Big Cat Biologist, CEO of Panthera
Ruby J Murray
Upstate New York, USA
9 September 2011
Every now and then Dr Alan Rabinowitz will repeat himself: a single, careful, rolling word.
His voice on the phone is deep, forceful, a voice that’s pushed its way through snow storms and flooding rivers, across Southern America, South East Asia, war-torn countries and temporary truces, through the corridors of dictatorships and democracies alike, always talking, always insisting on the stories of the animals he’s trying to protect. This man has set up wildlife conservation areas in places no one ever thought possible, including the world’s largest tiger reserve in Burma–Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley. The stutter that plagued him as a child seems long gone. Just those remnant repetitions. And the pause you’d miss if you weren’t listening for it.
Science has been getting a bad rap lately. Scientists are painted as rational to the point of irrationality, cold, removed. Incapable of ethics. But the reality of scientists’ lives is different. It’s us non-scientists who are being irrational. Alan sounds deeply, painfully in love with the world, with his geneticist wife Salisa and their children Alana and Alexander, with the mountains and skies and everything above and between them. And with the big cats he’s dedicated his life to saving.
He can’t afford detachment, anyway. He’s in a battle against time, fighting on multiple fronts.
A decade ago, just after the birth of his first child, Alan was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. Not that it’s stopped him. Not that anything would.
In 2006 Alan left the World Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo and moved to continue his work at the newly-formed non-profit Panthera, which has rapidly become the world’s leading big cat conservation organization. The organisation focuses its efforts on five cats: the tiger, lion, snow leopard, jaguar, and cougar.
It’s a grim fight. At the turn of the century there were over 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today, scientists estimate there are 3,200. Jaguars have been eliminated from forty per cent of their historic range, and while Panthera works to set up a Jaguar conservation corridor spanning thirteen of the eighteen jaguar range countries in Southern America, the struggling species continues to be hunted. Panthera’s motto is, ‘Difficulty is the one excuse which history does not accept.’ It’s a phrase that could just as easily describe Alan’s life.
New York is flooding, and Time Magazine’s ‘Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection’ has driven through the rains to get back home and answer my call.
RUBY J MURRAY: How was that drive home?
ALAN RABINOWITZ: It was tricky, it was tricky. If I didn’t have a GPS unit I wouldn’t have made it anywhere. I use the GPS more in the city than I do in the field.
So you’re an explorer in New York City as well as the jungles of South East Asia.
It’s true… I feel more comfortable in the field than I do trying to navigate in the city. I’m almost never afraid when I’m out in the field. I don’t say that in any means to portray bravado. It’s because I feel very, very comfortable in the field now. I mean I’ve been in the field going on thirty years, I feel comfortable being in the jungle, when it’s a natural situation. I feel…
But you feel uncomfortable in the city?
Well it’s an unnatural situation. There are too many factors that are not under my control… it’s not necessarily under my control but that don’t make logical sense. That I can’t predict based on science or logic. You know if you’re walking in New York City you could be shot in the head with a bullet or mugged on the street. There’s no prediction. And I grew up in that city—I must have been mugged twice growing up… actually I was mugged three times, twice with a knife and once with some guy claiming that he had a gun. It’s just the unpredictability of it. You would think it would be like that in the jungle too, but it’s not. If you’ve been in the jungle long enough you just understand how to go with nature, how to go with the natural flow of things.
You were in the field last in August… when I first tried to get in contact with you, you were the jungles of Sumatra.
That was fascinating. More and more, the two major cats which I’ve focused much of my life’s work on are jaguars and tigers. And tigers are in desperate shape. Tigers… you know, I’ve never thought that I couldn’t at least be a part in turning something around for these species. But tigers… I’m just not sure any more. I think we can do it, we can definitely do it. But I just don’t know if the conservation world is going to play together enough.
Do you remember the first time you saw a tiger, a big cat?
Absolutely. It was at the Bronx Zoo. My father used to take me to the Bronx Zoo all the time because he knew, especially when I was having a hard time at school with the stuttering, I would just go very quiet, locked inside myself, and not come out of my room for days, and he would do one of two things. He would either invite me down to the gym he’d built in the basement—my father was a very physical man, he’d been a football player in college, he was in the paratroopers in the army, and he was a physical education teacher in a New York City high school and he was a very strong, physical man, and he taught me to be physical as well, but in a good way. He taught me how to box, and how to wrestle, and how to defend myself if I ever needed it, so sometimes when I was in a very bad way he would either take me down to the gym and just let me hit him. Actually. We would box.
Hit him? Actually hit him, not a boxing bag?
[laughs] Yes. We’d have boxing gloves on, though, and he would never throw a punch at me. In fact, it’s what I do with my son now. It’s so weird how things pass on. He would just defend and I would just be attacking him. That would be one way that he would let me get out my aggression.
And the other thing he’d do was, if we could, on the weekends, he would take me to the Bronx Zoo. He knew that I felt attracted to the animals. There was this one building called the Great Cat House, which is no longer there, which was cage after cage after cage of big cats, you know the old-style zoos, you’d walk in there and just smell it and feel the energy with each animal, and the animals would be growling and roaring and it would just overwhelm you, just the smell and the feel, and I loved it. I just got taken… that’s where I saw my first tiger and my first jaguar and… I would go up and talk to… I’d usually switch between the tigers, and there was one lone jaguar.
I actually spent more time talking to the jaguar, because that animal to me represented who I was, locked inside a cage. I was locked inside my own head, unable to speak. I was a stutterer. And I would talk to them because when I talked to the animals I didn’t stutter. I mean I stuttered a little, but I could talk to them, whereas in the human world I just stopped even trying because they put me in special classes in schools. They considered me to be retarded. They thought a lot of different things about me, and I would just go into my own world, and start talking to the animals. And that’s where I saw my first big cats. And what attracted me most to the big cats was: here’s the immensely powerful beast locked in this relatively small cage or set of cages by humans, and that’s exactly the way I felt. I felt that humans had locked me inside my own head.
There have been strong parallels in your life and work between silence and voice. And also this feeling of ongoing frustration, I think. Even in the opening to your first book, you’re talking about something that’s so hard to read, about the suicide of your Thai conservationist friend Sueb in 1993 on your first trip to Myanmar. How do you stay optimistic? How do you keep on going when things seem hopeless?
You know, I’m not sure if it’s optimism as much as this intense feeling that I will never give up, that… but… it’s not an intellectual thought, it’s a deeply rooted emotion. I will never let the human world define who I am or what I’ll accomplish, what I’ll do. It’s for me to define only. And that’s what’s driven me. It came about at an earlier time even, before I was able to figure out how to deal with my stuttering.
There was one particular incident where I was at a grocery store. My mother had asked me to pick up her groceries. Back then you’d go shopping and the groceries would stay there and you could get them delivered or you could pick them up, but you had to say your last name. I couldn’t say my last name, that was one of the hardest things for me to say, and I started contorting and spasming as I did when all my muscles tensed up. Some of the people behind me in line started getting very frustrated, and the girl at the counter said: ‘Just give him a chance, he’s retarded.’ And I thought: that’s my way out. I’ll give them what they want. I’ll act whatever I thought retarded was, so I started spasming more but not naturally, I started faking even more intense spasms and acting like somebody who was severely mentally handicapped, and then grabbed the bag and ran out of the store, and…
I got outside of the store and I threw the bag down, and… I just sat down on the ground and I said: I can’t believe what I just did. I can’t believe I just let people make me into something which I’m not, and I swore… I was fifteen at the time, that’s the moment and I’ve never gone back on that. I saw from that moment on I would never let any other human being define who I was, and that I would make the rules. It’s got me in some trouble sometimes, too, believe me.
I believe you. As far as your approach goes to conservation, it’s unique, and you’re on record saying that “the most important rule about setting up new protected areas, amid the various political, social, and economic concerns of a country, can be expressed in one sentence: take whatever you can get, under whatever conditions are mandated, and do whatever you have to do to make it work…” Is that still something that you’d stand by these days? Or have you softened a little?
Ha! Absolutely! I’m so amused by… well, partially amused by academics or others who write books about the proper design of protected areas… you know, what kind of shape it should theoretically be…
You’re certainly a long way away from that ‘carefully carefully’ approach…
Now that’s all nice in theory and I understand it, but the reality of working with the government is, when I sit down with a map, knowing how you’re gonna lose a protected area over time, especially at the periphery, I don’t look at a map and figure out, ‘Now let’s see how much area does a population of fifty tigers really need.’ I mean I’ll do that as a minimum, but then I’ll try to sit down and figure out with the local people, and with people of knowledge inside government, how much they think I can try to ask for. I never try to ask for something they’ll agree to right away. Then I’ve asked for too little. I always go really big but not… I’ve gotta know where that line is, so it’s achievable.
You’ve said in the past that democratic governments are just as intractable as the Myanmar government when it comes to negotiating conservation… is that still true, or is it getting easier in democracies? Is it easier in the developing world to set up protected areas than it is in the US?
I always have to qualify this by saying: this is not a political statement. It’s not a statement about what country I’d rather live in or what is best for the people. This has to do with conservation, and conservation I have found, repeatedly, is generally easier to do in communist countries, socialist countries, dictatorships, all of the above, versus a democracy, because you have a limited circle of buy-in that you have to get approval from. You know in the case of a dictatorship you have a very limited number of people who they basically say: ok we’ll do it and it’s done, it’s gonna get done. It still might take several years, as it did in Burma, because they want you to work out land settlement issues and some other things which are fair for the people, but we’d want to do that anyway even if the government didn’t ask us that. But the mandate gets done immediately.
What’s the emotional toll like for you, working in places where you’re confronted with poverty all the time, like in Burma, when you’re not working for the people, but for the animals? Do you feel conflicted?
Well… there have been some conflicts, early, but not as much as I imagined or not as much as someone else might imagine. Because what I’m doing in saving the natural landscape is saving the place where people live, or want to be living, and that’s generally something they want or it’s something which is of benefit to them.
Believe it or not the only conflicts have been where you wonder, and this only happened in the earlier days… You can’t just go into an area where there are people and if you’re going to set up a protected area or have laws changed or have an influence on that area, and not affect the lives of those people. I always thought that couldn’t be a bad thing. But life isn’t like that. Sometimes even if you try to do good things for people, the new world you’re exposing them to with some people it turns out bad for.
I don’t ever do bad things, in fact there’s never a situation where we don’t ultimately benefit the local communities. We bring in medicines, even in places where other organizations have given up on the local people or they won’t work with the government, like the Burmese government, so they’ll pull out like the Red Cross did. I end up bringing medicines and drugs and nurses into these communities because the bottom line is: it’s not an either or. No matter what I do with the animals or the area, it’s not going to be sustainable—it won’t work long term, if the local people living inside the area or on the periphery don’t feel good about it, if they don’t buy into it in some way. They should benefit from it. Because by benefitting from it then they’re willing to compromise in other ways when they have to be asked to live with these carnivores, and they will do it.
Humans, I think, often think of themselves as the keystone species of any ecosystem, but in fact it’s the big cats.
Absolutely. Big cats are the key. I don’t know how… I mean, I never actually place humans in the natural order of things.
We live apart from it so much. I mean, we control it all. In that way I guess it could be said that we’re the ultimate keystone species, but not in a natural way. We control the outcome of everything. But ultimately the big carnivores are the keystone species in these habitats. And they’re important. They’re important species to keep everything else in a decent balance so that things such as certain diseases, zoonotics, don’t get spread. A keystone species is almost like a building, like a pyramid of building blocks, and the keystone in that pyramid would be a block that if you removed it the pyramid would at worst collapse or at the very least it would rearrange itself. Keystone species are species in an ecosystem which if you were to remove them the effect that they have on the other levels of the system is significant enough so that things would… things would change. Things would be rearranged.
What has working with animals taught you about humans?
That’s a good question.
That’s a very good question, you know I’ve never… of all the questions, I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that. What has working with animals… because working with animals has always been a kind of running away for me, from the human world. I never try to mix the two, I never try to kind of take lessons from the animal world and apply them to the human world. What I think I’ve learned is…
I always thought, when I was younger I thought that I could save animals by ignoring the human world, by fighting it, by stopping humans from hunting, by locking them out of good protected areas so they belong to the animals. The humans had their world, the animals had theirs, and there were laws in place so that if they didn’t obey them then you could try to get the person punished or arrested. I always saw the human world as being embattled with the animal world, and if I were to save the animals then I had to somehow put up walls between the humans and the animals.
What I learned over time is that it doesn’t work, not with the big animals, especially, not with the big cats. That if you’re going to truly try to save the big cats, especially in the wild landscapes in which they live, it’s not even about just protected areas. It’s about trying to get the human world and the animal world to be living together, and it’s not in harmony, it’s not a Bambi-like scenario, that’s just for the movies, there will always be conflict but you know what? Humans get that. If you can explain it right to them they get it because humans have conflict in their lives all the time anyways.
Life, to any human being, is a dynamic disequilibrium. But for some reason, conservation, by many scientists, is not viewed as a dynamic disequilibrium. It’s like you should be aspiring to this wonderful protected state system, this almost Bambi-like system so everything is butterflies and sunshine and birds chirping inside and then there’s the world outside but that’s not the way conservation succeeds.
When people try to do that they’re always fighting rear-end battles, they’re always trying to overcome a crisis, and what I’ve learned over time is that when you make human beings part of the solution instead of just always seeing them as the problem… they are of course the problem—they’re just a natural problem. They’re part of the whole landscape of the environment. If they become part of nature, if you view people as part of nature itself, and I don’t mean big cities per se but the human landscape beyond the cities, then that’s when you can really start understanding how to save animals at the scale on which we have to act if we’re going to truly save species.
People said that the jaguar range corridor was completely undoable, but it’s working—we’re doing it now. We’ve got it mostly set up through Central America, and Columbia, and Surinam and Guyana. It’s working because we have to think on a much bigger scale and when you think on that scale you can’t avoid realizing that people have to be part of the solution and not just viewed as a problem to overcome, or to eliminate.
So people are animals too?
People are animals too? [Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t think I would insult animals as much as that. People are animals too but the truth is people with their… people have…
Maybe I meant it as a compliment to people…
No, see people do the most illogical things… I don’t know if I’d ever see… there’s lots of things happening in the animal world that we may not always understand, but there’s a reason for it if you probe deep enough. Somebody might be attacked by a tiger, unprovoked, walking along a trail but what that person wouldn’t know is that they’d just walked between a female and her young on the other side of the trail. It wasn’t that person’s fault but there was a reason for the attack, it wasn’t meaningless, it didn’t not have a reason, but humans… humans seem to have the capability of doing things without much of a reason.
People wouldn’t keep an animal behind a cage if it had a human voice. Heading up Panthera is allowing me in a way that I never had before to feel like I’m fulfilling my promise to the animals in the cage, to the jaguars and tigers in their cages at the Bronx Zoo when I was a tiny stubborn boy and I stood there promising that if it was in my power I’d be their voice because I didn’t know if I’d never stutter, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to speak and many times I thought I wouldn’t but I thought I’d never give up trying. I promised them I would try to be their voice because I felt that the reason they were behind cages was because they couldn’t speak. We feel like we can do anything to an animal of any species, even our own dogs and cats, because they don’t speak our language.
Can you imagine euthanising your old cat when it looks up at you and says, ‘Please don’t let me die I still would love to live’? Or flushing a turtle down the toilet if the turtle could say, ‘Please don’t do that to me, please let me live’? Of course we wouldn’t do that. And I realized that, as a child. That the reason we treated animals the way we did, which is gross abuse and still is, in many cases, is because they don’t have a human voice. That’s it. That’s it. They don’t have… they don’t have to look like us, they don’t have to act like us, but if they had a human voice or if they could communicate to us then we would treat them completely differently. And that’s why I knew I had to get a voice, back then.
So are you a vegetarian, Alan?
[Laughs] No I’m not… I often… you could never work in the field in the places I’ve worked and be a vegetarian, so after years and years and years of working in the field, you have to eat what the local person cooks for you, and it’s always a local chicken, a local pig, something like that.
There are some particularly beautiful scenes in your books where you talk about not wanting to eat the pigs that have just finished eating your shit.
Actually that’s the one thing I’m off! I don’t eat pork. The reason for it is completely bizarre. After years of being in the forests, and especially in Burma, I would always get bacterial diarrhoea. I would just have cramps all the time and it was terrible, I felt like I was always in pain and I was always having cramps and diarrhoea and I went to a fortune teller, to a Burmese teller, and the Burmese fortune teller told me: don’t eat pork. Pork is doing it to you. I didn’t think much of it, I only partly believed it, but I tried it. I stopped eating pork. My wife eats pork, she’s Thai, and she loves pork, and if she mistakenly puts some in my meal or I eat something of hers and I don’t know then I will get stomach problems. It’s really interesting.
Hmmm. Fortune tellers, huh.
[laughs] I’m a big believer in fortune tellers, I can tell you, fortune tellers know.
Yes every culture I’ve been in I seek out who either the shaman or the fortune teller or the seer is in that community in that culture and I try to have them tell me about my life… because my life has been so weird. I’m always trying to figure out my life.
Wait, sorry, did you say your wife, or your life?
Ha! No! Not my wife. Her I’ll never figure out! My life. I stopped trying to figure out my wife a long time ago. No, no, it’s my life. It’s seems as if… here I am, this stuttering kid growing up in New York City, and ending up being one of the world’s big cat experts travelling to all these places. It’s a strange thing. I just try to look for the meaning in some of it. And… I’m not sure that there is any frankly. It’s just the way things turned out.
So you’re spiritual but not religious maybe.
That’s right, exactly, that’s a good way to describe it.
And you’re also in a battle against time… how is your cancer? Can I ask? How it’s affecting your work? It’s been ten years now since your diagnosis.
Yes, it has. It’s funny. I was meant to have a blood test just a few days ago and every time, every single time I find reasons to try and avoid it. I know I won’t avoid it long, but I put it off because I don’t want to have to face the numbers, which never stop, and never go backwards. Fortunately they’re progressing slowly, relatively slowly. But they’re progressing. And every time it just ruins things for a few days afterwards because it hits me, the thought, the sound of the clock ticking becomes louder.
I mean it’s not… what I fear the most… is not the dying younger than I would normally, but it’s going through the process. Because what I have is chronic instead of acute and I’ve been lucky over ten years. When I was first diagnosed I asked the doctor how long I had, and he asked me what my son’s age was, which I thought was a strange question. Alex was one and a half at the time. And the doctor said: ‘You’ll see your son bar-mitzvahed.’
He thought he was giving me good news—that’s when a child reaches thirteen—and I thought: that’s not enough time. That’s not nearly enough time for me.
But now, Alex is turning twelve, and I still haven’t had to undergo any treatment, I’m checked regularly and the numbers are progressing and… I am somewhat immune compromised. Now that’s why I have to be really careful now because I get things like bacterial diarrhoea or sinus infections really really easy, my body doesn’t fight it, so I have to travel with a small arsenal of antibiotics. A normal person can let their body try to fight something before popping antibiotics. I gotta take them straight away, in fact sometimes I’ll even take them prophylactically because my body doesn’t fight back, my white blood cell count is much, much higher than a normal person, but so far it’s not showing any of the clinical symptoms that will merit chemo. There’s no cure for what I have, so once they start hitting me with any kind of a treatment then the clock really starts.
So for clocks, and for change… you’ve done so much, changed so much over your life. What do you think the child Alan would think of the adult Alan, if you sat down in a room together today?
[Silence] You know, I’ve thought about that a little because I see qualities in me reflected in my son, and there are times… I try and sit and talk to him and I feel like that’s a young me and… I think… what would the young child Alan think of me? I don’t think he would recognize me. I don’t think the young child Alan would at all recognize the adult Alan. But…
Maybe you could go box together in the room downstairs.
I mean… yeah, I hope he would think, ‘He’s a pretty cool guy.’ [Laughs] I mean, I’m still the favourite parent to get to come talk at my kids’ school because I bring in jaguar skulls, and an elephant tooth or deer antlers, or all these animals’ parts or masks, jaguar masks, shaman masks those sorts of things, so… I think the young Alan would like the old Alan but I don’t think he would recognize himself in him.
There’s a quote you use to open a chapter in one of your books on Myanmar from Ansel Adams that I thought was really beautiful but also… it’s: ‘We all naturally move on the edges of eternity, and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion.’ What does it mean to you? Why did you choose it?
Oh, God. That was so meaningful to me at the time because that’s what I felt… when I read that I thought that was exactly what I was feeling at different periods up in Northern Burma, up on that… it was a world… I was in the world and yet I was apart from it. I was moving through the world of these cultures… I’d done this numerous times in my life but it was never brought home to me quite as starkly as up in that region where people had no money, traded with salt, the whole basis of their livelihood was killing these rare animal species which many people have never even heard of like Takin and Red Goral and Musk Deer, rare Himalayan species were being wiped out for salt, for trading just for normal salt. I was moving through a world that wasn’t mine. I was in it and I was not in it at the same time, and I was being granted these periodic insights in to this world that…
…that I wasn’t sure were always real.
Because there were languages… and that’s where the illusion comes in. I was dealing with different dialects and languages constantly. I was operating through translators constantly, so even though I was in this world, in their world, sitting, eating with them, laughing, mingling with them I was always an outsider. But more than being an outsider I wasn’t sure what was illusion and what was not illusion because translations couldn’t even be totally trusted.
Once I showed this really nice older woman a mirror. She’d never seen herself, they had no mirrors they could only see themselves in the stream. And I had a video camera and I played her back the video I’d taken of her and she started crying. And I was shocked. I didn’t know why she was crying. I tried to figure it out through these two translators we had to go through and they told me she was crying because she’d never realised she was so ugly.
But I didn’t think that was true. Again. I wasn’t sure if it was… I was wondering every day, wondering what was real and what was not real in this world.
I was so privileged, and I mean… I felt so great reading Ansel Adams saying that because I knew exactly how he felt. You feel privileged to be allowed a little sight of these other worlds, in to the majesty, even if it’s these incredible mountains that he used to take photographs of. You feel yourself being granted a piece of the majesty of these other worlds, which are never… you really feel like you’ve suddenly looked through a curtain in to them. But you wonder at the same time what’s illusion and what’s not illusion.
But Ansel Adams is looking from the human world through the curtain at the natural world, and you’re looking the other way, you’ve just been talking about looking through at it, the other way.
You know you have a very nice laugh. I never used to laugh. That’s one thing that my wife really helped me with. She came from a basically healthy happy family in Thailand. I came from such a dysfunctional family that I… of course if you’re in a dysfunctional family as a child you don’t realise it, not really.
I bring my wife Salisa over to my home for the first time from Thailand when we’re seeing each other and she has a meal with my family and after she says, ‘Why is it nobody laughs in your house? Nobody laughs in your family? Nobody smiles or cracks jokes?’ I had no idea. It was true, it was true, I never realised it, it just wasn’t that kind of an atmosphere in my house. And I was never really… I never… the first time I started laughing, really laughing, was with my children, with Alana and Alex.
I have a three-year-old nephew at the moment. He’s hilarious… I’ve mean I’ve never…
He’s just learnt how to launch himself off things, he’s really into Batman, superheroes right, everything is a launching pad, everything is a jump.
Isn’t it wonderful though? It helps you put things a little bit more in perspective. Alana actually came in while we were talking and stuck a little note in front of me that said: ‘You are invited to a show at 7:50 in the living room.’ She’s putting on a show for me now, after this.
Do you know what the show’s about?
I have no idea. No idea. She does this all the time. Alex is very… when I say Alex is more like me he’s more introverted, he’s shy, every day he spends time outside. We live on 25 acres of forest and he just goes out and wonders in the forest by himself…
[Background noise, thumping and calling.]
Oh, ok, ok. Yes. Alana just came in and said the show is nearly ready, six minutes.
Ok, enough time to settle down and get yourself comfortable before the show begins.