JoGayle Howard, a National Zoo scientist who helped breed giant pandas, dies at 59

National Zoo scientist JoGayle Howard holds black-footed ferrets, a species she helped bring back from the brink of extinction.
National Zoo scientist JoGayle Howard holds black-footed ferrets, a species she helped bring back from the brink of extinction.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 4:24 PM

JoGayle Howard, a National Zoo scientist known as the "Sperm Queen" for her skill and ingenuity in helping clouded leopards, giant pandas and other endangered species with the delicate task of breeding in captivity, died March 5 at the Washington Home and Community Hospices in the District.

She was 59 and had malignant melanoma.

Dr. Howard came to the zoo as a paid intern in 1980 - back when the reproduction of captive animals, she said in a 2010 interview posted online, was more art and luck than science.

"The breeding programs would put a male and female together; if they didn't breed, they would try another male," she said. "I was shocked at how little information we had, and how little help we could give."

During the next three decades at the zoo and the Smithsonian's Center for Species Survival, she became a leader among scientists working to improve animals' reproductive chances by understanding their basic biology.

A veterinarian by training, she also used her clinical skills to pioneer the use of common human-infertility treatments - such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization - on animals.

"She was really the first woman scientist to have a goal of taking technologies developed for overcoming human infertility and applying them to species recovery on a large scale," said David Wildt, who heads the Center for Species Survival. She "put babies on the ground."

Early in her career, Dr. Howard was among a team of scientists who successfully adapted artificial insemination for use on cheetahs. Later, she again adapted insemination techniques for the black-footed ferret, once the most endangered species on the continent.

A native of North America's western prairie, the black-footed ferret was declared extinct in the 1970s. Several years later, scientists managed to locate and capture 18 ferrets in Wyoming. Little was known about the species, and Dr. Howard began shuttling between Washington and Wyoming to study them.

She devised an insemination method that allowed her to produce more than 150 ferret babies, or kits, at the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute campus in Front Royal.

She also played a key role in figuring out how to freeze sperm and thaw it for viable use years later - in at least one case, 20 years later. Since the 1980s, more than 6,500 black-footed ferrets have been born, and many have been released into the wild.

"It's nice to have a few success stories in conservation," she told The Washington Post in 2000. "And this is definitely one of them."

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