Alan Rabinowitz: Brooklyn Zoologist & A Voice for Jaguars


Alan Rabinowitz at PopTech 2010 in Camden, Maine (photo by Wikimedia user Kris Krug)Alan Rabinowitz (1953-2018) endured a difficult childhood. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, he grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens. By the age of five he had developed such a debilitating stutter that his whole body shook when he tried to speak.

Even though he was a straight A student in school, considered disruptive, he was put in classes with developmentally disabled children and bullied relentlessly.

Frustrated and angry, he would come home from school and disappear into his closet where he kept some turtles and hamsters. There, he had discovered a secret – he could talk fluently to the animals.

In the 1950s, it was not understood that stuttering is genetic and neurological. It’s no wonder that all the special treatments that he endured did not work – psychotherapy, hypnosis, and even shock therapy. It is now known that many stutterers can sing fluently and talk fluently to animals or babies.

Dr Alan Rabinowitz (holding map) in the field (George Schaller-Wildlife Conservation Society)As a boy Alan’s father Frank (nicknamed Red), would take him to the Bronx Zoo. There, he found solace in talking to the jaguars (Panthera onca), telling them he also felt trapped in a cage because of his speech. He told them his hopes and dreams and promised them that if he ever found his voice, he would help them and give them a voice.

Alan said he lived in two worlds – he felt normal with the animals, but abnormal with people. With people, he learned tricks – when to try speaking and what situations to avoid. He was often frustrated and angry, so he joined the wrestling team in high school as an outlet.

As a college student, he learned about a speech clinic in Geneseo, Livingston County, New York. Through working with the speech therapists for several months, he learned techniques to control his airflow, to speak slowly, and concentrate, almost like learning a new language. Finally, at the age of 19, he was able to speak fluent sentences for the first time.

Alan Rabinowitz received degrees in biology and chemistry from Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College in 1974, then went on for a masters and PhD in ecology from the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1981.

After college, he decided he wanted to work with animals and began by going to Belize to help survey jaguars, funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is associated with the Bronx Zoo.

Through tireless work for the next thirty years, he became “one of the world’s foremost experts on big cats,” according to a tribute from the Wildlife Conservation Society. His accomplishments were many.

Belize jaguar preserve sign (courtesy 1986 he convinced the Belize government to establish the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, now a National Forest Reserve that bans hunting. That same year he published the book Jaguar: Struggle and Triumph in the Jungles of Belize (Arbor House, 1986).

The Salt Lake Tribune ran this headline in 1987: “Nice Boy from Brooklyn goes to Belize.” It began: “What’s a nice boy from Brooklyn doing in the jungles of Belize?”

Newsday published a book review, stating that “Jaguar is an extraordinary adventure book that reads like a novel – full of snakes, spirits, hardship and frustration… But above all this book is a hymn of humility to the great spirits of the forest.”

Later, Rabinowitz helped establish a corridor from Mexico to Argentina to protect jaguar populations. In 2006 he founded Panthera, a global wildcat conservation organization.

He also worked with tigers and leopards in Taiwan and Thailand and authored Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the First Jaguar Preserve (2000); Life in the Valley of Death (2007); An Indomitable Beast (2014); and A Boy and a Jaguar (2014). He also published over a hundred scientific articles, and was featured on television’s 60 Minutes, and on the Moth Radio Hour.

Alan Rabinowitz (center) collaring a jaguar in Brazil (Steve Winter-Panthera)The Daily News published an article about him in September 2010 entitled “Big Cats Gave Him His Tongue.” It described his childhood troubles and his later successes.

He said that he knew he could stay forever in Belize and be happy, but the jaguars were being wiped out, and he had to return to the world of people to help them. “Now I had the voice,” he said.

He recalled a time in the jungle when a jaguar was following him. He gazed into its eyes, and “leaned forward to whisper as he had a half century before – It’s okay now. It’s all going to be okay.”

The website Dumbo Feather: Conversations with Extraordinary People published an interesting interview with Rabinowitz in 2012. There he discussed his childhood struggles to speak and his later career with animals in the jungle.

He also spoke about his father, a physical education teacher, who taught him to box and wrestle as a child, to let out his aggression.

At one point during the interview, he said “I will never let the human world define who I am.”

Alan Rabinowitz died in August 2018 from leukemia at age 64. His obituary in Newsday called him “champion of wildcats.” The website Animals 24-7 published an especially nice summary of his life and work, with photos.

Illustrations, from above: Alan Rabinowitz at PopTech 2010 in Camden, Maine (photo by Wikimedia user Kris Krug); Rabinowitz (holding map) in the field (George Schaller-Wildlife Conservation Society); Belize jaguar preserve sign (courtesy and Rabinowitz (center) collaring a jaguar in Brazil (Steve Winter/Panthera).

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