April 18, 2013
Alan Rabinowitz
A Voice for the Animals

A profound stutter as a child left Alan Rabinowitz virtually unable to communicate and to prefer animals to people. Now a conservationist of tigers and jaguars, an explorer of the world’s last wild places, he has extraordinary insight into both animals and the human condition.

Share Episode


is a zoologist and wildlife conservationist. He is founder and CEO of Panthera and the author of Life in the Valley of Death and Beyond the Last Village.


April 18, 2013

Krista Tippett, Host: A profound stutter as a child left Alan Rabinowitz virtually unable to communicate and to prefer animals to people. He became a wildlife biologist and made his name as an explorer in some of the world’s last wild places. He’s discovered new animal species, encountered human communities believed to be lost, and all the while, worked for the survival of the world’s endangered big cats — lions, jaguars, tigers. In cultures as disparate as Belize and Burma, Alan Rabinowitz has carved out some of the most innovative preservation areas on the planet.

We hear this hour about his extraordinary insights into the animal-human bond, and also about the dramatic personal odyssey that has brought him across the years to rediscover the human side of things, both in life and in the evolving science of wildlife conservation.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz: The jaguar let out kind of a guttural growl and stood up and right before it went into the forest, it turned and it looked back at me for a few seconds. And I remember that look so clearly from the cages in the cat house at the Bronx Zoo.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being, from APM, American Public Media.

Alan Rabinowitz heads Panthera, the nonprofit he co-founded to help save the world’s endangered wild cat species. I interviewed him in 2010. The program and staff titles of Panthera alone evoke an amazing story — Snow Leopard Program, Tigers Forever, Jaguar-Cattle Conflict Coordinator. An adventurous life might have been hard to foretell in Alan Rabinowitz’s childhood. The stutter he was born with masked his intelligence and personality. He was put in special classes for children labeled retarded. He was able to be himself, as he tells it, only when he was alone with his pets. And he came to empathize with animals in the zoo.

He felt that they were treated callously and dismissed, and he vowed to become their voice in the world. He would give back, as he tells it now, to these creatures, who, like him, wanted nothing more than to live their own lives freely and fully as best they could. And as Alan Rabinowitz came to adulthood, he stayed faithful to this promise.

Ms. Tippett: So I want to talk in a little while about, you know, stuttering and some of these larger issues, but I would like to kind of fast-forward now to your career as — what have they called you? — the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation?

Dr. Rabinowitz: [laugh]

Ms. Tippett: [laugh] And I’d love for you to fill in some of the blanks because it is an amazing story. And so here’s one milestone I have — the story that in 1980 you are tracking raccoons and black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains, and this great zoologist, George Schaller, invites you to study jaguars in Belize. But, I mean, tell me first of all how you came to be tracking raccoons and black bears and what you were learning from them.

Dr. Rabinowitz: [laugh] Well, I came to be tracking — it was more about trying to escape from people at that time in my life than running towards something.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Rabinowitz: It was really running away from. I did end up finally as a senior in college going to a speech clinic, which taught me how to speak. It didn’t cure stuttering. Stuttering doesn’t get cured in that kind of a sense, but you can learn to speak fluently even as a stutterer.

Ms. Tippett: And when you say to speak fluently as a stutterer, what are you describing? That you work with the stutter rather than against it?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Exactly. I learned how to speak fluently. I could control it. I was a fluent stutterer and that opened up a whole new avenue in my life. But the funny thing was, I learned by that time that I didn’t really care to be among the world of people.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Rabinowitz: All I ever thought I wanted was to speak fluently and be accepted by the world of people and to be so-called normal. And then when I could finally speak fluently, I realized that most people didn’t have that much to say that I was interested in.

Ms. Tippett: [laugh] OK. All right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: So I realized that I would rather be with the animals, and I applied to graduate school to study biology and to continue my love of science and to escape to places where language wasn’t that important.

Ms. Tippett: And so George Schaller’s invitation for you to study jaguars really did take you off in a direction that was formative, didn’t it?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes. It did. At the time George was studying giant panda bears in China, and there was a bit of a controversy at the time about exactly what panda bears were. Were they a bear? Were they a raccoon? And at the time, I was one of the only people in the world, maybe the only person — I don’t know; I’ve never asked George — who was studying both bears and raccoons. And he found me and came to look at my work, actually.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, that’s interesting. You know, I have to say that when I look at descriptions of what you’ve done, you have worked in some of the most remote places on earth. You know, like here’s a description you gave, that you’ve lived for days in caves chasing bats. You’ve captured and tracked bears, jaguars, leopards, tigers, and rhinos, discovered new animal species, documented lost cultures such as the world’s only Mongoloid pygmies. Um, and, you know, when I read your writing, you have been passionate about the fact that there are wild places left and that exploration is not something just of the past. Some of your language, you know, sounds like these 18th- and 19th-century explorers, many of them British, who also went out to find the lost places.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I’ve read much of them. I’ve read — that’s one of my favorite kinds of books, were these old adventure and exploration novels, people really pitting themselves. I associate myself more with the people who try to pit themselves against environmental hardships, actually, than I do with the pure scientists who go in search of new biological discoveries.

Ms. Tippett: Right. The rare flower that has never been seen.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Like what names come to mind for you? Just who have you enjoyed reading?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Shackleton.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Shackleton is one of my true heroes, what that man did, what he was able to live through.

Ms. Tippett: But, you see, when I look at the picture and I think of you together in a sentence with these kinds of figures, I also think you’re animated by very different late-20th-, early-21st-century goals. I mean, you know, there’s a sense — not all of them. They weren’t all out to conquer and civilize, but some of them were. And you have added this twist to the notion of exploring and to finding the wild places, and this twist is conservation and preservation.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes. From the earliest time, I felt like I wanted to — I not only wanted to go out and challenge myself against the environment, against odds, and explore wild places, I also wanted to be a voice for the animals. I did want to save wildlife. I always appreciated science more than any other course I studied because to me science was its own language. Science was a language of truths that would be there apart from whether human beings were on this earth or not. Science presented certain facts and certain realities. It allowed me to delve into a world that didn’t have to do with speech or anything else like that, that was human-centric but had a life of its own.

Ms. Tippett: You’re thinking like natural laws, the laws of biology.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes. Yes. I never enjoyed traveling for traveling’s sake or conquering a mountain for just the mountain’s sake. I really enjoyed and still enjoy conquering a mountain and at the same time documenting what the biodiversity is of that mountain and possibly finding some endemic species that nobody either knew about or we didn’t know enough about, and adding to the scientific literature of that species. And now I feel everything has to be taken a step further into conservation, so that everything I do has to do with how do we save this wildness or wilderness that we still have on earth.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: You’ve been so many places. You’ve done a lot. But, I mean, tell me — illustrate what you just said with a story of, you know, one of these experiences you’ve had where you both had a personal adventure and also have come to understand something about biodiversity and conservation which you’ve been able to share with others.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Oh, that’s a — boy. I’m going to say what first has come to my mind, which has to do with an incredible story that combines cultural diversity and biological diversity, because I never felt that I was that interested in the human side of things until I started reaching some of these more unexplored cultures or people living different ways of life.

I guess one of the most memorable trips I ever took was to the far, far north of Myanmar or Burma, up by the Tibetan border.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I wrote about this in one of my books, called Beyond the Last Village. And it took several days, first, of flying smaller and smaller planes in order to get to the very last place you could fly into on a small twin prop in northern Burma. And then it was about a three- to four-week hike to get to the border of Tibet, up in the snowy mountains. You were actually going up into the lower Himalayas.

Now, this follows very much on what you asked earlier, because the only documented records at that time from that area were from an early British botanist named Frank Kingdon Ward.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, yes. I know him. Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yeah. And he was an incredibly intrepid explorer who went on almost no money at all to go and look for orchids, rare orchids.

Ms. Tippett: Yes. Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: As well as other flowers.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I had read everything by him, especially for this part of the world where he was really interested. And he was the …

Ms. Tippett: This gets into the Shangri-La stories, right? You’re in that part of the world?

Dr. Rabinowitz: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Exactly. And he actually published some books — which I was able to get a hold of from rare-book stores — where he did some very primitive maps of how he hiked up into this area. But, typical as a botanist, he never talked about wildlife and there was no known mention of any of the wildlife up there or of the animals.

Ms. Tippett: He only had eyes for flora.

Dr. Rabinowitz: He only had eyes for flowers. That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: But I have to admit, as a zoologist, I almost never talk about plants, either.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Rabinowitz: So it goes both ways.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: So I followed his earlier trail. I actually — it wasn’t easy, because when I got to the last town where I could fly into, there were almost no people who had been up in that area and knew the best route. And finally I was able to meet a Tibetan who had come down from that region, having taken more than a month walk to come down. And he led us back up there along with a monk who wanted to go back up there and, interestingly enough, proselytize to the tribal groups up there who were converted to different forms of Christianity.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, really? I thought you were going to say they were animist, but they were …

Dr. Rabinowitz: No.

Ms. Tippett: That is really interesting.

Dr. Rabinowitz: It was a very strange group of us walking up there into the far north. And eventually, after I think three weeks, we reached the last settlement of human habitation in northern Burma. From there on in, it was pure rugged snowy Himalayan mountains to the Tibetan border and over into China. And in this area is where I met this last group of Mongoloid pygmies, the only Mongoloid pygmies known in the world, called the Taron. And they were going extinct.

Ms. Tippett: And did people know even that they still existed? Or that they existed there?

Dr. Rabinowitz: No.

Ms. Tippett: No.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Nobody. Not the outside world.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yeah. I mean, there had been — the reason I even knew about them is because there had been an article written up about their discovery in the International Journal of Nature in the 1960s. And at that time, there were several hundred of them left. But since that time, since the ’60s, nobody really knew anything about them. And by the time I got to them — in fact, I didn’t even know when I got to them because the few that were left hid from me. They all ran and hid. And it was only when the other tribal group asked them to come out that they would come out and meet me. And there were only about 12 of them left.

Ms. Tippett: Right. You have pictures in one of your books and, I mean, they’re just amazing to look at.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I have to say, I mean, this is — they taught me more than anything else. This was almost a defining moment of my life because it was a time when I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to have children, whether my marriage would really work out, where my life was actually going as I figured things out. And here this leader of the Taron, who couldn’t speak my language — in fact, he didn’t speak Burmese either. It was a completely — it was the Taron dialect.

If I really wanted to talk to them I had to go through three different translators. But I didn’t spend much time talking to him. He and I went off by ourselves up into the snowy mountains for a couple of days, and we were alone together. And this was exactly everything I had looked for to figure out, how you get to the heart of the human spirit without speaking, without an actual human voice. And we were able to do that.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I mean, was it just about — was it about presence? Was it about just physical presence or doing things together? I mean, how did — what happened for those two days?

Dr. Rabinowitz: It was — again, it’s hard to put into words because it was all non …

Ms. Tippett: It wasn’t word based. Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: … nonverbal.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Rabinowitz: We couldn’t be more different. Here’s this little guy who’s under four feet tall — he’s under five feet tall, four feet-something. And from this remote area in northern Myanmar, untouched by the outside world. Here I am, a New York Jewish kid that grew up stuttering and couldn’t deal with the world of people that was all around me. And we actually seemed to just fall into a balance of commonness that we would sit around the fire at night and smile at one another and touch one another and know …

Ms. Tippett: Make eye contact.

Dr. Rabinowitz: … what the other needed.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, those other kinds of communication that we undervalue in Western culture.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yeah. And then he started making gestures. He started making gestures about young children, which I didn’t quite understand at first. And only when we got back was I able to confirm what he was trying to say to me. He wanted to know why I didn’t have any children.

Ms. Tippett: Oh.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I asked him through these translators, I asked, “Why do you” — he didn’t even know I didn’t have any children. I said, “Why do you assume I have no children?” And he said, “Because you act like a man who still has this deep, deep hole inside of him.”

Ms. Tippett: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Rabinowitz: “And I know that hole, and I can’t have any children because nobody will mate with me. Nobody will be my partner.” Because he was the last viable Taron living, and it was after my time with Dawi that I returned to the United States and I looked upon my marriage in a completely different way. And I decided to have children as well, which has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: We have stunning National Geographic photographs of Dawi and the Taron people at onbeing.org. In that same remote border area between Burma and Tibet where Alan Rabinowitz encountered the Taron, he also discovered a previously unknown primitive species of deer.

He later embarked on a conservation collaboration with the previous Burmese military junta, which had mixed and controversial results. But he says that if has to consider politics before working in any area where tigers — who get no vote — are endangered, his work would all but cease.

Ms. Tippett: It seems to me when I read you and read about you, that even in the last few years you’ve kind of turned a corner in terms of seeing that connection between the preservation of animal habitats and the vitality of human communities. Would that be fair?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes, it would. Whether I like it or not, the sustainability of wilderness, of wildlife populations, is in the hands of the human race. And there is a direct linkage, and I think there always will be, between the understanding and the activities of people, be they at the local level or at the national level, and the well-being and preservation of wildlife and wilderness areas. So I can’t — I can’t separate them as I wanted to when I was younger.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: As I thought I could.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, you know, here are some lines you wrote in 2006. You wrote: “It is not earth-shattering news that animals and people must live together if there is to be any true wildness for future generations. I am among the majority of scientists and conservationists who have done little to effectively foster this relationship in a sustainable manner — until now, that is.” What brought that home for you? What changed for you?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Being among these remote tribal groups, or remote communities, which lived with wildlife, which accepted the wilderness around them, which showed me a model for how people can live with their environment and still move forward. I’m not saying this that these people should be kept — in fact, I advocate opposite. There are many people who go in and find a tribal group or a remote village and say, “We shouldn’t touch this place. This should be left as is.”

Well, I have never been to a remote area where the people don’t want a better life. Where the people are not aware of the fact that many of their babies die and they have a lot of illnesses that the outside world doesn’t have and they would rather have more than they have then. And I think it’s wrong to try to hold that back from them. Where the balance has to occur is figuring out how to enable and empower local communities to live better, have a better life, have better medical care, have lower infant mortality, and yet at the same time, balance that with giving life, giving an area of the world to the wilderness and the wildlife that live with these people. And that can be done.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: It’s not pie in the sky.

Ms. Tippett: You — you’ve also talked about a success story of the Mayan Indians, who use to kill jaguars, who have become wardens to those animals.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes. The Mayans and many other groups throughout jaguar range — I mean, jaguars still get killed a lot, but not nearly to the extent that they use to, and it’s not because these poor communities or these indigenous groups had some kind of a conservation epiphany.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: It’s because they had a growing economic awareness. It’s because they — all of a sudden their lives could be better off, because people came down and paid money and stayed in their local thatched motels or huts to see jaguars or to follow jaguar trails then they ever made from cutting all the forest and just growing corn and selling the corn and just barely living, barely surviving. Their lives were better for it. And in my early days I never would meet a local person, who dared walk in the forest without a gun. They just felt it was crazy to do that. It was just too dangerous out there. I rarely meet a Mayan now in the same area or a local person, who is carrying a gun. And it’s not because they are mandated not to. I asked them, “Why aren’t you carrying something, your machete, your gun?”

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: They said, “We don’t — we know that there’s no need to. If we see a jaguar we stop on our bicycle and watch it now.” Now, that’s — that’s people starting to live with the big cats. It can be done. Just like people live with mountain lions in the United States. Will it mean that there’ll be no problems, no conflicts? No, it doesn’t mean that. But we have to view it in the same ways we view conflicts in our everyday life. I can’t understand why people classify conservation or — or living with animals as different from the problems we have everyday of living with other people.

Ms. Tippett: Right. You know you said a little while ago we’re all human, but maybe we’re all also wildlife. [laugh]

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yeah, oh, exactly. Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Ms. Tippett: So — so there’s a phrase that I think is often used kind of romantically and there’s a lot of energy around this now, talking about the animal-human bond. OK? So when people talk about that in the United States, they’re talking about our relationships with our dogs and our cats for the most part. But I just wonder for you, with all these years you’ve spent and in the presence of big cats, for example, of animals with whom many people have, for understandable reason, not felt safe walking in the presence of without a gun. I mean, have you learned things about the animal-human bond that would stretch our imagination about that?

Dr. Rabinowitz: I’m trying to think how I — how I explain what I feel without seeming like it verges off into the almost supernatural …

Ms. Tippett: Well …

Dr. Rabinowitz: … because it’s not supernatural. I do feel a very, very close bond with animals. Not just with the big cats, but with animals as a whole. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel fear and respect for them. In fact, I’m often angered by TV shows or by commentaries that I hear by people who feel that humans can truly bond with wild animals to where you can go up and touch them or sleep among them or that kind of thing. And invariably, those people either get killed or mauled.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Because they are a different species from us. There is a wildness about them. I have tracked — I have come face to face with wild tigers. I’ve come face to face with jaguars, lions, all of them. Almost all of them — not yet met a snow leopard.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I felt great fear. Now, fear was definitely a part of the menagerie of feelings that ran through me. But I also felt flattered to be in the presence of this unbelievable wildness that we don’t feel during our everyday lives. Could I bond with them? I almost — in a way, yes, and yet in a way, I almost learned the opposite. By spending so much time in the jungle with these wild cats, I also came to realize that there would always be a wall between us, a wall that couldn’t be breached and really shouldn’t be breached because we were of two different worlds, worlds that could come together on certain things but that just had to be apart on others for both of us to live properly within this larger world.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: Later in our interview, Alan Rabinowitz tells the story of coming face to face — and falling on his back — with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize.

And he may never have met a snow leopard, but we have photos, on our website onbeing.org, that capture the gaze of this mountain recluse. They were taken from more than three miles high in the thin air of the Himalayas of India and Pakistan. There is also a must-see image of a Buddhist monk praying over a snow leopard. View these wonderful photos, along with maps of tiger corridors and Alan Rabinowitz’s exploits in Burma and Brazil at onbeing.org.

And while you are there, sign up for our podcast and email newsletter so you can download and listen to any of our shows anytime anywhere.

Coming up, Alan Rabinowitz on living now with a slow-developing form of cancer and how this diagnosis has affected him as a father and a conservationist.

Dr. Rabinowitz: It’s really helped me in Myanmar. It’s helped me tremendously with the generals. The generals say to me, because they’ve read about it and they’ve heard about it, and they say, “You have cancer, what are you doing going in the jungle with tigers?”

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. My guest is Alan Rabinowitz. He’s a wildlife biologist who’s followed in the tradition of the world’s great explorers, yet with a very 21st-century passion for conservation. He has studied jaguars, leopards, tigers, Sumatran rhinos, bears, raccoons, and civets; and he’s been pivotal in the creation of animal sanctuaries and preserves in some of the world’s wildest ecosystems.

Alan Rabinowitz is also these days, with equal passion, a spokesman for the Stuttering Foundation. And he’s been describing how his knowledge as a scientist, his adventures as an explorer, and his life with a stutter have forged a very particular connection with animals.

Ms. Tippett: So, you know, when you talked about going away with — what was his name? The pygmy, the man in Burma …

Dr. Rabinowitz: Dawi.

Ms. Tippett: … for two days and you had all these nonverbal ways of communicating. I mean, do you also have that experience with animals?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Oh, I had — the nonverbal communications I could feel with the animals and with the big cats especially, since I was a child. My father, he didn’t know how to handle a lot of what was going on inside of me. He didn’t want to talk about my stuttering or my lack of being able to deal with other people, but he did realize that I had certain outlets that just made me feel good and relaxed, and I could speak a little better after those. And one of those was taking me to the Bronx Zoo.

Ms. Tippett: Really? Hmm.

Dr. Rabinowitz: He would take me to the Bronx Zoo, and we would go straight for a building that is still there. It’s no longer what it was, but it was called the Great Cat House. And it just had cats, big cats, cage after cage like the old zoos did. And you would walk in there and the sounds and the smells would be just overwhelming. It would stink of wildness. And the jaguar would be coughing and the tiger would be roaring and it would just — the cacophony of sound would both terrorize you and thrill you at the same time.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I’d just watch them go back and forth, back and forth. And they’d stare at me and I’d stare at them. I felt more of a nonverbal communication with the big cats as a child than I did with any human being I knew at that time. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the communication I felt was good. I empathized with this incredible frustration and anger and sadness. Maybe I was projecting, but I don’t think so. And when I was a child, I repeatedly talked to the animals through the cages of the Great Cat House and I would repeatedly say to them, “I’ll try to find a place for us.” I didn’t even know what I was saying.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I didn’t even know why I was saying it. And it came back to me years later, came back to me vividly, when I was walking through the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve in Belize, which I had set up as the world’s first jaguar preserve, and I saw the tracks of a large male jaguar. And I thought, “This is great. I haven’t seen this animal before when I was studying here.” And I started following it. And several hours later when it was getting dark and I knew I was alone and I couldn’t just keep on hiking in the dark, I turned around and there was the jaguar in back of me.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: The jaguar had circled around and was following me. And this was one of those bonding moments if you want to call it that. But it was that. My first feeling, of course, “This is a jaguar. This is the biggest cat in the Western Hemisphere. This is the sumo wrestler of cats. It’s a massively powerful animal.” And there was nothing I could do if it wanted to kill me. So my first feelings were terror, fear. Oh, my god. What am I going to do? So I thought, “OK. Make yourself subdominant. Make yourself small.” So I squatted down, and I was expecting the jaguar — hoping the jaguar would just walk off. Although I loved watching it, I was also scared. And the jaguar just sat down. And he just sits there on the trail, the trail I have to go back on. Sitting there, looking at me. I remember thinking how great this was …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: … and at the same time thinking, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do now? Because he’s not going to sit there forever.” And I stood up and stepped back and tripped and fell down on my back. And I wasn’t sure — in the instant I was falling, thinking, “Oh, the jaguar’s just going to come at me now.” The jaguar let out kind of a guttural growl and stood up and walked towards the forest. And right before it went into the forest, it turned and it looked back at me for a few seconds and our eyes met. And I remember that look so clearly from the cages in the cat house at the Bronx Zoo.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And he turned and went back into the woods. He had his home. He had his home.

Ms. Tippett: This time he could walk away, right?

Dr. Rabinowitz: He could walk away. We both could.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: We both could. We both walked away completely different beings than we were when I was a child.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: Something that’s striking to me is when you talk about that early animating idea for you that you wanted to live apart from other people and animals wanted to live apart from other people. And clearly that’s evolved and developed, I mean, even as you told the story of deciding to have a family. And then it seems to me that even the science has kind of caught up with that, that in your lifetime that — I mean, this was new information to me that this classic conservation strategy of preserving habitat, hence that separateness, that apartness, is not the defense against extinction that scientists thought even just a few generations ago. So that what you’re working on now are these genetic corridors, which is just more about integration, right? Is that correct?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Absolutely. That’s right. It’s about these big cats living within the human landscape, being able at least to traverse the human landscape. I grew up professionally with the traditional paradigm for wildlife conservation that the way to save wildlife, the way to save the big things especially, was to try to make a huge protected area for them, hard boundaries. Put guards on those boundaries. You keep the people — the people live outside and the animals live inside.

Now, we need those wild areas, frankly, those wild pockets where the wildlife have its home and that’s the animals’ home first and people’s home is someplace else. That’s needed. But what we do understand now is if that’s the endpoint of conservation, that conservation will fail, especially for the big, wide-ranging mammals like the big cats. These animals need to move. They need to exchange their genetic material. Locking up these animals even in a nice big, big park will be no more of a success for them than it would be if you put a bunch of human beings on an island where they were incapable of getting off that island and thinking that’s going to be a new human race.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: In our unedited interview, Alan Rabinowitz explained the genetic corridor model of conservation, comparing it, at its worst, to an “underground railroad.” And check out the map of the Jaguar Corridor he has helped establish. It actually looks like a neural network connecting habitats in South and Central America. Find all of this at onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re experiencing what wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz has learned through his lifelong exploration of wild places, from Belize to Burma to home.

Ms. Tippett: I’d like to come back, circle back a little bit where we — near where we started with the stuttering, which kind of led you to animals, or initially led you to a different kind of relationship with them. Just to say that when you talk about what helped you was becoming a fluent stutterer, which was working with it rather than denying it, and then clearly you’ve continued to do that. And it just — it — it reminds me of what I hear about healing and wholeness in all kinds of conversations I have, that in fact being a whole person is about taking in whatever our wounds are, whatever our fears, and then integrating them into our identity. And you’ve done that.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Well, I’ve tried to do it. It’s been a very long, long …

Ms. Tippett: Well, it’s the work of a lifetime but …

Dr. Rabinowitz: It is. But I guess I realize most how much I had gotten there when in 2002 I was diagnosed with cancer. I have something called CLL, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which has no cure at this time, but they diagnosed it at an early stage in me, fortunately. And it’s slow. I’m progressing, but it’s slow. And the reason I bring that up is it was of course a shock to me, somebody who — I always prided myself on staying in shape, being very, very physical, being very, very healthy.

Ms. Tippett: Well, you’re an Indiana Jones figure, after all.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yeah. And plus, I always thought I could fight everything.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I really believed I could kick everything in my …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Anything I wanted to do I could overcome. And here I’m being told I’ve got something which is incurable. And I was told by the therapist I was advised to go to that I would go through these stages of cancer that I guess most people go through, stages like anger and denial and why me and all of that. And I said to the therapist, “I can tell you right now I’m not going to go through any of those stages. I’ll go through sadness, which I’m going through now because I have two young children and I’m sad thinking that I’m not sure where I’ll be when they’re older. But I will never go through why me or the denial. I went through all that with the stuttering. For decades I went through that with the stuttering and came to a place of comfort, of OK-ness, because not only can things like that really truly make you strong — I know people say that; it really is true — stuttering gave me my life.

Now, just as I was starting to get a bit tired and thinking, actually considering slowing down, now I’m told that I have cancer. And what that’s done is that put away all thoughts of slowing down, all thoughts of being tired. And it’s another wake-up call. You know, why me, why not me? What you were saying about taking whatever it is, taking a challenge, taking life as it comes to you and incorporating that as part of your psyche, as part of who you are, is really what life should be about.

Ms. Tippett: You know, it’s kind of an amazing thing you’re experiencing right now. I mean, mortality is not special, right? Although we don’t …

Dr. Rabinowitz: No.

Ms. Tippett: But, you know, it’s not at all special but it is something that we manage to avoid an awareness of, especially in Western culture. And it’s like you’re being confronted with your mortality and yet at a pace. I mean, you get to live with that awareness for a while. It’s kind of a huge question, but I wonder how this experience you have of living with this illness now, you know, how does that flow into how you do take stock of this life you’ve lived and especially this work you’ve done with animals? You know, the meaning of that, increasingly with animals and human beings together.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Well, I can’t say it drives me. I mean, I’ve always been such a driven, passionate person. So, it just doesn’t let me slow down now. And I actually use it in some way. It’s really helped me in Myanmar. It’s helped me tremendously …

Ms. Tippett: How’s that? How’s that?

Dr. Rabinowitz: … with the generals. The generals say to me, because they’ve read about it and they’ve heard about it, and they say, “You have cancer. What are you doing here in Burma? It’s not a healthy country. It’s not — what are you doing going in the jungle with tigers?” And it’s enabled them to see to my core better, to really have even more of a respect for me. And actually, I think it’s truly helped me get things through the cabinet, new laws in this area protected more than I could’ve otherwise because they really realize, as they should, that there’s no ulterior motive here. This is what it’s about. Why shouldn’t I be here? Because I have cancer is why I’m here, is why I’m pushing it.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: Is it right that your son is a stutterer? Is that right?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes, he is.

Ms. Tippett: There’s a very rich and big reality that you have to navigate, I mean, in yourself and with your children and with your son.

Dr. Rabinowitz: That’s been the biggest challenge.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I can — I can deal much easier with a tiger facing me, with being told I
have cancer, than I can with my son coming home and seeming sad. As much as I can say now I’m so glad I was a stutterer …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: … and it really is a gift, it’s a gift I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

Ms. Tippett: But he has — he has the benefit of what you know and what you’ve been through.

Dr. Rabinowitz: That’s right. He does. And that’s been good, actually. That’s been good. I was able — first of all, because of my knowledge I was able to get him treatment.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Rabinowitz: We acknowledged it very soon. I got it diagnosed very early, and he’s actually doing — he’s more fluent than I am, actually. But of course, it’s still there. It’s a neurological thing, and some days are better than others. Some days are worse. And he will not think anything of coming to listen to me lecture or give a talk, and say, “Daddy, you stuttered a bunch there.”

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Dr. Rabinowitz: “You had” — he calls it “bumpy speech” — “You had a really bumpy speech there.” I said, “I know. I know I did. Your speech is so much better than mine.” Or I’ll say to him, “Alex, your speech is bumpy today.” And he’ll say, “Well, yours is much worse than mine.”

Ms. Tippett: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Rabinowitz: And I said, “I know mine is and that’s right. I don’t want yours to be as bad as mine.” But he’s very open about it. I love that.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: Because I could never talk about it.

Ms. Tippett: Does he have a special understanding of your connection with animals?

Dr. Rabinowitz: Yes. He does. And he says he wants to grow up and be a zoologist, and I’m telling him he should think hard about that.

[laughs) I’m not sure I wish that on him either. But, um, yes, I think he understands me more than I almost realize now. It’s hard because I also travel a lot.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Rabinowitz: I’m very torn. That’s the other thing. When I was diagnosed at first with cancer, I was told that while it’s slow if I keep on doing what I do and I get sick — as I have many times in my life in the field with malaria, with Dengue fever, or typhus or typhoid — there’s a potential I could speed this leukemia up, because I will be kicking my immune system into hard drive.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: So for a little while I thought, “OK. Well, then I’m going to try to prolong my life and I’ll go in the field less. I’ll stay at home more.” And I was going crazy and I wasn’t the father I wanted to be to my children. And my wife, of course, told me get back in the field, because I was driving her crazy.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Rabinowitz: So I really realized — one day, I came out of one of the rooms of my house and I watched my son watching a videotape of me, a show that was done years ago called “Champions of the Wild” about me with jaguars. He thought it was his cartoons and he accidentally put in this tape of me and he started watching it. And it just shows how fate intervenes, because that was the point at which I realized that, regardless of what happened because of it, I had to live the life that defined me the best, both to myself and to my family.

[Sound bite of music]

Ms. Tippett: Alan Rabinowitz co-founder and CEO of Panthera. He is the author of several books, including Beyond the Last Village and Life in the Valley of Death. When he is not traveling, he lives among forested hills about an hour from the Bronx Zoo with his wife — a geneticist — and their two children.

At onbeing.org, find a slide show we created with Alan Rabinowitz’s stories and fabulous photographs of the place he’s been and the creatures he protects. That’s together with the National Geographic photos of Dawi the leader of the nearly extinct Taron people, who forever changed his view of his work and his life.

And if you loved this conversation as much as we did, know that you can enjoy my full unedited interview with Alan Rabinowitz. There’s much more there in particular about his pledge to be a voice for the animals, which helped him cope with his stuttering during childhood.

Listen again at iTunes, or go at our website, onbeing.org. If you’re new to podcasting, we have some instructions there to help you get you started. On Facebook, we’re at facebook.com/onbeing. On Twitter, you can follow our show @beingtweets. Follow me @kristatippett.

[Sound bite of music]

On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.

Special thanks this week to Gina Feland and to National Geographic photographer Steve Winter.
Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.


This is APM, American Public Media.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Alan Rabinowitz
Publisher: Island Press
Binding: Paperback, (336)Pages
Author: Alan Rabinowitz
Publisher: Island Press
Binding: Paperback, (416)Pages
Author: Alan Rabinowitz
Publisher: Island Press
Binding: Hardcover, (248)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Ben Vaughn
Label: Soundstage 15
Artist: Free Zen Society
Label: Thirsty Ear
Label: Nonesuch
Label: Innova
Artist: Helios
Label: Type
Artist: Viktor Krauss
Artist: Tin Hat Trio
Label: Rope a Dope
Label: Red House Records
Artist: Mark Orton
Label: CD Baby

About the Image

A jaguar peers out from the tall grasses.

Share a Reflection