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WASHINGTON - Lisa Marie Stevens is known to her friends as a smart, attractive, well-traveled woman who rides her horse once a week, has four dogs, a cat and a corn snake, speaks two foreign languages and has lived and worked in more than a dozen countries.
But to hundreds of millions of people all over the world, she is known simply as "the Panda lady." For the past 18 years, Stevens, who spent most of her early childhood with her military family in Thailand and Okinawa, has managed all aspects of the giant panda program at the nation's zoo.
Since Ling Ling and Tsing Tsing had twins in 1987, Stevens has been the face of America's pandas. Now, she is back in the spotlight with the birth of the nation's newest baby panda, Tai Shan, 5 months old.
Stevens, who has worked at the zoo for 26 years, is responsible for all aspects of the panda operations, including the budget, long-range planning, record-keeping, exhibit design, construction and supervising personnel. She is also responsible for the zoo's primates, which include the gorillas, orangutans, gibbons and macaques.
We sat down with her recently to ask her about the excitement surrounding the birth of the new panda and her zoo work in general.
Q: How did you become interested in animals?
A: My interest in animals goes way, way back to when I was very young and I lived in Southeast Asia. I lived in a tropical environment where there were a lot of insects and reptiles and other animals, and I became really interested in both of those, insects and reptiles, (and) in animals in general. So throughout my childhood, I would make my parents take me to zoos and so forth.
Q: How often did you go to the zoo?
A: When I was in high school in D.C., I probably came to the zoo at least once a month. Prior to high school, we probably visited an animal facility once or twice a year. Once, I had my parents take me to a snake temple when were in Malaysia. (laughs)
Q: A snake temple?
A: It was just a temple where people worship that had a lot of snakes.
Q: What did your parents say when you asked them to take you there?
A: My parents were like, "This is a strange child. We'll indulge her." But I think my dad thought it was pretty cool. He was an Army infantry ranger type. He liked the fact that I wasn't fazed by much.
Q: So, that started you on the path toward your current job?
A. That, and the other part of my childhood that had a significant effect on me was learning how to ride horses. My parents gave me riding lessons when I was about 10 years old, and I think that had a tremendous impact, being around the riding stables and watching the veterinarians take care of the horses. But I had no clue, no idea that one could make a career as a zookeeper. In the days I was in school and you wanted to work with animals, the career path was to be a veterinarian. There was no guidance whatsoever on other kinds of careers working with animals.
Q: Do you find many other African-Americans in your profession?
A. No, it's not a diverse profession at all. That certainly is something that hopefully when kids see me doing what I'm doing, especially children of color, but all kids in general, I certainly hope that it will help them to think more broadly and to think of other possibilities and other career choices besides sort of what we're pigeonholed into.
Q: What is the most dangerous encounter that you've had with an animal?
A. In a zoo setting, one of the main rules is to always work safe. So, probably my most dangerous incident was when we had an orangutan escape. He basically grabbed and bit one of the keepers and in the process another keeper and I went to her assistance, and the orangutan grabbed my leg. Like most people when you're in a dangerous situation, things seem to slow down. I was calm and just stood there and waited for him to let go, and he did. Probably the other most dangerous situation is falls from horses. I probably have fallen about a dozen times."
Q: What is it about pandas that make people go crazy?
A. They have the characteristics than we're genetically programmed to find very cute, very adorable, those characteristics that our babies, our toddlers have - big round heads, high foreheads. Although their eyes aren't very big, the black eye spots make their eyes look big. Their ears stick out; and when they sit up, they have these pudgy bodies and they sit up and hold their food like we do, and these are all characteristics of our infants and toddlers.
Q: How did you come to be known as the Panda lady?
A. Pandas are the ultimate media animals. In 1987 when Ling Ling and Tsing Tsing produced those twins, I was just thrown into it. I will never forget walking into my first press conference after the twins were born. There was that initial shock of all those cameras and all the media there. Because I was the face that people associated with pandas at the zoo, the Panda lady tag came pretty immediately. But I felt lucky because I could stand up and talk about something I really enjoy doing.
Q: Are zoo people different?
A. I don't think so. I think zoo people share empathy and an ability to understand animals. We have keen powers of observation. We're very attentive to detail. But I think these kind of skills exist in other professions, certainly when you are talking about people who take care of people. I think zoo people are very creative, because we often don't have the budgets to do our jobs so we have to be very creative in giving our animals the very best of care on a shoestring budget.
Q: When you're out with friends do you talk about your job much?
A. Oh, all the time! Zoo people are the life of the party usually. People are fascinated by animals, and obviously we're unusual because there aren't many of us out there. They want to ask you animal questions and they want to know the story behind the story of something maybe they read in the paper about the zoo.
LISA MARIE STEVENS
Title: Assistant curator at the Smithsonian National Museum.
Marital Status: Single, but "I'm in a long-term relationship. I'm just not formally married."
Education: Bachelor of science degree, zoology/pre-veterinary medicine, 1977, Michigan State University. AZA School for Professional Management Development for Zoo and Aquarium Personnel, 1986.
Hobbies: Scuba diving, skiing, hiking, bird watching, riding horses, gardening, "anything outdoors"
Favorite movies: All-time favorite "To Kill A Mockingbird." Recent favorite, "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Favorite music artists: Santana, Grover Washington, Boney James and Eva Cassidy
Favorite food: Thai
(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.