Around the corner from the New York Public Library’s famous stone lions is the headquarters of a renowned naturalist who made a childhood pledge to an aging jaguar at the Bronx Zoo to become a voice for all the world’s big cats.
This vow from a Queens youngster five decades ago was all the more remarkable because at the time Alan Rabinowitz was a severe stutterer who could not even be a voice for himself.
“Not the normal repetitious b-b-b kind of stutter,” Rabinowitz, now 56, recalled. “But the complete blockage of air flow where if I tried to push words out my head would spasm and my body would spasm.”
Special education was still years away, and at Public School 140 in Far Rockaway, Rabinowitz was consigned to what the other kids called the “retarded class.” His parents protested to no avail. They reassured him that he would outgrow his stutter.
“Each day I’d wake up, and I was afraid to say the first word because I would just hope it had gone away,” he recalled.
He discovered he could talk to animals, and he would sequester himself in his bedroom closet with “New York-style pets” – a chameleon, a green turtle, a hamster, maybe a gerbil and the “occasional garter snake.”
“The animals didn’t judge me,” he recalled. “The animals had no expectations. The animals just let me be who I was.”
He was sure they listened. Their inability to respond made him feel only closer. “They didn’t have a voice, either,” he said.
Back in “the world of people,” he went days without even trying to speak rather than incur more derision. His father, Red Rabinowitz, a legendary coach at Lafayette High School, would take him to the Bronx Zoo when things were particularly bad. The son would go right to where the great cats paced in their cages.
“Filled with passion, filled with energy behind bars,” his dad said.
He stood before a tiger, a youngster who from his first attempted word had been unable to express his thoughts and feelings, who had filled with ever more frustration and anger.
“It was locked inside my head the way this tiger was locked inside this cage,” he recalled. “That was me.”
He would also remember in particular a sad-eyed, aging female jaguar.
“That little broken boy and that old broken jaguar,” he later said.
He leaned forward to whisper to her, and his father asked what he was doing.
“I turned to him to try to explain, but my mouth froze as I knew it would,” he recalled.
He could still speak to the jaguar, the tiger and the other creatures. “I swore to the animals that if I could ever find my voice, I would be their voice,” he recalled.
Deliverance came at 19, with an arduous program in upstate Geneseo that taught him to control air flow and the mechanics of speech. He returned home able to speak fluently as long as he maintained the concentration of someone learning a new language.
“A completely fluent stutterer,” he said.
He had managed straight A’s through school, and he embraced science as truth independent of people. He had a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology when he drove an old pickup truck from New York to Belize to study jaguars. The jungle was a whole realm of animals, as wonderfully dark as his bedroom closet.
“I knew I could stay forever and be happy,” he said. But one fact he quickly learned about jaguars was they were being wiped out. He knew that he had to return to the world of people.
“Now I had the voice,” he said.
The result was the world’s first jaguar preserve. Many more successes followed, and in between expeditions he can now be found at the W. 41st St. headquarters of Panthera, since 2006 the preeminent champion of the world’s 36 species of wild cats. He serves as the president and CEO with the determination of a stutterer who knows that where there is no cure, there must be unflagging attention and perpetual effort.
He recalls a moment in the Belize jungle when he was tracking a big jaguar and turned and saw it had circled around to follow him. He gazed into eyes so different from those of that sad old jaguar at the Bronx Zoo.
“There was strength and power and assuredness of purpose,” he says. “I also realized as I was looking into his eyes that what I was seeing was a reflection of what I was feeling, too.”
No longer the broken little boy, he leaned forward to whisper as he had a half century before.
“It’s okay, now. It’s all going to be okay.”
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