When Devra Kleiman was a pre-medical student in Chicago, she got involved in a research project on wolves. Little did she realize the hours of sitting in cages with half-tame wolves to habituate them to humans would eventually steer her away from a career in psychiatry to biology.
It was unusual for a woman to work in that kind of animal research in the 1960s, and Kleiman became known as "Wolf Lady" and "Bat Lady" when she worked with those animals. Now, however, those nicknames are in the past.
Once and for all, Kleiman is the "Panda Lady."
She is the National Zoo researcher most closely identified with the lovelorn giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, and often speaks for the zoo on the ups and downs of the pandas' attempts to reproduce.
The zoo hired Kleiman shortly after the pandas arrived from China in 1972. And since female panda Ling-Ling started going into heat in 1973 and the zoo began to attempt to breed them, she said, the pandas "occupy my springs, my summers and my fall . . . quite dramatically."
She said she has to schedule her activities around the pandas' reproductive cycle. "I find that whenever I have to make a commitment to a conference or give a paper or do research somewhere else, I have to think very seriously what month it is occurring and whether I can do it, and I have canceled several conferences," Kleiman said during an interview in her office at the National Zoo.
The zoo's attempts to breed pandas in captivity every spring have been much critcized by the media and Kleiman has often been in the center of the controversy. She said she does not mind the attention.
"The only thing that really bothers me is when I feel the media treats it as a joke totally and won't accept that we are trying to accomplish something reasonably serious -- that pandas are endangered in the wild, difficult to breed in captivity and we really don't understand a lot about them," she said.
"When that message and that aspect of our work is ignored," she said, "and people don't relate at all to what we feel is not only a conservation issue but an issue where we are trying to increase basic knowledge, that's when I get really upset."
Kleiman added, "I try to do my best to make the media understand what we are trying to do and why it is serious. I can't do more than that. If the media wants to treat it as a joke, then it is their problem." She blames the media for "attributing all kinds of human attributes to the pandas and then making fun of them."
Kleiman, 42, was born in New York and has been working with foxes, wolves, bats, weasels, South American rodents and rats for more than 20 years. Today, she gets invited to international conferences to present papers and has done collaborative animal research work with scientists in Brazil and China.
"I had always been interested in behavior and development," she said, perched on a special chair to ease her bad back. A picture of King Kong, Chinese paintings of baby pandas and a large pencil drawing of a giant panda were among the pin-ups on her bulletin board.
Chinese paintings of baby pandas and a large pencil drawing of a giant panda were some of the pin-ups on her bulletin board.
Kleiman, who obtained a PhD in zoology from the University of London, said her early years in the field of animal research were difficult. "They felt it was a man's job. I was told by one person at my first interview they could not hire me because there weren't enough women's toilets," she laughed.
With women zookeepers, the argument was no woman can work with a tiger or a lion and that they could not do heavy work.
"The point is women are capable of doing hard work and they certainly are capable of keeping records and developing the right kind of rapport with animals," she said. The National Zoo hired its first woman zookeeper in 1972, the same year Kleiman was hired.
Kleiman, who is divorced, said she enjoys swimming and fishing, reads a certain amount of current events, likes mysteries and contemporary kinds of novels and books on biology.
Her most successful project at the zoo has been her research work into golden lion tamarins, a type of monkey -- breeding them in captivity, training them to live in the wild and then letting them free. The first lot of tamarins were flown out in November 1983 and the second lot were flown out on Tuesday.
Her worst experience was in 1975 when she returned from giving a lecture at King's Dominion to find that a colony of about 30 fruit bats from South America, which she had been breeding to measure their reproductive behavior, had died because a special climate control had malfunctioned.
"I found that really hard to take. Part of the reason was because I had total responsibility for the animals in captivity," she said. "You might not think so, but bats have personality."
Her family -- a sister and a brother -- does not share her love for animals, Kleiman said. They did not even have a dog. "We once had a cat for three days and a couple of goldfish that killed themselves by jumping out of the bowl, so you had all these gold carcasses on the mantelpiece," she said.
As a premed student, Kleiman said, raised a baby dingo in her apartment in Chicago and her mother nearly went out of her mind when she had to accommodate the animal in her house during school breaks. But her mother loves talking about it despite everything, she said.
Kleiman, who lives on upper 16th Street in the District, said she would love to take some time off in the future to do a field study of South American bush dogs to assess their status in the wild.
Does she have any favorite animals? "I have a hard time answering that question because I find something interesting in just about everything I work with," she said.