and I think we stayed up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”
It happened that Makepeace’s roommate had received her dog from the Guide Dog Foundation. She laughs as she recalls: “The next morning, I was on the phone [with GDF] and saying, ‘Can I have an application please?’”
Three months later, in July 1999, Makepeace was partnered with her first guide dog: Sybil. “I got Sybil before I moved to the University of West Florida to get my undergraduate degree in marine biology.”
Jumping in the deep end
Within the span of a year, Makepeace had to come to terms with her vision loss, learn new life skills, partner with a guide dog, and move away to college.
“Here I was, moving halfway across the country away from my parents, just getting used to being legally blind, and [Sybil] gave me the confidence to do that: to live on my own.”
When Makepeace was attending college, not very many blind or legally blind people went into the sciences, she says. “I know of a couple out there – I’m one of them – but it’s unusual because it’s very visual.”
She refused to be excused from classes just because she was blind. “I wanted to prove to myself, and I wanted to prove to the world that this blind girl can do it. I had to think outside the box and come up with some solutions myself.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Makepeace and Sybil moved to Mississippi so Makepeace could do an internship at the University of Southern Mississippi at the Marine Mammal Cognition Laboratory.
When she would go on research cruises to the Gulf of Mexico, Sybil would be part of the crew too. In one instance, Makepeace operated the special microphone that is dropped into the water to record the sounds the dolphins were making, while other members of the research team gathered other data, all of which would be sent for analysis to match the animals’ sounds with their behavior. The team also collaborated with the U.S. Navy to study the effect of sonar on marine mammals.
After her internship ended, Makepeace moved to Connecticut to get her master’s degree in animal science with a minor in dolphin communications at the University of Connecticut. She also spent several years as a graduate student working with the Dolphin Communication Project at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, studying how dolphins communicate with each other.
When Makepeace’s thesis advisor left to take a position at the University of Cincinnati, she followed him to pursue her doctorate in communication sciences and disorders in hearing science, with a concentration on animal bioacoustics. She also worked as a lab manager at FetchLab – the Facility for Education and Testing of Canine Hearing & Laboratory of Animal Bioacoustics.
Back in the saddle
Makepeace and Sybil were a team for more than 10 years. Makepeace was getting ready to retire her and had already been accepted for her new dog when she had an accident in which she broke her back, falling from a horse after a jump. She had taken up horseback riding while at school in Connecticut, when she discovered that students could get discounted lessons. “I was like, ‘Sign me up!’” (In 2017, Makepeace won the physically challenged division at the Western Dressage World show.)
After the accident, Makepeace had to learn to walk again, and when she was ready, she trained with her new guide, Shadow, in February 2012. In addition to guide work, Shadow also provided mobility support, so he was fitted with a special harness that she could hold on to as they went up and down stairs. (This is an example of how the Guide Dog Foundation will tailor training to a specific student’s needs.)
After Makepeace had received her doctorate, finding a job after graduation proved difficult – “I must have put in thousands of applications” – but around that time, her father developed health issues, so she put her job search on hold and moved back home to help the family.
However, eventually she started getting “antsy” and applied for a volunteer position at the St. Louis Zoo. “They saw my résumé and said, ‘Let’s put you in the education department,’ so I became a docent.”
Making a big splash
Eventually, Makepeace was hired full-time to be a zoo education interpreter. Her job entails taking public around on tours, talking about different animals and their habitats. Zoos have changed tremendously over the decades, she says. “We don’t put animals in cages anymore.” Now they have habitats that are more realistic, and animal enrichment is increasingly important to keep the animals mentally and physically stimulated. In addition to her front-facing work with the public, Makepeace is still able to do some research.
Despite her best efforts, Shadow was slowing down, and Makepeace realized it was time for him to retire (he lives with her zoo manager now). She and black Labrador Retriever Shonda were matched in November 2019.
When they first met, “I was kind of shocked at how small [Shonda] was [Makepeace is almost 6 feet tall], but she has a pull, which I wanted,” Makepeace says. “I needed a dog that was confident around animals.”
Together, the two of them traverse the 90 acres of zoo property with ease. “She’s a little spitfire,” Makepeace says, “and has made a name for herself at the zoo. The zookeepers are fascinated by her. Her name tag reads, ‘Mobile Enrichment.’”
In the two-plus decades Makepeace has been a guide dog handler, she’s seen a lot of changes at the Foundation, but has enjoyed every training experience. She says that meeting each one of her dogs has been different but familiar: "I think I was just so excited and a kind of bit nervous at the same time.” Sybil, Shadow, and now Shonda have been the right dog for each particular time in her life.
“My guide dogs have opened the world for me,” she says. “I don’t let anything stop me.”