September 24, 2015

By R. Eric Miller, DVM
Senior Vice President, Zoological Operations

The greatest happiness of her childhood was exploring woods near her grandparents’ farm—reveling in the complexity and peacefulness there. That farm was near the small southern Illinois town where Cheri Asa spent her early years. A top science student at a Chicagoland high school, Dr. Asa went on to major in zoology and psychology at the University of Wisconsin where she earned a Ph.D.

Since then, for decades, Dr. Asa has been a pioneering and innovative scientist and a champion for reproductive management research. On Sept. 20, 2015, the Saint Louis Zoo’s accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), selected Cheri as the recipient of its 2015 Devra Kleiman Award. The award was named in memory of a top research scientist from the Smithsonian National Zoo. This award recognizes outstanding scientific research contributions and long-term commitment to the fields of animal management, education and conservation within the AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium community.

It’s little wonder Cheri was selected. She has worked tirelessly since she left graduate school on challenging projects. As soon as she received her Ph.D. in endocrine and reproductive physiology, she lit out for New York City, where she conducted electron microscopy studies of sperm cells at Rockefeller University.

From there, she moved to rural Nevada where she lived in a tent for a couple of years while working to apply contraceptive techniques to feral horses. Cheri is still helping the Bureau of Land Management figure out what to do about wild horses which are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year on public rangelands in the western United States. Cheri not only researched fertility control methods for these horses; she also served on a panel charged with looking at all scientific aspects of the management program and assumed the role of lead writer for the panel report’s contraceptive recommendations.

Over the years, she has worked to help indigenous residents of the Biowas Reserve in Nicaragua, journeying by canoe to a nature reserve to teach them sustainable living and hunting practices. She went to California’s Channel Islands to save the island fox from extinction. Recovery for these foxes required captive breeding and reintroduction plus removal of predators. “That island foxes have recovered to the point where they are being considered for delisting from the endangered species list is due in no small part to Cheri’s efforts to establish and improve captive breeding methods,” said U.S. Department of Interior Biologist Tim Coonan, who has worked on this project for 23 years.

But perhaps it is the Mexican wolf that has captured Cheri’s heart most fully. Year after year, season after season, Cheri has traveled snowy roads across multiple states to collect wolf semen for potential future use. In 1990, at the request of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Cheri established a frozen semen bank for the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. The bank preserves male genes that can be used in artificial insemination or other assisted reproduction procedures even after the death of the donor wolf. In 2005, when a cutting edge technique for preserving female genes (called vitrification) became available, Cheri was there to spearhead this technique for Mexican wolves.   

Today the genome banks at the Saint Louis Zoo in the U.S. and at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico contain genetic materials from over 180 Mexican wolves—one of the largest genome banks established specifically for the long-term conservation of a species.

All this was done as she also served the Zoo as the Director of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences and as the Director of the AZA Reproductive Management Center (the former AZA Wildlife Contraception Center she founded 17 years ago).

I can’t think of a more deserving person to be honored with this award. As the Zoo’s CEO Jeff Bonner said in recommending Cheri for this award, “Cheri Asa’s unbridled curiosity about research questions and the value she places on collaboration have led to her great success.”  She has continually inspired other generations of young scientists to the same level of accomplishment that she has reached in her distinguished career. Well done, Cheri!