A Personal Quest for Jaguar Research and Preservation

Alan Rabinowitz tells his story of connecting with endangered big cats as a child and conducting jaguar research in hopes of saving the largest cat in the Americas from extinction.


| November 2014



Jaguar

Author Alan Rabinowitz and his jaguar research helped set up the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's first jaguar preserve.

Photo by Fotolia/anankkml

An Indomitable Beast (Island Press, 2014), by Alan Rabinowitz, chronicles Rabinowitz’s personal journey to conserve a species that, despite its past resilience, is now on a slide toward extinction. In the following excerpt from Chapter 1, “In the Beginning …” Rabinowitz gives a brief summary of his challenging childhood and the path he took through college and graduate school to become a leader on jaguar research and preservation.

My earliest memories are filled with pain, embarrassment, and coming to terms with the reality, reinforced by adults, that I was one of life’s broken creatures. Born with a debilitating stutter and placed in public school classes for “special” children, I found it easiest to live inside my own head and withdraw from the world of people as much as a child can. My place of greatest comfort in those early years was the closet in my room in my parent’s New York City home. In this small, dark world, I felt normal, I wasn’t scared to speak, and I could live out my fantasies. My companions, a little menagerie of chameleons, green turtles, garter snakes, and hamsters, were the only living beings around me that seemed to listen but not judge. They had feelings, but they too had no voice to express themselves. They were me.

My parents were World War II–generation Eastern European Jews. They were sympathetic to my disability, willing to try anything that might help me—speech therapists, psychologists, medication, and hypnosis. But when nothing worked, they resigned themselves to the fact that I was simply “different” and nothing would be gained by talking about it. They believed that life’s difficulties, of which they had experienced many themselves, were managed without discussion, without emotion, without self-pity. So I talked to my little pets and cried only when I was alone in the darkness of my closet.

My father, a high school physical education teacher in New York City and a former army paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division, was a dominant presence in my childhood. Drilling into me the idea that I would have to fight my way through life, physically and mentally, he taught me to how to box and wrestle. Meanwhile, he battled his own demons in a way that created a house filled with tension, one that rarely heard the sound of laughter. The greatest kindness my father showed me were the trips to the Bronx Zoo, when he would take me to the Lion House and leave me alone to wander among the big cats. He had no idea how or why those animals helped me. He just knew they did.

Visiting with the big cats at the Bronx Zoo taught me early in life that you could be big, strong, and clever, yet still locked inside a cage from which there was no escape. Despite this sobering realization as a young child, I also realized that if the cats and other animals at the zoo had a human voice, if they could cry, laugh, or plead their case, they would not be locked up so easily in small cages for display. They would never have that human voice—but I would, I was sure of it. And when I found that voice, I promised the cats at the zoo, every time I visited them, that I would be their voice. I would find a place for us.

Much of my childhood is a blur, with all the painful memories long buried somewhere in my brain. I had few friends and rarely socialized with others. As a sixth grader I once stabbed my hand with the point of a pencil in order to avoid having to speak in front of the class. There were fights and bloody noses, stints in detention, and visits to the principal. I was never the first to lay a hand on someone, even when teased or bullied, but I never backed down from confrontation. My grades were adequate but not stellar, except in science, which I considered to be the language of the real world, apart from the perceived reality of human beings. In 1970, desperately wanting to escape my home and experience more of the world, I applied to and was accepted into McDaniel College, a small liberal arts college in the hills of western Maryland.