A Quest to Save the World’s Biggest Cats and the Story of a Man Who Found His Voice
by Krista Tippett, host
Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and this interview is as full of revelation and beauty as any I’ve done.
This is in part because he is an extraordinary person. How many people have stories of looking jaguars and lions in the eyes in the wild and walking away? Or of encountering pygmy humans believed to be lost? Or of discovering an unknown primitive species of deer? But the inner odyssey that has taken him towards all these experiences, and that he has taken in response to them, is as remarkable.
Alan Rabinowitz was born with a stutter, before this condition’s neurological base was understood. His difficulty in speaking was so profound that it masked his intelligence and personality for the first 20 years of his life. He was isolated in school, put in classes for “retarded children.”
After being mute all day, as he tells it, he would come home and be able to talk to his animals — a redemptive experience, he tells us, that is shared by many stutterers. Out of ignorance rather than cruelty, his parents essentially left him alone with his pain. But his father did notice that the “Big Cat House” at the Bronx Zoo relaxed and delighted his son, and that after these visits his speech was a bit easier. For Alan Rabinowitz, these were experiences of relief, pleasure, and a painful empathy. He deeply internalized something I think many of us have felt in the presence of powerful, wild creatures circling in cages — a wild, heartbreaking animal with grief and longing. Alan Rabinowitz looked those jaguars and tigers in the eyes and said, I’ll find a place for you — a place for us. A few years later, after rapidly distinguishing himself as a wildlife biologist, he began to do just that.
He is very clear, though, that his earliest exploits of tracking raccoons and bears in the Great Smoky Mountains were as much about getting himself away from people as anything else. In the meantime, he finally found a therapist who helped him thrive in the world of speech, to become the “fluent stutterer” he is today. Soon he began to help create some of the world’s most innovative wildlife preserves where big cats could roam and flourish — first in Belize, and later in Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma.
Here is where a defining irony — a humanizing and deeply moving irony — of Alan Rabinowitz’s story comes in. Having traveled to the most remote places on earth, driven by his passion to save animals, he kept bumping up against people in unexpected, life-changing ways. He discovered the last 12 members of a community of human beings, Mongoloid pygmies. He had no common language with them, stuttering notwithstanding, and yet he tells us movingly of connecting with the elder of this tribe in a way that transcended words. With this man who was the last viable male of his race, and who could no longer find a mate, Alan Rabinowitz came to understand that he was ready to marry the woman he loved and begin a family.
I am fascinated, too, that in the span of his career, the science of wildlife conservation has made its own version of this circle — integrating a concern for human thriving as essential to the work of animal preservation. Within a few generations, scientists have learned that the model of isolating endangered big cats in large protected spaces is not a defense against extinction. They need to move far more widely, need to exchange their genetic material, need in fact to coexist with human beings. The projects Alan Rabinowitz works on now are called "genetic corridors." And his organization invests in the flourishing of human communities as part of its investment in the survival of big cats.
There are so many amazing moments in this conversation, especially a story Alan Rabinowitz tells of facing off with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize in a preservation area he had created. The eye contact they shared transported him back to those moments of longing in the Bronx Zoo. But this time they could both walk away and both be free in ways he could not have imagined as a child. And today, as he tells us, he is facing a new inner frontier. He has been diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer that is forcing him anew to see the urgency of his life’s choices — to keep protecting the animals who need him and to be there for his family, including a son born with a stutter, who means the world to him now.
Alan Rabinowitz is as whole and healed as anyone I have ever encountered, by the definition of healing that my wise guests have imparted to me. He has incorporated his sadnesses and wounds, his suffering and grief, into his very identity. They have become part and parcel of the gifts he has to offer to the world. I am better for experiencing his passion and his generosity of spirit towards both animals and humans. I feel grateful to have been in his presence — the presence, indeed, of his wonderful voice. I think you will be too.
Photographing Panthera Onca
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"The Maya said its skin was like the night sky. The jaguar was the gatekeeper to the underworld."
Steve Winter makes his living photographing some of the world’s wildest places and creatures for National Geographic: whether it’s Kamchatka bears in Russia or snow leopards in Ladakh, India. This month’s Smithsonian magazine features his stunning images of jaguars in Brazil’s Pantal wetlands.
Winter’s photographs illuminate the story of the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, which aims to create a “jaguar freeway” extending from Mexico to northern Argentina, giving these endangered predators the room they need to roam, hunt, mate — and ultimately survive. Zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, (whom we interviewed for "A Voice for the Animals") is one of the project’s leaders.
In the multimedia piece above, Winter describes his trial-and-error approach to photographing the Western hemisphere’s top terrestrial predator. At first he used methods that kept him safely at a distance but soon discovered that getting good pictures required patience, sun exposure, and the courage to confront the jaguar face-to-face. His fortitude yielded a bounty of memorable images of Panthera onca in action. See the results for yourself.
A Pictorial Corridor
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Conservation biologist Alan Rabinowitz has devoted his career to protecting “big cats” all over the globe — lions, tigers, panthers, jaguars, and more. His chosen vocation as a "voice for the animals" has brought him to places many of us only dream of visiting: the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, the jungles of Belize, the jaguar corridors of Brazil.
Experience a taste of Rabinowitz’s adventures for yourself. We’ve paired stunning National Geographic photographs of Rabinowitz’s work around the world with audio gems from his interview with Krista. Hear how Rabinowitz’s struggles with human physical impediments (a debilitating childhood stutter and more recently cancer) have shaped and fueled his passion. And while I’d love to someday ride atop an elephant, I’m glad to absorb these incredible photographs of tigers, panthers, and leopards from the safety of my desk.
Alan Rabinowitz: A Twitterscript
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
On June 30, Krista interviewed Alan Rabinowitz for this week’s show "A Voice for the Animals" — discussing topics ranging from his severe stutter, Dawi (the last pure Mongoloid pygmy), large wild cats, genetic corridors, and his recent cancer diagnosis. We live-tweet (SOFtweets) all of our interviews now. Here is the Twitterscript of that interview:
- In 10 minutes, we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with Alan Rabinowitz, dubbed the “Indiana Jones” of wildlife science.
- As Alan Rabinowitz sits in his chair, he says, “Grabbing a taxi on 5th Avenue is much more challenging that tracking a tiger in Bhutan.”
- Rabinowitz — “What turned me away from religion is what people were saying or reading did not go along with their actions.”
- Rabinowitz on his childhood stuttering — “Most stutterers can do two things: sing, and you can speak to animals.”
- Rabinowitz — “Over and over, I swore to myself as a child if I ever found my voice that I’d be there for them [animals].”
- Rabinowitz — “…[I found that] when I could speak fluidly, most people didn’t have that much to say that’s interesting.”
- Rabinowitz — “I associate myself with those who pit themselves against environmental hardships than I do with pure scientists.”
- Rabinowitz — “Science is a language of truths that would be there whether humans would be there or not.”
- Alan Rabinowitz is talking about a pivotal moment of his life when he found the Taron in the Himalayan foothills.
- Dawi, a Taron tribal elder asking Alan Rabinowitz why isn’t a father — “You act like a man who still has this deep, deep hole inside of him.”
- Rabinowitz — “We had to save the last tigers. Tigers are just plummeting.”
- Rabinowitz — “The dictatorship in Burma consists of several dozen generals. The one man on top is the controlling influence.”
- Rabinowitz — “Being among these remote communities showed me a model how people can live w/ their environment and can move forward.”
- Rabinowitz — “You can tell a person from Churchill because they’re always looking around the corner.”
- Rabinowitz — “You can tell a person from Churchill because they’re always looking around the corner.”
- Rabinowitz — “I rarely meet a Mayan now carrying a gun..’if we see a jaguar we stop on our bicycle and watch it now.’”
- Engineer Chris Heagle summarizing Alan Rabinowitz talking with Krista Tippett — “Marriage is like confronting a wild leopard”
- Rabinowitz — Genetic corridors for large cats vital to saving them - more than conservation parks http://is.gd/daooj
- Rabinowitz — “Stuttering gave me my life. I’m so pleased to be born a stutterer, because that’s how I got to where I am.”
- Rabinowitz — “As I get older and have thoughts of slowing down, I get told ‘I have cancer” and that has the opposite effect.”
- Rabinowitz — “I don’t see myself as a hero..I see myself as lucky for being able to..pursue the things I love that made me feel whole.”
- Rabinowitz on his son’s stuttering — “Seeing my son sad is painful. Although stuttering gave me my life it’s not something I wish on anyone else.”
- Rabinowitz on continuing adventures despite having cancer — “I had to live the life that defined me the best, both to myself and to my family”
- Rabinowitz — “I truly believe when you attempt to do good things for good reasons a lot of positive energy gets out there in the world.”
- Rabinowitz — “It doesn’t matter if life is short or long, it matters if there’s meaning for you personally.”