It’s the ultimate matchmaker job. Dr. Karen Goodrowe, general curator at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, has spent her career researching and guiding animal reproduction in zoos – particularly big cats like clouded leopards and tigers. Now she’s the coordinator for all three tiger Species Survival Plan® programs in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums – a national job with global ties. She’s the first West Coast coordinator, one of only four since the program began in the 1980s. And with all tiger species now critically endangered in the wild, it’s a crucial one.
To get to this career point takes a deep knowledge of animal care and reproductive biology, genetics and behavior, as well as broad connections across the country. The AZA Species Survival Plans® (SSP) were created to protect endangered or vulnerable animal species by breeding them in zoos to ensure healthy, strong populations in case they were needed in the wild. The red wolf program is a highly successful example, taking a native American species that had dwindled to just 14 animals, breeding them in zoos and re-releasing them to restore the wild population. Coordinating that careful breeding takes not only a database of genetic information about each animal, but a knowledge of what to do with it in real life, with real animals, locations and keepers.
That knowledge – plus a passion for big cats – is what Dr. Goodrowe has spent her career refining. With a Ph.D in reproductive biology, she knows exactly which tiger in the U.S. will make the best mate for another, plus how to get them in the same place and introduce them in a safe way – a whole other story. She shares her knowledge with the global zoo community, connecting countries and regions around the tigers in their care. She has been awarded thousands of dollars in grant money for research in cutting-edge reproductive techniques from bison to rhinoceros to clouded leopards – including Point Defiance Zoo’s own Clouded Leopard Project partnership. She is part of the reason why the Zoo has had 7 tiger cubs in the past 11 years. And she guides the Zoo’s conservation funding, of which $72,500 has gone to wild tiger conservation since 2011.
Sitting in her office, with a magnet map of every Sumatran tiger in every U.S. zoo on a huge whiteboard on the sloping wall above, Dr. Goodrowe is a controlled powerhouse of energy and intellect. And behind it all is a deep love for wildlife – and a desire to protect it. We asked her about it.
How did you get into this field – and why?
Dr. Karen Goodrowe: When I was growing up (in Huntsville, Alabama, and Florida) my grandfather worked for the New York State Department of Parks. He instilled in me a deep love and respect for nature. Then in high school I visited the National Zoo (in Washington D.C.), which had just acquired their first giant pandas. It was the beginning of a wider awareness about conservation and saving species. At that time red wolves were nearly becoming extinct in the Southeast, but I had no idea – hardly anyone did. I made a decision then that I would work with endangered species. At first I thought I would become a veterinarian and work with animals, but later I realized there were other ways to help wildlife.
I studied reproductive biology, getting my master’s degree at the University of Illinois. While I was there doing a paper on lemurs, I met the head veterinarian at Lincoln Park Zoo and I thought, This is very cool. Then, while doing my Ph.D. (at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences) I saw that the National Zoo was just starting a program in reproductive biology. That whole field was just beginning. I applied, and got in.
As for the why, what I’m most interested in is the practical side of reproductive biology – how do we actually increase animal populations? I worked on this throughout my career at the Toronto Zoo, the National Zoo and various academic institutions, and now here at Point Defiance Zoo. My former students are now running excellent programs in Canada and the U.K. – I feel like I’ve left a meaningful legacy. One important way of increasing populations is good management, and that’s why I’ve served on so many SSPs and other zoo-based committees around the world.
With all this expertise, though, why tigers in particular?
Dr. Goodrowe: I feel drawn to them. I appreciate predators in general, and the strong role they play in creating balanced ecosystems, like gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. I find them so strikingly beautiful but so powerful, and so calculating in how they have to approach supporting themselves.
So what, exactly, do you do as the AZA tiger SSP coordinator?
Dr. Goodrowe: Well, it’s seasonal. Right now I’m creating breeding and transfer plans for all tigers across the U.S. I communicate with all zoos that have tigers, as well as the two SSP vice-chairs, and we look at the genetics and demographics of all of them to see which would be the best possible pairings for cubs. That’s what this big whiteboard map is for!
I also mentor and train keepers and curators on how to do successful tiger introductions – bringing them together physically to breed, which can be dangerous and is challenging to time. A lot of the job is political: working on international transfers, being a spokesperson for AZA about tiger issues that hit the news. I coordinate with veterinary and nutritional advisors, such as recommendations for Covid-19 vaccines in cats. I feel like I have big shoes to fill.
And I’m still co-chair of the SSP for the Sumatran tiger subspecies – that’s the kind of tiger we have here at Point Defiance. I’m the North American representative to the Sumatran tiger Global Species Management Program, a group of regions with zoos that hold Sumatran tigers including from Europe, Japan, Australia, North America and Indonesia. The GSMP does the same thing as the SSP but on a global level, managing tiger populations around the world for better genetic diversity and health, as wild populations diminish.
Along with our Asian Animal Curator Telena Welsh, I’ve helped create webinars on caring for and breeding tigers for zoos in Indonesia, and training on genetics at our biannual conference. Looking ahead, we’re planning for moving tigers between zoos regionally, to get a better genetic mix which is essential for a healthy population. So that involves a lot of negotiation for permits and so on, as well as building good relationships with zoos overseas.
You’ve been to Indonesia yourself, to see Sumatran tigers?
Dr. Goodrowe: Yes, in 2016 and 2018. Tigers have so many challenges there: It’s a chain of islands, with very separated tiger populations that can’t intermingle. Then there’s habitat loss, with resulting human-tiger conflicts, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade. You see just what Indonesians have to deal with, to protect wild tigers on the ground. There are many zoos with tigers across the country, and they know their animals – but we know the global population. It’s a privilege to be able to work with them on this.
With a job as complex as this, what do you like to do in your free time?
Dr. Goodrowe: My free time? Gardening, hiking, camping, scuba diving. Caring for my two dogs (Malamute crosses, both rescues). Reading. I just like to be outside.