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Ethnicity: Black

Former positions: Animal keeper, Curator of Giant Pandas and Primates

Facilities: Smithsonian's National Zoo

Years of active zoo career: 1978-2011


Lisa Stevens had an illustrious 33 year career at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.  She received a BS in Zoology from Michigan State University. Shortly after, she got her start as a carnivore keeper working primarily with big cats and bears, as well as a variety of other mammals including pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). In 1981 Lisa was promoted to a curatorial position in the mammal department, and after a brief time with the research collection, she was assigned to primates. In 1987 the famous giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were added to her responsibilities. They were the only giant pandas in the US at that time, a diplomatic gift to the American people. Lisa would go on the manage the next generation of giant pandas, and the first birth of a surviving panda cub at the zoo, “Tai Shan”, in 2005.


Working with giant pandas required additional leadership as a media spokesperson. Lisa became well known, especially in the DC area, as the “panda lady”. During her tenure as curator, the zoo renovated and created several new exhibits. She was part of a team which created the Think Tank, an exhibit on animal cognition, which shared engaging research with zoo visitors, and the O-line an aerial system of towers for the zoo’s orangutans, both netting the zoo an AZA Exhibit Innovation Award in 1986. Curatorial responsibilities included oversight of all daily operations, animal care and maintenance, record keeping, animal training, education, enrichment and research programs. Lisa took a leadership role in incorporating positive reinforcement training and enrichment into zoo animal husbandry, and planned and conducted training workshops in Chinese zoos in 2002 and 2006.


Lisa grew up living internationally and credits her interest in animals to a childhood living in the tropics of a Southeast Asia. Although Lisa was very interested in insects and reptiles starting as a young child, ironically mammals became her sole career at the zoo. Her father, a decorated (Silver Star) Army Officer and Asian security specialist, and her mother a homemaker who managed the household through all the family moves, taught her to be independent, to work hard and to have confidence in pursuing her interests. They never made her feel that being black and female put any limits on her choices. As an African American with a unique career, the opportunity to be a media spokesperson for the pandas gave her a platform to show young children of color an unusual career path. Lisa wants to continue to support the growing interest in conservation, and careers with animals, in our diverse communities.

Head back to Noteworthy Figures to learn about other historical minorities in exotic animal care and conservation.

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