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.
Author Alan Rabinowitz and his jaguar research helped set up the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's first jaguar preserve.
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.
I took all the science courses I could handle while I figured out a possible career path. During my second year of college I was taken on a camping trip into the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia where, for the first time, I felt safe, alone, and at peace in the outside world. After that, at every opportunity I would head off from my college dormitory into the woods to camp or hike, sometimes with the few friends I had made, often alone. In my junior year, I enrolled in a new course that was offered at the college—animal ecology. Two weeks into the course, I realized I had found my profession, the way to use science to save animals. Only one thing was still missing—my voice.
In the summer before my last year of college, my parents told me of an experimental clinic for severe stutterers in upstate New York that they had heard about. I applied immediately. After two months of intensive therapy and continual practice of manipulative mouth exercises, I gained control of my speech for the first time in my life. I was still a stutterer. Part of the therapy, in fact, was the acceptance of the fact that there was no magic pill to cure me and that I would always be a stutterer. But now, with the knowledge and the tools they had given me, I could be a fluent stutterer. I could speak an entire sentence, even an entire thought, without my mouth locking up. And I could fulfill the promise I had made to the cats so many years earlier.
After graduating summa cum laude in both biology and chemistry, I enrolled in a PhD graduate program in ecology and wildlife biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The years that followed, which I spent living and working in the Smoky Mountains, conducting research on bats, raccoons, and black bears, were the happiest, most fulfilling years of my life so far. I was still uncertain about the future, but for the first time in my life I was happy in the present. Then I unexpectedly found myself in contact with the man who would help set me on my life’s path and, in the process, become my lifelong mentor and friend, Dr. George Schaller.
George Schaller, at the time, headed the International Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (then the New York Zoological Society) based at the Bronx Zoo, and was at the University of Tennessee visiting my professor, Dr. Mike Pelton, one of the world’s leading experts on black bears. In 1980, while in the last phase of writing up my PhD dissertation, I was asked to take Schaller for a hike into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he wanted to compare the black bear habitat of this region to what he was seeing while working on the Giant Panda in China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve. The result of that excursion into the mountains with George was that, after completing my PhD, I was on a plane to the little, newly independent country of Belize in Central America to survey jaguars. And my employer was none other than the Bronx Zoo.
Belize was my testing ground where, as a field scientist, I would measure my commitment to working and living in remote areas under uniquely challenging situations. Despite the challenges, it wasn’t really much of a test for me. Setting up my home in a wild jungle, with lots of animals and among people of a different culture and language who had no preconceived ideas about me, couldn’t have felt more right. When I returned to New York after the eight-week survey and presented the results, Schaller asked me to continue the work and to initiate a two-year study on jaguars. Such research in the jungles of Central America had never been done before. I couldn’t have been happier.
Whatever I had had to overcome for the jaguar survey was nothing compared to the setbacks and hardships I now faced capturing and placing radio collars on jaguars at the abandoned timber camp I had selected as my study site, an area called the Cockscomb Basin. I persevered, because failure was never an option. Eventually, I broke new ground with my jaguar research and accomplished what no one else had ever done in conservation—setting up the world’s first jaguar preserve. But it came with a price. My study was to cost the life of one of my workers, inflict lifelong injuries upon myself, and change the lives of many Mayan families forever. I was also still too young and inexperienced to understand the larger implications of what I was doing, or to put into perspective my new understanding of jaguars and the people with whom they lived. Some clarification came when I wrote my first book, Jaguar, reflecting on my feelings about these events in their entirety. Most of my understanding, however, would come much later.
After I left Belize, the new Jaguar Preserve received unexpected international recognition and praise. In 1988, two years after the preserve was formally designated, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, president of the World Wildlife Fund International, visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and presented an award to Ignacio Pop, one of my Mayan field assistants and now first warden of the preserve. Meanwhile I had transitioned from research scientist to staff scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Schaller was encouraging me to go further afield and work with other wild cat species that needed research and recognition. The work in Belize and the research on jaguars was now to be continued by others. Or so he and I believed.
Over the next two decades I worked in Thailand, Borneo, China, Taiwan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Myanmar, tracking, studying, and gathering new data on clouded leopards, leopard cats, Asiatic leopards, and tigers. Whenever and wherever I could, I sought out wild areas, collected data, and tried to convince governments to set up new or larger protected areas that gave wildlife a secure home. I contributed to the designation of a World Heritage Site in Thailand and set up a more than 31,000-square-kilometer (12,000-square-mile) complex of contiguous protected areas in northern Myanmar, including the world’s largest tiger reserve in Hukawng Valley. During these expeditions, while searching for some of the last northern strongholds of the Indochinese race of tigers, I discovered a new species to science, the most primitive living deer in the world, and I rediscovered the only race of Mongoloid pygmies, the Taron, in a tiny, remote mountain village in the eastern Himalayas. While writing scientific and technical papers, I documented all my thoughts, feelings, and adventures in more popular books: Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, Beyond the Last Village, and Life in the Valley of Death.
In the following years my efforts for a time were focused on one species alone, the tiger. The world’s largest and most iconic wild cat was rapidly sliding towards extinction. Though revered as a cultural symbol throughout Asia and the world, the tiger’s parts were so highly valued by the Chinese medicinal trade that a dead tiger was much more valuable than a live one. But by the time the world took serious notice of plummeting tiger numbers, there were few left in the wild. We were losing the battle for the species.
What I had seen in my work with the tiger made me worry all the more about the jaguar. Fortunately the jaguar’s situation, while deteriorating in many areas through hunting and loss of habitat, was not yet close to that of its larger cousins, the tiger and the lion. But that could change quickly, as the supply of tiger bone was diminishing and the insatiable demand turning to the parts of other big cats—lions, jaguars, and leopards. My other concern was that the research and conservation of jaguars that I had thought would follow my work in Belize and that of other early jaguar researchers had not happened to any great extent.
The jaguar preserve in Belize was plodding along, a few more people were working on jaguars in different parts of their range, but 15 years after setting up the preserve, we didn’t seem to know much more about the life of this cat or even its distribution than when I had first started working on the species. And no one seemed concerned.
In 1999, I obtained funds from the Wildlife Conservation Society to organize the first-ever meeting of the world’s jaguar experts so that we could bring together and assess the information already known about this species and devise a strategy for moving jaguar research and conservation forward. While the jaguar was much better off than the world’s other big cats—tigers, lions, leopards—conservation actions had to be taken now while the species still had a chance. I wanted consensus on a set of priorities that would set the stage for saving the most important jaguar populations throughout the species’ range. This, in itself, would be a daunting task. What I was not prepared for, however, were the new scientific data on jaguars that would emerge at this meeting, data that would rock the conservation world and move us far beyond any conservation model we had previously imagined for the species.
As will be explained in later chapters of this book, the science that led to the realization of the existence of what I call the Jaguar Corridor was a huge leap forward in understanding how to save this species, and possibly others. It also presented an almost insurmountable task of figuring out how to use very limited resources to carry out the conservation actions that were necessary. The resulting program, the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, would take more than a decade before we could see significant results of all our efforts, and much more time before the entire corridor could became a reality.
But part of the reason behind the writing of this book is that I still wanted more. After three decades of witnessing the continual declines in big cat populations worldwide, I wanted to understand what had brought the jaguar to the unique place it occupied in the carnivore conservation world. What biological, cultural, and political factors of the New World and the people who inhabited it allowed there to be a twenty-first-century rangewide jaguar corridor unlike anything else that existed with any other living big cat species? And as I gained a greater understanding of “jaguarness,” how the jaguar was indeed different from the other cats—in structure, in temperament, and in behavior—I also wanted to explain what seemed inexplicable, perhaps even unscientific. I wanted to understand the essence of the animal I had spent countless hours watching and talking to as a child, then following, studying, and fighting for as an adult. An essence that earlier people seemed to have seen and understood.
Why had I been so attracted to this animal more than all the others in the Lion House at the Bronx Zoo? And if there was something special about this cat, something that helped comfort and motivate a troubled, insecure child, could a better understanding of the true nature of jaguarness help us not only to save jaguars but to help humans in their own quest for survival? In the course of my search, I explored unexpected realms—from the deep paleo-history of the species, to the cutting edge of DNA science and population genetics, into the complex layers of human cultural, political, and social dynamics—all of which moved me towards a deeper understanding of the question of jaguarness.
In the end, I believe I found the answers to my questions.
From An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. Copyright © 2014 Alan Rabinowitz. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.