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A Serious Job with a Side of Cute

Talk to Juan Rodriguez, BS Biology ’09, about the giant pandas for which he is a keeper at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and his wonderment about this endangered species quickly tumbles out.

Pandas are “just a cool bear,” he says. “There’s something charismatic about them.”

Juan and Cub Weight

Alumnus Ron Rodriguez is one of the primary zookeepers for Bei Bei and other pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

But pandas also are a puzzle, Rodriguez says. They breed just once a year, and females are fertile for only two days. Plus, he says, “they’re carnivores but don’t eat meat. They eat bamboo. Just thinking about how they get nutrition from what is basically grass is an amazing evolutionary story.”

Rodriguez is one of the zoo’s three primary panda keepers. In December, when the male cub, Bei Bei, made his public debut, Rodriguez held him up to make sure reporters and photographers got a good look at his overwhelming adorableness. Then Rodriguez spoke to the media, and that’s where the oral presentation course he took at George Mason came in handy.

“That class helped me refine my approach when speaking to crowds,” Rodriguez says. “The most important take-away was preparing cohesive discussions and learning to avoid words such as ‘um’ and ‘uh’ within your presentation.”

Rodriguez has been with the zoo since 1997, when he started as a volunteer. He has worked in the cheetah conservation station and veterinary hospital, and as a project leader for the clouded leopard consortium in Thailand, where he helped hand-rear two endangered cubs.

“He’s got his head in the game,” says Steve Sarro, an animal programs curator at the zoo. “He cares a lot.”

Especially when it comes to the zoo’s four giant pandas.

“There’s definitely a connection there,” Rodriguez says. “Ultimately, we’re in the business of saving species. Protecting the critically endangered, like the giant pandas, is the biggest aspect of what we do.”

The pandas are cute, too, especially the youngsters.

“That terminology is not typical,” Rodriguez says, explaining a scientist’s sensibility. “I might not say they’re cute, but I’m thinking it.”