This past Sunday, thousands of runners streamed through zoo grounds during another successful United Run for the Zoo. Their high spirits on an unseasonably chilly morning seemed like a fitting metaphor for the energy and enthusiasm that have made Lincoln Park Zoo such a progressive institution for so many years.
Among my colleagues here, few have maintained that stride like conservation biologist Joanne Earnhardt, Ph.D., who retired this week after 26 years on the zoo’s staff.
Conservation biologist Joanne Earnhardt, Ph.D., retiring from the zoo after a long, distinguished career, enjoys a favorite setting near Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo.
Joanne’s connection to the zoo began as a volunteer in the former zoo nursery in 1979, three years after I arrived to be curator of birds. In 1987, after earning her Ph.D in ecology and evolution studies, she accepted a new position as the zoo’s first records keeper—later renamed registrar.
Joanne was given the zoo’s first computer–a clunky IBM XT nobody knew how to operate, if she recalls correctly—and in the ensuing years played a major role in developing the population management software that zoos depend on to assess complex genetic data, nurture sustainable species populations and provide informed daily care.
Occasionally, trial and error led the way in the formative early years. “Not too long after I began as registrar, I accidentally erased the entire gorilla studbook data former zoo director Dr. Fisher had given me,” says Joanne. “After I got over the feeling of wanting to throw up, I helped reconstruct the database—and in the process learned how to better structure the software.”
In 1993, when I assumed leadership of the zoo, she was one of three employees in the Conservation & Science Department. There are now ten times as many staff members in that department—and many more computers. Joanne was able to enjoy the fruits of her pioneering data-crunching efforts, directing the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology—which hosts the Population Management Center used by North American zoos—until 2011. She also started the Species Survival Plan program for eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, which has provided us with invaluable knowledge of this locally endangered species’ biology and ecology.
In more recent years, Joanne began applying her unique experience in population biology to species reintroduction programs. In this capacity, she’s formulated methodologies used by field biologists in efforts to headstart and sustain threatened species from ornate box turtles in western Illinois to Puerto Rican parrots in the Caribbean. In 2008, she played a key role in organizing the first international conference at the zoo dedicated to such efforts. Representatives from 30 countries attended.
Knowing Joanne as well as I do, I’m sure her insatiable curiosity promises new horizons even as she looks back on a well managed record of accomplishment.
“The cool thing about science is there are always new things to figure out,” she says. “You’re never at a loss for a new idea or project.”
That’s advice we can all take and run with at the zoo.