STUART A. WELLS
Positions Held: Animal Keeper, Curator of Cheetah Conservation Station, Director of Animal Husbandry, Director of Conservation and Science
Facilities: Smithsonian’s National Zoo; Phoenix Zoo
Years of active zoo career: 1987-2017
Stuart was born in Indiana in the 1960s, a turbulent time for blacks in the United States. Stuart’s parents impressed upon him the ability to overcome life’s challenges, and he was inspired by his father, a practicing physician who overcame prevalent racial disparity. His father encouraged him to follow his dream to study insects at the Smithsonian, even when others discouraged him. Stuart entered college at Northern Arizona University, where he became more interested in mammals and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Zoology in 1986.
Stuart’s first job working with animals was as an animal keeper at the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was the first and only black zookeeper hired in 1987. Stuart’s work with Arabian oryx demonstrated to him the potential that zoos had to play a direct role in animal conservation. Stuart began studying cheetah behaviors to learn more about why they were not reproducing in zoos, and this research put him in touch with Smithsonian researchers who were attempting to answer the same question. In 1992, Stuart was hired as a Biological Technician at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to help establish the National Zoo’s Cheetah Conservation Station and develop a cheetah breeding program.
From 1992 to June 2001, Stuart worked at the National Zoo first as a Biological Technician, then a Biologist, and finally a Supervisor Biologist/ Assistant Curator, all at the Cheetah Conservation Station. During his tenure, his staff had success breeding cheetahs, and the management strategy he developed directly led to the first births of cheetah cubs ever at the Smithsonian. While at the Smithsonian, Stuart worked to conduct outreach programs to target underrepresented groups and introduce minority youth to the possible career paths available within a zoological setting.
In 2002 Stuart began working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Arizona as a wildlife biologist working for the Ecological Services branch. Stuart’s responsibilities included assessing how activities occurring on federal land might impact the continued survival of any threatened or endangered species present. In 2006 Stuart returned to the Phoenix Zoo as the Director of Animal Husbandry where he was responsible for overseeing the entire animal collection along with 70 full-time staff and around 35 part-time or seasonal employees.
In 2008, Stuart was asked to become the Director of Conservation and Science, a new department at the Phoenix Zoo. In a few years, Stuart expanded the department from housing two species to over ten species explicitly bred for reintroduction. His department would work closely with local conservation organizations including USFWS to identify specific goals and targeted release sites for the species bred at the facility. His program also began a global field conservation grant program that funded over 150 grants worldwide. One species brought into Stuart’s program was the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel, which inspired him to begin a PhD program based on behavior and physiology techniques to develop a squirrel breeding program.
In 2017, Stuart left the Phoenix Zoo to dedicate time towards finishing his doctorate. Currently he is completing his dissertation, and upon completing his defense, Stuart plans to return to a wildlife conservation career and helping to conserve endangered species in the wild.
Head back to Noteworthy Figures to learn about other historical minorities in exotic animal care and conservation.