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

By Emma Brown
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."

More recently, Dr. Howard had turned her attention to the clouded leopard, a large cat native to the jungles of Southeast Asia. The leopard has particular trouble breeding in captivity because adult males have a tendency to attack their female counterparts before they can mate.

Dr. Howard's solution was to raise males and females together as playmates, so they grow comfortable with one another.

In 2009, that approach helped the zoo and its Front Royal research center produce their first litter of clouded leopards in 16 years. Since then, three more cubs have been born to the same parents.

Working with colleagues in Thailand, Dr. Howard helped improve leopard reproduction by altering their diet and enlarging their enclosures, which led to less stress and more cubs.

Perhaps Dr. Howard's most famous achievement - among Washingtonians, at least - was the 2005 birth of the giant panda Tai Shan. A star attraction at the zoo until his departure for China in 2010, Tai Shan was the product of a long-shot artificial insemination conducted by the steady-handed Dr. Howard.

That successful procedure was the result of years of work by Dr. Howard and her colleagues to untangle the mysteries of reproduction by giant pandas, who are famously fickle about breeding in captivity.

Dr. Howard and her team, as well as colleagues from China, perfected the science of freezing panda sperm. They also figured out how to monitor the hormones of females to identify their short window of fertility, pinpointing the best moment for insemination.

Largely because of such advances, said Wildt, the population of giant pandas living in captivity has exploded, increasing by more than twofold over the past 12 years.

JoGayle Howard was born in Dallas on May 20, 1951. She was a veterinary science graduate of Texas A&M University, where in 1980 she also received a degree in veterinary medicine.

She received a doctorate in reproductive physiology from the University of Maryland in 1989.

Dr. Howard trained and mentored hundreds of students and postdoctoral fellows from the United States and abroad. She wrote more than 100 peer-reviewed research articles and received many professional recognitions, including a Recovery Champion award from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her work with black-footed ferrets.

"Nature's Matchmaker," an hour-long television special about Dr. Howard, will debut on the Smithsonian cable channel next week.

She had no immediate family, but her survivors include the ferrets, pandas, cheetahs and clouded leopards she helped bring into the world.

"I'm not an emotional person," she once told a reporter. "But it's pretty cool when you realize you're putting these animals back where they should be."

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