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Saturday, May 8, 2010

A woman who made a difference

Devra G. Kleiman, Biologist Who Helped Change Zoos, Is Dead at 67

Devra G. Kleiman, a conservation biologist who reintroduced into the wild the tiny endangered monkey known as the golden lion tamarin, and who learned so much about the lives of giant pandas that scientists could later help them reproduce in captivity, died on April 29 in Washington. She was 67 and lived in Chevy Chase, Md.

The cause was cancer, said her husband, Ian Yeomans.

At her death, Dr. Kleiman was a senior scientist emeritus at the National Zoo in Washington, with which she had been associated for nearly four decades.

A specialist in mammalian reproduction and behavior, Dr. Kleiman was among the first scientists to bridge the longstanding chasm between zoologists and zoos. Her work — which included setting up a cooperative breeding program for tamarins among zoos worldwide and making minute observations of decades of pandas’ social, sexual and gastronomic lives — helped expand the function of the modern zoo from mere exhibition to concerted, scientifically informed conservation.

Dr. Kleiman’s work also included the highly public, always stressful and generally thankless task of trying to coax healthy offspring from the Washington zoo’s first, reluctant giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, and having to explain year after year to a disappointed public why none were forthcoming.

Devra Gail Kleiman was born in the Bronx on Nov. 15, 1942. (The family name is pronounced CLY-man.) As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she had the chance to work at the Brookfield Zoo nearby and was smitten.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology from Chicago in 1964, Dr. Kleiman earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of London in 1969. In 1972 she joined the staff of the National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution; she led the zoo’s department of zoological research from 1978 to 1995 and retired from the zoo in 2001.

Not long after joining the zoo, Dr. Kleiman became involved in the plight of the golden lion tamarin, a Brazilian monkey with an old man’s face and a mane of auburn hair, which was then in imminent danger of extinction.

To the few zoos owning the tamarins, she proposed something radical: renounce title to the animal and consider it a long-term loan from Brazil. The agreement, which took years of negotiation, made it easier to shuffle tamarins around the world for optimal breeding.

With the aid of a computer, Dr. Kleiman then began a breeding project that took into account all known family relationships among zoo tamarins.

“The match is made to maximize the genetic diversity, or to minimize inbreeding,” said Steven L. Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the National Zoo’s science program. “It’s sort of like eHarmony for endangered species.”

Tamarins born of the project were later reintroduced into Brazil. Dr. Kleiman’s work became the model for more than 100 breeding programs for endangered species — including the California condor and the black-footed ferret — in North America today, Dr. Monfort said.

Dr. Kleiman’s association with pandas began in 1972, after the Chinese government presented Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States. Ensconced in the National Zoo, they were a wildly popular attraction.

Then as now, the giant panda was endangered, and conservationists, the zoo and the public yearned for offspring. The trouble was, almost everything about pandas, from their diet to their mating habits, was unknown. It fell to Dr. Kleiman to find out.

“They’re a species that came into the zoo unexpectedly and was functionally a black box,” Dr. Monfort said. “She took it and broke it down into the different component parts that made up the species and tried to understand how they fit together in the context of successful reproduction.”

Dr. Kleiman recruited volunteers to record the pandas’ movements around the clock. (“Sleeping,” the log entries quite often read.) For years, her social life was arranged around the panda estrus cycle. Despite her efforts, the couple seemed disinclined to mate. Nor was there a happy outcome when they did: over the years, Ling-Ling bore five cubs, none of which survived more than a few days.

But Dr. Kleiman’s long study of panda reproductive biology paid dividends later on. In 2005 a cub, the product of artificial insemination, was born to the Washington Zoo’s new pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. By prearrangement, the young panda, a male known as Tai Shan, was later sent to China.

Dr. Kleiman’s first marriage, to John Eisenberg, ended in divorce. Besides her husband, Mr. Yeomans, whom she married in 1988, she is survived by her mother, Molly Kleiman; a brother, Charles; three stepdaughters, Elise Edie, Joanna Domes and Lucy Yeomans; and four grandchildren.

She is also survived by the heirs of her scientific labors. When Dr. Kleiman began her work with golden lion tamarins, there were fewer than 200 alive anywhere; today, according to the National Zoo, about 1,500 live in the Brazilian wild.

Tai Shan, now almost 5, has lived since February at the Bifengxia Panda Base in China’s Sichuan Province.

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