Cristian Samper has spent the past nine years directing the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. He’ll be leaving Washington in August to head the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs several zoos and the New York Aquarium. He took some time to talk to The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and to share with KidsPost readers the secret to his success: He never grew up. Samper, who is 47, explained how he’s been able to turn a love of nature and animals into a lifelong career in science and conservation.
How did growing up in Bogota, Colombia, shape your view of the environment?
While I grew up in Bogota, my family had a farm in Sopo, half an hour north of Bogota. I used to spend all my weekends on the farm. . . . I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was 13 or 14. My father said, sure, but why not do an internship with our family’s vet? I was shampooing little toy poodles and vaccinating dogs. I was thinking about working with elephants! Before long I decided being a vet in Bogota was not what I wanted to do.
So how did you come to pursue a career in conservation?
When I was 15, I spent a month out in the middle of the jungle. I loved it. . . . I was on an expedition led by the scientist Jorge Orejuela, identifying areas for the conservation of birds.
How would you say we’re doing in terms of protecting diversity?
Not great, not great at all. The good news is we can really do things about it [by creating protected areas on land and in the water]. One of the things that attracted me to the Wildlife Conservation Society is the opportunity to actually take that knowledge on the ground to see results with conservation, through conservation science. I love going to the field.
What do you think institutions such as as the National Museum of Natural History and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo contribute to conservation?
These kinds of places do offer a window into nature. . . . We’re going to open next year a brand-new education center [at the Smithsonian]. Fifteen thousand square feet that used to be behind the scenes, 20,000 objects in the collection will be available for kids to play with. It’s a completely different way of doing education. Kids will be able to come in and investigate, and ask and answer questions.