From Volunteer to Panda Keeper

How one conservationist's story began with FONZ

March 23, 2021

Juan Rodriguez has cared for pandas, clouded leopards, and cheetahs. He's traveled to Africa and Asia. For the past two decades he’s been devoted to conservation work.

It's been a long journey, but it’s one with a singular starting point: back in the late 1990s, Rodriguez volunteered with FONZ.

"FONZ was the gateway to get into all of this," says Rodriguez, who worked at the Smithsonian's National Zoo for 20 years before recently moving on to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

As the story goes, it was 1997 and Rodriguez was working at a veterinary hospital part-time and planning to become a veterinarian. He overheard a colleague at the hospital talking about the volunteer program at the Zoo, which FONZ led. He decided to apply.

"I'd always wanted to be at the Zoo," Rodriguez says, "but felt that it was beyond my reach."

A few weeks after he applied to be a volunteer, he was called in for an interview. He was offered a volunteer spot at the Cheetah Conservation Station. While it wasn't his first or second choice—that would be working with elephants and great apes, respectively—he was excited to give it a try.

For Rodriguez, it turned out to be the right spot. After he had been volunteering for 3 months, a cheetah keeper moved to another post at the Zoo, leaving an open position. He ended up getting the keeper job, partly due to his volunteer experience.

That volunteer position opened the door to a fruitful career as a keeper, educator, and curator. According to Rodriguez, the Zoo has been a vital part of his professional and personal life—he met his wife at the Zoo, for example—and it was all due to FONZ.

Rodriguez's position has taken him around the world. He traveled to China to prepare for possible giant panda births, not long before Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao. He led a group of FONZ members on a trip to Kenya—a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says.

Back at home, he became the Zoo's first Hispanic curator. He worked alongside FONZ's education department to improve his own public engagement skills—to inspire guests while working to save animals. He decided to pursue a master's degree in education from Bank Street College of Education, with a focus in Leadership in Museum Education, which he completed in 2016. He served as a program advisor for the Smithsonian's YES! Teen Internship Program, which gives teens practical, hands-on science experience.

So it's certainly been a long journey, but one that continues—and one that Rodriguez can trace back to a conversation in a veterinary hospital in 1997.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for FONZ," he says.