Photo Credit: Shannon Finney Photography
Steering Committee Member
Ethnicity: Hispanic (Puerto Rican)
Current position: Curator of Carnivores of Asia and South America
Current facility: Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Year zoo career began: 1997
Juan Rodriguez is a Curator of Carnivores of Asia and South America at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. In his current role, Juan manages a staff of keepers and a collection of vulnerable and endangered carnivores including red pandas, clouded leopards, and maned wolves. His job is to “curate” animals and people. As a manager, he is responsible for the training, safety, and development of his staff. Juan is also responsible for managing the breeding of the animals under his care with an emphasis in population management. Most of his breeding decisions are made while thinking about the potential population of the species 50-100 years into the future. Juan also coordinates with researchers and experts at multiple facilities on projects to learn more about the animals in his care.
Born in Puerto Rico, Juan lived in the DC area since 1980. He knew he wanted to work with animals from a young age and began studying at the University of Maryland for a pre-veterinary science degree while working as an animal technician at a local animal hospital. In 1997, Juan took a volunteer position at the Cheetah Conservation Station at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and instantly loved the job. When he was offered a temporary job three months later, Juan left school so he could begin working as an animal keeper. Juan worked as a keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for six years in the Cheetah Conservation Station and then at the Veterinary Hospital before leaving the zoo to complete his bachelor degree of science in biology. The summer before he returned to college, Juan had the opportunity to work as a project leader at the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand for 4 months.
Juan studied at George Mason University for three years full time before switching to a part time basis when he was hired as an animal keeper at the newly constructed Asia Trail at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Juan received a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 2009 while working at Asia Trail. In 2010, Juan moved to the Giant Panda department at the National Zoo where he would be part of the birth of two panda cubs, Bei Bei and Bao Bao. Juan began studying a Master’s in Science Education in 2014 from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City and earned the degree in 2016. In the same year, Juan was hired as the Curator of Carnivores of Asia and South America at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, his current position.
In his career, Juan has specialized in carnivores but has also worked with numerous animal species including raptors, primates, ungulates, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. Some of his favorite animal memories include the births of two panda cubs and training a cheetah to use a lure course. When he began his career, Juan’s favorite part of his job was working directly with animals. As Juan grew professionally and personally he began to appreciate and enjoy public interactions and education and developed a greater interest in breeding populations of animals. One of Juan’s greatest achievements is implementing a National Zoo version of the Smithsonian’s Youth Engagement through Science (YES) program, which provides youth from communities traditionally underrepresented in science careers with internships and mentors. Juan was able to share his passion for conservation education with students and the National Zoo earned the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Angela Peterson Excellence in Diversity Significant Achievement Award because of the program. Juan also currently serves as a Board of Trustees member of the Wild Center in the Adirondacks, New York.
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