After Meeting Adversity, I Answered Call of the Wild
When I had my cycling accident in June 2019, it wasn’t immediately apparent how much I had lost. Neurosurgeons tell you that every spinal cord injury is different, and thus they couldn’t forecast how much body function I would recover or when.
Two months in, I began to appreciate the severity of my condition — paralysis from the neck down save for limited arm and wrist movement. The accident was a painful lesson in how easily human hubris is dashed by the frailty of our bodies. Although I am eternally grateful to have avoided a brain injury (due to my high-tech helmet), there was no denying that my world was forever and catastrophically altered.
My sudden disability forced me to make painful and previously inconceivable physical, emotional and social sacrifices. Along with having to give up to others the daily tasks of self-care taken for granted by most, one of the ultimate sacrifices was my need to abandon a career I loved: an extraordinary 17-year tenure as Idexx Laboratories’ chairman, president and CEO.
Steering Idexx through annual revenue increases — from $380 million to $2.4 billion — led to stock price growth from $6 to $480 per share. Focused pet and livestock health care innovation was our game, with an investment of more than 80% of the industry’s research and development in pet health care diagnostic and information technology. Novel new products such as Catalyst, ProCyte, Sedivue, SDMA, fecal antigen and VetConnect Plus moved the needle for veterinary medicine’s standard of care.
I had achieved a level of success, including personal financial success, I never dreamed possible. But when enduring a transformative event, one learns to let go of what seemed precious during a previous life and focus instead on what can provide purpose given an altered physical condition. For many, this process takes years, and yet I was fortunate as a “cat person” to have already discovered Panthera, an organization dedicated exclusively to conserving the world’s 40 species of wild cats and their landscapes, and I was supporting it and other wild cat conservation efforts through the establishment of The Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust.
Cats of the Wild
To be clear, the term “wild” is not a reference to feral cats nor the rowdier domestic felines that grace the veterinary exam table, nor even wild cats in the zoo. We are talking about the cats of nature, living in the wonderous wild and biodiverse landscapes of our planet — from tigers and jaguars to lynx and Pallas cats (the original “Grumpy Cat”). All of them are exquisite, charismatic and declining in numbers, with many vulnerable to extinction.
As I was pursuing my physical rehabilitation (an ongoing process), I made an investment — mental therapy, if you will — in further exploring the enthralling ecology, behavior, hunting strategies, lineage and other idiosyncrasies of these phenomenal creatures of evolution. In particular, the 33 species of small cats drew me in, admittedly due to their adorable features mimicking our domestic feline companions and to the unfortunate fact that their existence, contribution to the health of the planet and conservation have been largely overlooked.
Gracing paleolithic caves, royal crests and national soccer jerseys, the seven big cat species have haunted the nightmares of hunters and gatherers, acted as gods and mighty spirits in early civilizations, and inspired countless works of art and commerce in our own era. Bigger has always meant better in the cat conservation world: better known, better funded and better protected (albeit still inadequately).
Although 12 of the world’s 33 small wild cat species are vulnerable to extinction, they have collectively received less than 1% of all funding committed to wild cat conservation. Conservation research and strategies don’t even exist for the majority of the small cat species, though probably most face the same threats as their larger cousins: habitat loss, poaching, land conversion and conflict with people.
I find small cats to be just as charismatic as big cats. The black-footed cat, known as the deadliest wild cat of the entire Felidae family, is the cutest killer around. Olympic-worthy acrobats, the clouded leopard, marbled cat and margay have evolved to climb down trees headfirst. Adapted for the aquatic, fishing cats have partially webbed feet. I imagine them to be an almost mythical, hybrid cat-duck.
Far down my research rabbit hole, I was enchanted by all 33 species. I could not imagine a more worthy investment of my time, energy and good fortune than their conservation.
The Global Alliance
This past March, I followed up on this vow by joining Panthera’s Global Alliance for Wild Cats with a pledge of at least $20 million over 10 years to support wild cat conservation efforts around the globe. Small cats are the focus. From Bolivia to Botswana to Borneo, our scientists will investigate and mitigate their threats, including poaching and illegal wildlife trade, and unearth the species’ fundamental ecology, incorporating population sizes, home ranges, behaviors and dynamics with other species.
Some have asked why I support species conservation when climate change, COVID-19 relief, future pandemic prevention, sustainable energy and other causes dominate headlines and wallets. It’s a valid question. My answer: Just imagine a world that has lost its biodiversity. Wild cat conservation is a very tangible cause where I know I can have an impact.
Saving wild cats is the best investment we can make today to preserve our natural world for our children and theirs. As apex predators, wild cats shape the landscapes they inhabit, stabilizing a complex food web and baseline ecological processes on which all life depends, from beetles to bears. A new Panthera study with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in Washington State, for example, is examining the positive role that bobcats play in limiting aplodontia, also known as the mountain beaver. This large rodent affects the local timber industry by damaging young trees.
Wild cat ranges cover nearly a quarter of the Earth’s land surface. Our programs to study and protect them therefore positively impact a wide diversity of landscapes and human communities. In other words, wild cats are the guardians of the landscapes on which billions of human, animal and plant species depend for survival. To me, protecting the protectors and ultimately protecting ourselves is a no-brainer.
The world’s most iconic safeguarded areas depend on tourists to fund conservation initiatives and supplement ranger patrols with their presence. The pandemic has cost the global ecotourism industry billions of dollars, and wild cat conservation needs nourishment now more than ever. Even in normal times, just a fraction of philanthropic contributions supports environmental conservation (excluding climate change) in the United States, and even less goes to species conservation, with wild cats receiving a drop in the ocean.
A New Purpose
After my accident, the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming, but I reemerged more energized than ever with a purpose to do good for our precious planet. And now completing more than a year of pandemic-induced isolation, I hope others around the globe can find their passion and sense of mission in protecting the planet as well.
I firmly believe that our species is currently experiencing the consequences of humanity’s broken relationship with nature. Yet, so many of us have a shred of sanity left because of our innate connection with the environment, whether it be from our four-legged family members or our finding an escape in the wilderness, or both. I hope that whoever reads this piece is stirred, with the second chance that vaccines offer us, to do right by the planet and wildlife that have brought so much to our lives.
In sharing my personal story of loss, resilience and renewal of purpose, I ultimately hope to inspire others to dedicate their resources — whether it’s $20 or $20,000 — to help in protecting wild cats, allowing ecosystems from the African savannah to the Brazilian rainforests to palpably thrive.
Whether you have money, talent or just time, please join hands with Panthera and me in doing what you can to preserve the wild species and nature we so deeply love and still have left to save.
Jon Ayers is a philanthropist, a member of Panthera’s and Idexx Laboratories’ board of directors, and a member of Panthera’s Global Alliance for Wild Cats. Ayers served for 17 years as Idexx’s chairman, president and CEO. He has a degree from Yale University in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
HOW TO HELP
Panthera is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring a future for wild cats and the vast landscapes on which they depend. Donations may be made at panthera.org/donate.