A ‘frozen mouth’ finds a voice in the jungle

October 22, 2010

As a child, Alan Rabinowitz had a severe stutter. So severe that he doesn’t remember speaking his first sentence until he was 19 years old. He tried everything to get rid of what he called his “frozen mouth,” including shock therapy at one point. Although he struggled to communicate with humans, Alan felt a poignant connection with big, wild cats.

His stutter, he says, turned out to be his greatest blessing: “Stutters can do a couple things right. One of them is to speak to animals.” And so Alan has spent his life dedicated to preserving and protecting these big cats who provided him comfort and a sense of belonging as child.

Growing up in New York City the only place to find these big cats was the Bronx Zoo, where Rabinowitz wound up working for 30 years. Although Alan still resides in New York, he left the city jungle to spend some time in the real ones in order to create wildlife preserves and sanctuaries for jaguars, tigers, and various kinds of leopard cats. “I loved being away from people in the jungle,” Alan recalls. In Belize, he created the world’s only Jaguar reserve. In Burma, he created the world’s largest tiger reserve. But this wasn’t enough.

After spending much of his adult life working around the clock to save these animals that arguably saved his childhood, he realized he was failing at what he was trying to accomplish. Ironically, this epiphany occurred while he was being lauded and recognized for his success. “I had set up all these preserves and I was failing to preserve [these cats],” he says. “I knew I had to get them more space.” In order to do so, Alan realized he needed to establish safe corridors for these cats to roam.

Alan has already set up a Jaguar corridor from Mexico to Argentina and he is working on establishing one for tigers in Southeast Asia. Instead of always fighting a crisis and possible extinction of the world’s largest cats, Alan wants to be ahead of it. “Conservation is failing us,” Alan says. “These animals are in danger. It’s not enough to just have reserves for [these cats],” says Alan, who continues his work through Panthera, where he is the CEO. For Alan, the time to act is now.

This grave sense of urgency may come from the fact that he was diagnosed with an incurable leukemia. Although Alan is so focused on fighting for the big cats that he never mentions his own battle. The attack that Alan will talk about is one where he was pounced on by a female jaguar — Alan says that all female species, including humans, are much more dangerous than the males:

Despite the attack and the fact that he says he still likes communicating with animals much more than people, Alan has found a big, passionate, active voice in the human world.

“The little boy who didn’t have a voice found it. Not so long ago actually.”

For that, and giving the most passionate, heartfelt speech, he has been the only speaker so far at PopTech to receive a standing ovation.

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