By Krista Tippett | Tuesday, July 27, 2010 - 5:46am
Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and my interview with him 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 a stutterer, 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 reevaluate his marriage to the woman he loved and decided to 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 organizations invest in the flourishing of human communities as part of their 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 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.