Dr. JoGayle Howard Dies, But Her Legacy Lives On Through Several Endangered Species

The black-footed ferret, giant panda, clouded leopard and other endangered species might owe their existence to Dr. JoGayle Howard and her focus on finding ways to help these species breed in captivity.

Dr. JoGayle Howard, who worked at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park since 1980, passed away on March 5, 2011, after battling malignant melanoma. She was 59. Howard was a leader in the field of animal reproduction, seeking to find ways to help endangered species breed better in captivity. Each species she helped presented a different challenge, and Howard found ways to overcome obstacles to breeding success.

One of her success stories for the black-footed ferret, which has a very limited number of individuals in the breeding program, involved performing artificial insemination using sperm that was frozen many years previously. It was the first time frozen sperm from deceased animals was used to propagate an endangered species.

Her work with animal reproduction earned her the nickname The Sperm Queen, and she is the focus of the show “Nature’s Matchmaker,” which airs on the Smithsonian Channel this Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26, 2011.

Howard received many awards and recognition of her work throughout her longtime career. And she was honored in other ways. A webcomic titled Ghost Cat was commissioned by the Smithsonian Channel to highlight her work to save the clouded leopard. The webcomic is part of the Smithsonian’s Women In Science celebration.

Several members of the ferret community shared their experiences in working with or meeting Howard.

“I personally knew JoGayle very well, as we worked together in the field a bit, saw each other at meetings and often got together as friends whenever I was in DC,” said Travis Livieri, executive director of Prairie Wildlife Research. “JoGayle always wanted to know more about the animals she worked with and always wanted to improve their lives with the ultimate goal of conservation in mind. I certainly have crazy, fun stories about her.”

Linda Iroff, a co-founder of the International Ferret Congress, has good memories of Howard. Iroff worked with her at the 2008 and 2009 Autumn Conservation Festival in Front Royal, Virginia. “I also worked with her to ‘name’ Peanut and Cyan’s blue kits, raising funds for black-footed ferret research at the National Zoo,” Iroff said. And she mentioned her in an article she wrote for Ferrets magazine in 2008.

“JoGayle was warm, friendly, funny, smart and very dedicated to the animals she was working to preserve,” Iroff said. “Her loss is a blow to our fragile ecosystem. I will miss her.”

The Smithsonian issued a news release about Howard. It includes details for individuals who want to honor Howard’s memory by making a donation to the JoGayle Howard Cat Conservation Fund.

Renee Downs, a coordinator for the Ferret Emergency Response, Rescue and Evacuation Team, and a member of the International Ferret Congress, said she hoped Howard might overcome the melanoma. “She fought hard, and continued her research and work the entire time.” To honor Howard’s work for black-footed ferrets, Downs is offering to match any donations made to Prairie Wildlife Research in Howard’s name, up to $500.

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