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A Champion for Clouded Leopards

The clouded leopard cubs romp around their enclosure at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for a few hours each day. The cubs—a male, Paitoon, and a female, Jilian—are the newest residents on the zoo’s Asia Trail and made their public debut last fall.

Once a week, those gathered to watch the cubs get to chat with Mason alumna Jilian Fazio, MS ’10, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’16, who knows a lot about clouded leopards. A postdoctoral research fellow for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Fazio has been working with cloudeds since she was a graduate student at Mason and an animal keeper on the Asia Trail. And yes, Jilian the cub is named after her.

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Mason alumna Jilian Fazio, a research fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, speaks to zoo visitors outside a clouded leopard exhibit. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Office of Communications and Marketing

Fazio is the clouded leopard species survival plan coordinator and international studbook keeper, which is a volunteer position she was elected to in 2016. “The studbook itself is a historical record of all the clouded leopards that we’ve housed and information about the individuals globally,” she says.

When Fazio, who also teaches in Mason’s School of Integrative Studies [2], says “we” she is referring to all the keepers of clouded leopards worldwide. The records are incredibly detailed and include information about the animal’s genetics, how it was reared (by people or by leopard), and specifics about its personality, especially if it is aggressive.

This information is extremely valuable because there is still a lot unknown about the cloudeds, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature Endangered Species Commission lists as “vulnerable.”

Breeding the cloudeds in zoos has proved challenging and sometimes deadly. Keepers have found pairing the leopards while they are still cubs may produce more harmonious outcomes. That’s where Fazio comes in as a matchmaker of sorts to the cloudeds. While a master’s student, Fazio worked at the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium on a behavioral assessment to determine which cats are more likely to be reproductively successful.

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Jilian, a clouded leopard cub named after Jilian Fazio, a research fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Office of Communications and Marketing

Cubs are usually born in the late winter or early spring, and by April, it is matchmaking time, which is now Fazio’s job. “I decide which cats to pair to make the best genetic matches and maintain population demographics,” she says. “I try to pair them before they are sexually mature, so that they’re not solitary cats for the rest of their lives.”

Fazio is excited to have the cubs at the zoo to represent the science and conservation of the species. The more people who watch the leopards and learn something about them, the more champions they can get for the species. “There are so many species in need of conservation efforts nowadays that we really need people to understand what zoos do and how they can help us meet our goals,” she says.