The Washington Post, November 23, 2003

Stalking the Jaguar to Save It

By Judith S. Gillies
Washington Post Staff Writer

Alan Rabinowitz has always been up against time as he works to save the jaguar from extinction. But now the clock ticks louder.

Rabinowitz, who began tracking and researching the jaguar more than 20 years ago, has been diagnosed with an incurable form of leukemia.

"In Search of the Jaguar," a National Geographic special that premieres on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on MPT, follows Rabinowitz and other scientists on their passionate mission to save the big cats.

The documentary, narrated by actress Glenn Close, also looks at Rabinowitz's life -- including how he now deals with the illness threatening his life and work.

"The worst thing, frankly, would be for people to hear my story and feel sorry for me, " Rabinowitz said.

"The only reason I let so much of my personal life be included was for the kind of impact it could have. What I was trying to let happen is to connect who we are, why we do things, with saving wildlife."

Jaguars once roamed from what became Arizona all the way to Argentina, the documentary says, but hunting and destruction of their habitat has pushed them into isolated pockets where their future may be in jeopardy.

Rabinowitz, director of the science and exploration program of the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo in New York, has worked to preserve wilderness tracts around the world. His goal is to establish a "jaguar corridor" of public and private land from Mexico to Argentina to help ensure the survival of the species.

Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world -- after the tiger and lion -- weighing from 100 to 250 pounds. They are five to more than eight feet long, including their tail, with a shoulder height of up to 2.5 feet.

"We're not dealing with a little kittycat," says Sandra Cavalcanti, one of the scientists following the jaguars in the documentary. "They are big. They are powerful. And we can be in a pretty dangerous situation. Even with all the technologies we have, it's still really hard to capture them."

The scientists slog through swamps and other rough terrain trying to catch, sedate and collar the big cats so they can study and track the animals on the move.

Footage of the elusive jaguar is tough to get, said Kate Churchill, who produced and directed the documentary.

"They are such incredible animals, they just leave humans in the dust," Churchill said. "They know where you are long before you even think you are on to a jaguar."

Filming conditions were physically challenging as well, she said.

"We worked in 107-degree heat. . . . One of the [tracking] dogs was attacked -- but was okay. There are endless stories of what was hard. That cat just kicks your butt and drags you through this terrain that you wouldn't want to go through. But that's the beauty of it, too. It's amazing to be out in the wild and working with people who live this life.

"Our goal was to tell a story of a man on a mission to save the jaguar. He lives his life with such great integrity and has such conviction about saving animals, even if it means putting himself at risk," Churchill said.

The documentary was shot from October 2001 to June 2003 with several trips to Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica and Belize, she said, "and the story changed dramatically along the way" when Rabinowitz was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL), a slow-moving form of cancer that affects the body's white blood cells.

"I have two choices in my life now," Rabinowitz says in the film. "I can play it very very safe and sit at home and maybe prolong my life by a few years and be there for my kids . . . or I can be the person who I am and who makes me feel best and be the father I want them to know but maybe cut my life short with them."

The conservationist, who will turn 50 on Dec. 31, said initially he opted to stay home with his wife, Salisa, and their two children, ages 4 years and 18 months.

"But that changed. I can't do it. If I made myself do it, I'd be the father I don't want them seeing, an unhappy person. . . . There's no in-between. For me, balancing is sacrificing. Every day I'm home, I'm losing an opportunity to find a new place [for jaguars], losing time in trying to look for new people to do this kind of work. I'm really good at what I do, and the best thing I can do is be a model for them. Not a bad father, but not an ever-present father."

The film is "truly a personal journey," he said, "and shows things many people can identify with, such as overcoming some personal difficulties growing up -- for me, it was stuttering -- but the difficulties of my childhood drew me into the field I'm in now. My difficulty was a gift rather than a handicap."

In the film, Rabinowitz says: "Since I can remember from earliest childhood I was unable to speak, I had a severe, severe stutter. . . . I couldn't get the words out at all.

"Well it turns out two things stutterers can do without stuttering, no matter how bad they are, is sing and talk to animals. And I came to discover that with little pets. . . . And I would talk to them, it was the only thing I could talk to. . . .

"What I realized is there was nothing that I wanted to do more in life than be with animals and try to help them because what I realized as I got older was that animals were like me. . . me the stutterer who couldn't talk. . . .

"And I felt, you know what, if I can come to get my voice again within humankind then I could use the voice for the animals and try to help wildlife as well."

He got into college when he was 16, he said, and majored in biology and chemistry. After graduating from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), he traveled by himself across the country -- "I recognized that I was lonely but thrived on it." He realized he had to combine his love of science with his love for animals and return to school.

Rabinowitz earned his doctorate in ecology at the University of Tennessee. There he met conservationist George Schaller, who asked him to study jaguars in Belize.

In the jungle, Rabinowitz spent two years studying the jaguar, eventually capturing several and fitting each with a radio collar.

But, he says in the documentary, "Here I was studying an animal because I loved it. . . . I wanted to protect it. But in order to do that with an animal like jaguars, I had to drug them and put these fairly sizable radio collars on them. Even if they were able to live out their life, I had in some way handicapped them. I couldn't help but feel as if I was almost giving them a stutter."

He wrote about his experiences in several books, such as "Jaguar: One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve," including the story of "my most special jaguar that died in my arms."

He has overcome stuttering, endured treacherous environments and survived a plane crash.

Now his journey includes dealing with cancer. Everyone has limited time "but this is no longer an abstraction for me," he said. "The idea of looking for a second house on a lake or growing old -- those thoughts are gone forever. It has made me focus even more on my work. I'm more driven to getting out there while I still can. [The illness] doesn't stop me."

Producer Churchill sees the documentary as a story of hope. "There's a lot of potential to save the jaguar -- it's not too late, it's still possible to do it. And Alan is not going to give up on it. . . . We all face challenges, situations where people can't do something. But here, you have people saying 'I can do it. I believe in it. I'm going to do it.' It's a story that says anything is possible."