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ASU biology alum helping save the world's tigers

Robyn Barfoot with baby tiger

Barfoot oversees a root canal for a tiger named Bagheera.
Photo by: Bill Barfoot

June 12, 2015

Around the world, the tiger is in critical danger. According to the World Wildlife Fund, fewer than 3,200 tigers are alive in the wild today. But one former Sun Devil’s love for the big cat has spurred her to take action to change that.

Robyn Barfoot, an Arizona State University class of '00 alumna, is traveling around the world to try to stop that number of tigers from falling further. To get to a position where she could do that, it took hard work, connections and a biology degree from ASU.

Barfoot is currently curator at the Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah, Washington. She hires staff, works with veterinarians, acquires animals for the collection and helps rear them. She also handles public relations, maintains zoo policies and assists with exhibit design.

“I didn’t expect to be curator when I first interviewed, but I was given the opportunity and happily accepted it,” Barfoot said. “Having an impact on the conservation world is my goal, and the zoo has let me do just that.”

Barfoot’s love affair with big cats started at age four. However, that interest was briefly supplanted by her first majors at ASU — anthropology and theater. Her fondness for tigers always remained, though, and a single zoo trip during college reminded her what really mattered.

“I had one of those epiphanies while visiting a tigress in a zoo, and I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing majoring in anthropology?’ ” Barfoot said. “I have always had a desire to work with tigers, and that moment reminded me of my heart’s passion — saving the tiger. I came back and instantly changed my major.”

The wildlife conservation biology program was tougher than she anticipated, though. Learning about endangered species was disheartening, she said. But Barfoot credits the honesty of her teachers with much of her success.

“ASU prepared me for post-graduation life by employing professors who didn’t sugarcoat things,” Barfoot said. “The topics were hard to digest and the outlook was usually bleak, but they told it how it honestly was and empowered us to do something about it.”

Both professors and the classes they taught had a tremendous effect on Barfoot that has lasted long past graduation. She still references what she learned in class to this day.

“The professors always assisted when asked and helped the students who were serious about succeeding,” Barfoot said. “Plus, in my career, having a university education puts you in a different group than those who are applying without a degree.”

In addition to her work at the zoo, Barfoot has actively participated in tiger conservation efforts worldwide since 2007. With the encouragement of a friend who was the former director of the World Wildlife Fund, Barfoot has helped the citizens of 17 villages in India understand the importance of protecting their tiger populations.

“It has been highly rewarding, and it makes my heart so happy,” Barfoot said. “I will continue to visit India and do everything I can to promote tiger conservation, continue to educate the people about the importance of tigers in the wild and support those who are doing the work on the ground.”

What’s more, she has shared her experience with college conservation students in Bangalore, India, and worked with Project Tiger and the Sundarbans Tiger Biosphere. Started by the Indian government in 1973, Project Tiger supports tiger conservation, and Sundarbans Tiger Biosphere is one of the largest reserves in the world for Bengal tigers.

Whether she’s in India or at home in Washington, Barfoot is doing everything she can to protect the animals she loves most, while educating others so they can do the same.