MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Longtime Mahopac resident Alan Rabinowitz, a U.S. zoologist dubbed the “Indiana Jones of wildlife protection” by Time Magazine, died of cancer on Aug. 5 at the age of 64. He had been given a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2001. He leaves behind a legacy of more than three decades of unceasing efforts to protect big cats and other wildlife at risk of extinction.
Rabinowitz was instrumental in the creation of the world’s first jaguar sanctuary, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve in Belize, as well as the creation of protected areas in Thailand and Myanmar, and the discovery of new species.
In 2006, Rabinowitz co-founded Panthera, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and the vast landscapes that hold them, along with his close friend Thomas S. Kaplan, a U.S. entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Rabinowitz told Mahopac News that when he was a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, one of his favorite things to do was visit the big cat habitat at the Bronx Zoo. Afflicted with a severe stutter, which would often cause his body to twist and spasm when trying to speak, Rabinowitz found sanctuary and solace among the tigers, lions, leopards and, in particular, the jaguar.
“I loved walking into the cat house and hearing all the roars and the purrs,” Rabinowitz said in a 2014 interview with Mahopac News. “They had all these lions and tigers that were making noise and pacing around, and they would come to the front of their cages. But they only had one jaguar. He would just sit back in the corner and watch everything. It would always act as if it was as far away from all of that as possible. I would talk gently and sometimes it would come right up to me and I could speak quietly to it. I can’t explain how that made me feel. It was locked in a cage the same way I was locked inside my own head.”
In school, because of his stutter, Rabinowitz was teased and bullied. Teachers thought he was disturbed or mentally disabled. He was examined by a litany of doctors and experts, but nothing seemed to help, except when he was among his animal friends. When he wasn’t at the zoo, he was at home with his own menagerie of pets—a hamster, a turtle and a snake.
“The animals didn’t judge me; the animals let me be,” he said. “They were like me. They didn’t have a voice either. I was living in two worlds and one of them was this world of animals.”
Rabinowitz made a promise: If he ever found his voice, he would use it to speak out on behalf of the animals. In college, he found that voice and embarked on a vocational path that would help him fulfill that promise.
“Believe it or not, after college I ended up working as a research scientist at the Bronx Zoo,” he said. “I never thought I would end up back in New York City. The Bronx Zoo was my main sanctuary growing up and to end up being a field scientist there was pretty remarkable. It made me realize there is some degree of fate in this world.”
Rabinowitz said the job turned him into somewhat of a zoological nomad.
“I had no real home, other than my parents, who were now living on Long Island,” he said. “Ninety percent of my time was spent overseas.”
It was time well spent. Not only did he make inroads into the study of his beloved big cats, he also met his wife Salisa Sathapanawath in Thailand, where he was giving a lecture at the university she was attending.They married in Thailand in 1992 and had a daughter, Alana, and a son, Alexander.
“She was in med school in Bangkok and was in the audience,” he said. “I was 29 and had never really settled down. We started looking for a place that was relatively secluded but was still close enough to the Bronx Zoo.”
He found that place in Mahopac.
“I live up on top of a mountain,” he said in the 2014 interview. “I own 25 acres of land surrounded by a forest. I have bobcats on my property and I see the occasional bear and wild turkey.When we found this house, we thought it was perfect.”
Rabinowitz’s neighbor of nearly 20 years, Diana Dagnone, said he will be sorely missed.
“He always went out of his way when he saw me to pull over and chat,” she said. “He always made you feel like someone special. He was a caring, wonderful person. I can’t believe he’s not going to be coming up the hill anymore. Mahopac was so lucky to have him here. We were honored and privileged.”
In 2006, Rabinowitz left the Bronx Zoo and its Wildlife Conservation Society when he was asked by Thomas Kaplan to head up Panthera.
“[Kaplan] had loved wild cats as a boy and was using his fortune to help them,” Rabinowitz said. “He had been following my career, unbeknownst to me, and he wanted to fund me. I never expected to leave the Bronx Zoo. So, I stepped away from the bureaucratic confines and we created Panthera and I took my whole staff with me. And it’s not just about cats. Our mission was to save the world’s wildlife cat species and the landscapes in which they live.”
In 2014, Rabinowitz released his autobiography in the form of a children’s book— “A Boy and a Jaguar”—inspired by the lone jaguar he used to visit at the Bronx Zoo.
“I always thought I would like to write a children’s book,” he said at the time of the book’s release. “I thought the message I have to tell would be for children with any type of handicap and children who feel misunderstood and lonely.”
Rabinowitz said it was particularly difficult because reliving the story opened old wounds.
“I tear up when I talk about it—the boy who went through so much pain,” he said. “The scars have kind of had to re-heal now. I am hoping it’s worth it. We have so many children who are either disabled or feel different inside.”
Rabinowitz also established the world’s first jaguar sanctuary, located in Belize, as well as the Tawu Mountain Nature Reserve, Taiwan’s largest protected area and last piece of intact lowland forest. In Thailand, he conducted the first field research on Indochinese tigers and leopards and Asian leopard cats, leading to the designation of the Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary as a UNESCO world biosphere reserve. He also helped create the Jaguar Corridor, a series of corridors for jaguars across their entire range from Mexico to Argentina.
When Rabinowitz turned 60 four years ago, he admitted that his globetrotting lifestyle was beginning to wear on him.
“I think I would rather spend my time right here in Mahopac,” he said with a laugh.
“The conservation community has lost a legend,” Panthera CEO and president Frédéric Launay said in a statement. “Alan was a fearless and outspoken champion for the conservation of our planet’s iconic wild cats and wild places. Inspiring a generation of young scientists, the boldness and passion with which Alan approached conservation was captivating and contagious.”
In a tribute, Panthera co-founder Kaplan wrote that losing Rabinowitz was like losing a twin.
“It is beyond mourning,” he wrote. “It is a loneliness framed only by the gratitude that our souls were granted an opportunity to meet and share a very special kind of joy—whether we were together, or apart.”
Rabinowitz is survived by his wife and his children, along with his sisters, Susan Klein and Sharon Zivi.