Missouri graduate prepared for pandas

Monday, January 16, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Jon McRoberts, 23, is moving up in the animal kingdom -- from otter wrangler to panda scholar.

The Columbia resident received a four-month internship with the Smithsonian National Zoo Park. He leaves Friday for Chengdu, China, where he will join a four-year study of panda reproduction at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. "I've only seen one panda when I was 5 years old at the Washington, D.C., National Zoo," McRoberts said. "That was my one and only panda encounter."

McRoberts is far from unprepared. He's worked with river otters, rhinos, leopards, black-footed ferrets, impalas, wildebeests and hippopotamuses. He studied at Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai, Thailand, and helped develop a wildlife management exchange with the University of Pretoria in South Africa for University of Missouri-Columbia students.

A native of Columbia, McRoberts graduated from the University of Missouri with a fisheries and wildlife degree and minors in international agriculture and biological sciences.

Mimi McRoberts, his mother, said his curiosity with animals is nothing new.

"He always had some sort of pet," she said. "Not only the typical pets like dogs and cats but geckos, birds, fish, lizards. We had almost everything you could put in a cage."

Jon McRoberts credits his love of nature to his family having a farming background and growing up hunting and fishing.

In 1992, his mother, a member of the Parent Teacher Association of Mill Creek Elementary School, invited Glenn Chambers, a family friend, to bring his river otter Paddlefoot to school. McRoberts had the opportunity to baby-sit Paddlefoot in the furnace room while Chambers set up his presentation for the students.

"He told me that day if I ever needed anyone to take care of the otters not to forget him," Chambers said. "I didn't."

McRoberts said he was sitting in a duck blind when Russ, Chambers' son, told him Chambers might have some work for him. At age 15, he joined the ranks of Chambers' otter wranglers.

Chambers introduced McRoberts to Mark Ryan, a professor and adviser in the University of Missouri's fisheries and wildlife program. McRoberts credits Ryan and Chambers with convincing him he could do what he loved for a living.

McRoberts was granted early acceptance to the University of Missouri's School of Medicine, and he intended to become a doctor until his junior year of college, when he changed his major.

"They never pushed me," McRoberts said of Ryan and Chambers, "but eventually I switched. I got the biggest pay cut of my career over early."

Ryan is helping McRoberts apply to graduate schools.

One of the things that impresses Ryan most about McRoberts is his humility despite all his accomplishments.

"Sometimes I forget that Jon is still a young man," Ryan said. "He carries himself like a person with more experience than that."

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