John Seidensticker

Curatorial Experience

Also see: Ecology and Conservation Experience

Curatorial Experience

A curator’s role differs from zoo to zoo and the role of a curator in the Smithsonian system offers greater opportunity and responsibility than a curator in most zoological parks. The curation of living collections of animals is about their stewardship, including planning, development, direction, coordination, management, supervision, care, safety, supporting research, propagation, and exhibition. I believe that successful curation is also about vision.

As a curator at the National Zoological Park I sought to visualize and manage the zoo visitor - animal interface for the benefit of visitors and animals alike. One feature of my job as a curator was to make these wonderful animals accessible to our zoo visitors in ways they can see, experience, and understand as individuals and in context. We wanted to help our visitors see our zoo animals in more complete ways and in more accurate contexts than they ever have before. To me, the lyric core of this responsibility is in providing our visitors with this experienceable aspect of ecology, to help each of us gain perspective on the external world.

Zoos are about communicating – communicating the wonder, the diversity, the complexity, the fragility, the nature of animals and plants – to a mostly urban population that is increasingly distant from wildlife and wildlands. I use two phrases to guide my efforts in this: I tried to make "…the wonderful become familiar, so the familiar can become wonderful." And I "…sought to light fires, not fill buckets," as we added information to our animal exhibits and placed these animals in context. As zoos mature and evolve from collections of animals as objects and curiosities and become important centers for developing environmental awareness, I am guided by the concept that the bottom line is not about saving the world, but how we can fit into this world more fully with our fellow species intact.

As a curator, and now as a senior scientist, I am responsible for developing new knowledge about the animals we keep so we can improve our ability to care for them, to conserve them, and to place them in context. By context I mean we seek to place them in the context of our current knowledge about them from an evolutionary, ecological, physiological, morphological, and behavioral perspective. I also seek to place them in the context of the massive ecological shifts that are occurring in this world and try to bring to their exhibition current knowledge concerning status, trends, and ways to bring recovery and improvement in environmental circumstances on their home ground. I was responsible for developing the human and some of the financial resources to make this possible.

An additional conservation objective in the zoo community and a role that I have pursued as a Smithsonian curator, and now as a senior scientist, is to seek the ways and means to sustain populations of the large mammals we maintain in the zoo on their home ground. I have focused in recent years on tigers.

In summing up my efforts to link exhibition, conservation science, and training in my nomination for the Smithsonian Exhibition George Brown Goode Award for Great Cats at the National Zoological Park and Tigers! at the Museum of Natural History, I wrote: "In 1969, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley stood before the IUCN-World Conservation Union delegates meeting in New Delhi, India, and pledged the resources of the Smithsonian in efforts to prevent the extinction of the tiger. This led to the active involvement of the Smithsonian in tiger conservation by many of our scientists, educators, administrators, and associates over many years and in many places. I believe the Smithsonian effort on behalf of tiger conservation represents a fine example of how a great education and research complex can join with many partners – including governments, giant corporations, universities, and local people -- and make a difference in the conservation of our most endangered fauna and flora. And show how we all can live on Earth with our fellow species intact.

"This story is the basis for the new Tigers! exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and Great Cats at the National Zoological Park. The importance of Smithsonian participation in these research and conservation partnerships, especially in Nepal, was placed in context at a 1997 symposium arranged at the Zoological Society of London where many of the participants in the Smithsonian tiger conservation efforts presented their finding, and described their efforts. This symposium was published as a book Riding the Tiger: Tiger Conservation in Human-dominated Landscapes (1999, Cambridge University Press) that I co-edited and served as a basic document for both exhibits. The story and the findings from the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project were written as a background document for Tigers! and Great Cats and published as a book Tigers (Voyageur Press). In these exhibits, we have displayed in a very visitor- friendly way how good science is at the heart of effective conservation action for the wonderful, magical tiger. We show how right vision for conservation action comes from developing a shared vision with our research and conservation partners. In the process we have developed a whole generation of conservation leaders and this is continuing. Secretary Ripley would be proud, I think, because we took his vision, made it happen, nurtured it, and helped it grow. I like to think of this as the Smithsonian way."

I have been heavily involved in this effort over the years and I believe this summarizes how I have linked the various components of my job as a curator and a senior scientist and have added value to the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park.

Early Efforts

1976: Educational Graphics - Mann Lion & Tiger Exhibit, National Zoological Park. With the NZP Office of Education I wrote text for the new Lion & Tiger Exhibit graphics and I wrote the scripts for the audiovisual programs (see films) for this exhibit.

1976 to 1978: Advisor from the National Zoological Park to the Jakarta Zoological Gardens for a joint project for the acquisition, zoo breeding, exhibition, and conservation of proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus).

1982: Exhibit Gallery, Education Building, National Zoological Park: Wildlife Research at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center, conceived and written by J. Seidensticker, photographs by F. Sunquist, J. Cohen, and M. Jacobs, designed by Office of Graphics and Exhibits, NZP.

Curatorial Service for the National Collection of Living Animals

National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution:

1984-1986: Assistant Curator of Mammals

1986-1989: Associate Curator of Mammals

1989-2993: Curator of Mammals (GS-15)

2000-2003: Senior Curator

As Assistant Curator of Mammals I was responsible for the Mann Lion & Tiger and North American Vertebrates exhibits, with supervisory responsibility for an animal keeper staff of four. I prepared and implemented the "Exhibition and Collection Plan for the South Mammal Unit, NZP." I had curatorial responsibility for a major renovation of the freshwater habitat systems for the marine mammals.

As Associate Curator of Mammals I was responsible for the Mann Lion & Tiger Exhibit, Forest Carnivores Exhibit, Bear exhibits, Beaver Valley exhibits, and Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit—about 40 percent of the outdoor exhibit space for mammals at the National Zoo, with supervisory responsibility for a staff of nine animal keepers. I was responsible for the identification and implementation of core species programs for Sumatran tigers, Asian lions, and spectacled bears. I participated in the preparation of the "NZP Revised Master Plan," with special responsibility for the conceptual development of the macro-habitat theme and outdoor exhibits, and was responsible for the conception and initiation of the "Beavers" exhibit renovation. I initiated and managed the "Active Animal Project: Optimizing Visitor Viewing of Animals in Zoo Exhibits." This operational research project provided the information needed to optimize the exhibit environment for the animals maintained in the exhibit collection and to improve visitor-viewing opportunities of these mammals. I initiated and managed the "Carnivore Stereotypic Behavior Project," which identified the ontogeny of stereotypic behaviors that occur in some animals living in exhibit spaces.

I organized and led a research team to Sri Lanka to conduct a joint research project between NZP and the Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka on the population genetics of leopards and Asian elephants, a key data set for the long-term captive management of these species. I developed the concept and exhibition plan for "Bats" for the indoor exhibits in the Mann Building. I was responsible for coordinating the Department of Mammalogy Exhibition and Collection Plan.

As Curator of Mammals I was responsible for the Lion & Tiger Exhibit, Forest Carnivores Exhibit, Bear exhibits, Hoofed Stock Unit, and Cheetah Conservation Station, with supervisory responsibility for a staff of 9 to 11 animal keepers and one biologist. I supervised up to three students and/or post-doctoral fellows at any one time. I was responsible for the management of the core species programs for bongo, Sumatran tiger, African lion, Dorcas, Speke’s, and Dama gazelles, Grevy’s zebra, and tropical bears.

As of October 15, 1996, I became a member of the supervisory team for TEAM-B in the Department of Biological Programs with joint supervision of 25 animal keepers, museum specialists, and biologists, and joint management of about one-third of all the exhibit programs at the National Zoological Park. This administrative arrangement freed me from a heavy supervisory load so that I spent about 50 percent of my time in a conservation facilitation and research mode.

In October, 2000, I was given the additional role of leading, mentoring, and supervising half of the exhibit areas and personnel—40 keepers, museum specialists, and assistant curators—in the Division of Animal Programs.

In October, 2001, and continuing until February, 2003, I had the additional role of leading, mentoring, and supervising the entire exhibit portion of the Zoo's Animal Department, including the Department of Nutritional Resources—a total of 85 keepers, museum specialists, and assistant curators.

Projects I have undertaken in support of stewardship of the zoological collection include:

  • "Active Animal Project," completed in 1991.
  • "Carnivore Stereotypic Behavior Project," completed in 1992.
  • "Behavioral and Physiological Response to Confined Environments in Domestic and Non-domestic Felids," completed in 1993.
  • "The Animal Exhibition System in the Context of the Wider Zoo," with James G. Doherty, completed 1996.
  • "Genetic Variation in Leopards and the Long-term Genetic Management of Leopard Populations in Captivity," completed in 2002.
  • "Maintenance Energy Requirements of Felids," with Mary Allen and Olav Oftedal, ongoing.
  • "The Natural History of Little-known Mammals Living in Zoos," on going.

My other activities and responsibilities as Curator of Mammals are listed below.


I have/had curatorial responsibility for development and installation of:

  • "Bat Cave," 1991.
  • "Cheetah Conservation Station," 1992, and "Cheetah Conservation Theater," 1993 -- listed by USA Today as one of the ten best zoo exhibits in the country.
  • "Tiger Kids Stop," 1993.
  • "Tigers in Crisis!" American Zoo and Aquarium Association and Save the Tiger Fund travelling exhibit, 1997.
  • "Great Cats," including "Tiger Tracks," 1998.
  • "Tigers!" at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 1998-2001,
  • "Sloth Bears in Our World Today" (working title), as part of the Zoo's "Asia Trail," in development.

In Bats we sought to shift visitors attitude and appreciation from negative to positive. One fourth of the mammal species are bats and bats rank low in their appeal to the general public. We wanted visitors leaving the exhibit to appreciate the diversity of bat species and to think that bats are OK, beautiful, even "neat," have a useful place in the natural world, and have important relationships with other plants and animals.

The Cheetah Conservation Station and Theater and Great Cats serve as prototypes for improving other areas at the National Zoological Park. These exhibits and activity areas bring together for our visitors, our exhibition, education, conservation, and research functions. They are environmental learning centers that are fun experiences for kids. The wonder and the linkages of animals and plants in natural systems are featured in the context of ongoing research on their natural history and conservation by Smithsonian and other scientists.

Great Cats provides visitors with details about lions and tigers in their biological context, including relationships with other living and extinct carnivores, their place in the human past and present, their perceptual world, their physiology, and what Smithsonian scientists are learning and doing in the context of large cats and their conservation. The affective goal is to cultivate an emotional appreciation of the great cats and how the living world offers people profound opportunities for kinship, wonder, and beauty. The cognitive goal is to develop awareness of how humans impact the living world and the skills that are necessary for responsible stewardship and intervention. Great Cats instills feeling, knowledge, and beliefs about how much human sustenance and spiritual enrichment depends on maintaining a rich variety of relationships to nature and living diversity.

The Predator-Prey Trail at the Cheetah Conservation Station and the Tiger Kids Stop and Tiger Tracks were designed to make the Zoo accessible to younger children.

I have engaged in an intensive effort to bring the present state of understanding in areas of my expertise to general audiences, children and adults, through books and articles. These articles are listed in my publication list. I want to highlight five books and an educational kit that I have worked on with Susan Lumpkin as my partner:

  • Great Cats, 1991, > 111,000 in print.
  • Dangerous Animals, 1995, > 328,000 in print
  • Tigers, 1996, > 10,000 in print.
  • My First Pocket Guide: Cats and Wild Cats, 1996.
  • Habitats: Realm of the Tiger, 1998, > 4,500 in print.
  • Smithsonian Book of Giant Pandas, 2002, > 60,000 in print.

Summary of Stewardship Experience with Mammals and Other Groups

I have had direct curatorship/stewardship and supervisory responsibility for all of the species in the National Collection. I have had direct stewardship responsibility for the following mammalian orders: Didelphimorphia, Diprotodontia, Xenartha, Chiroptera, Carnivora including seals and sea lions, Rodentia, Perissodactyla, Artiodactyla. I have served as acting supervisor/curator for species in the following additional orders: Monotremata, Insectivora, Scandentia, Primates, and Proboscidea. I have stewardship experience and/or responsibility for avian orders including Ciconiiformes, Falconiformes, Galliformes, Gruiformes, Strigiformes, and Passeriformes. I have stewardship experience with some reptiles, amphibians, freshwater and marine fishe, and invertebrates. I have experience in developing zoo habitats for nearly all of these groups. I have trained birds of prey for use in falconry and maintained and used trained hounds for following and capturing large cats.


The American Zoo and Aquarium Association bestowed its highest honor—The Bean Award—in 1993 for the long-term stewardship of tigers jointly to the National Zoological Park, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and the Minnesota Zoological Gardens. I have curated the tiger program at the National Zoological Park since 1984.

I was a 1994 nominee for the "Excellence in Equal Opportunity" award from the Smithsonian Institution.

Ecology and Conservation Experience


©John Seidensticker. 2000-2004. All rights reserved.