Pittsburgh Zoo hires Gaspard as new conservation director



The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium's new director of science and conservation comes with strong credentials and recommendations from Sarasota, Fla. But don't believe him when he explains why he came to Pittsburgh.

"Of course, it was the weather," said Joseph Gaspard, 35.

He arrived at the zoo with a doctoral degree in veterinarian medicine and 12 years full time at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, most recently as department manager for animal care, training and research.

Mote's two manatees may be the world's most understood members of that species, Mote officials say, due to Dr. Gaspard's research on their ability to see, hear and use body hairs for tactile feeling. Mote, with 360,000 visitors a year, has 24 research programs underway.

"He was really good with the public, very charismatic, and he understood how to speak with visitors and get the importance of the research across to them," said Dan Bebak, Mote vice president.

The zoo's reputation -- not Pittsburgh weather -- is what truly lured Dr. Gaspard here.

"It's actually a very well-recognized institution nationally and globally that has a strong grasp on the importance of conservation and the role science can play in that role," Dr. Gaspard said. "It is really a great time as the zoo continues to progress with the Top of the World initiative, which has a conservation focus."

The position he now fills has been unfilled for eight years. Dr. Gaspard will play a role in the Top of the World series of exhibits to focus on such endangered species as siamangs, a lesser ape; a clouded leopard from Asia; Philippine crocodiles; and Visayan warty pigs, also from the Philippines.

His conservation duties also will focus on developing a better understanding of those species and their habitats to raise awareness and help prevent extinction, said Ken Kaemmerer, the zoo's curator of mammals.

"Once people get to know him, he'll be a real asset not only to our institution but to our area with connections he'll make" with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University to do collaborative research, he said.

The zoo's goal in hiring Dr. Gaspard was to find "someone who could look in all directions" and make connections to get projects done with limited resources.

Already on the job for a month, he said he also wants to focus on conservation efforts for elephants, cheetahs, lions and polar bears. Other goals include extending zoo projects to the community and beyond in an effort to apply new knowledge gained from zoo animals to help conserve those in the wild.

For example, the zoo's recently acquired elephant seal, Coolio, is believed to be blind, but Dr. Gaspard said he wants to determine whether the seal has any vision left and whether other senses have become more acute to compensate for vision loss.

"There have never been such studies in male elephant seals before," he said.

"But we can add to the knowledge and see if it helps conservation efforts with elephant seals."

It's one of many goals on a growing list.

"Coming in and making an impactful contribution to the zoo -- and worldwide -- is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I'm fortunate to be part of," Dr. Gaspard said.

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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