As a quadriplegic, Jon Ayers can’t move his limbs, but his voice is filled with excitement. His eyes dart around his workplace, projecting the illusion of a rainforest that’s filling his imagination with such enthusiasm that soon trees and vines start to look in the corners of my office also.
Jon is describing to me a manga, a tree-dwelling species of wild cat from Central and South America, and the only species which can climb down a tree head firsta trait that endears the 4 kilogram cat to him above all others.
The margay is just one of over 30 different little wild cat species, many of which are known—going unseen beneath a huge shadow cast by the big cats such as lions and tigers.
But Jon is not ready to sit and watch these charismatic animals go extinct, so is investing a $20 million private fortune in an effort to reverse declining trends in small wild cat populations around the world.
Ayers is a panthera person, a felid individual, as well as the former-CEO of one of the world’s most successful veterinary diagnostics companies : IDEXX Laboratories. For 17 years he captained the company which appreciably improved the standard of care for veterinary medicine.
Under his direction, from 2002 to 2017, IDEXX’s annual earnings went from $380 million to $2.4 billion, while its share price enjoyed a more than 40-fold increase. Jim Cramer from NBC’s Mad Money called IDEXX “one of the hottest stocks on the market,” in an in-studio interview with Jon on May 2019.
Soon after that look, a cycling accident tragically terminated the use of his limbs, with just his helmet keeping him from passing off. Stepping down from the leadership of IDEXX to focus on his health and recovery, he is now speaking to the public again for the first time since the collision, and is excited to share the details of his new adventure —a leadership and funding position at one of the best conservation organizations in the world: Panthera.
“What’s the plan? ”
“When you go through a catastrophic injury, you’re dealing with a number of challenges,” Jon Ayers explains to GNN. Jon, who had taken up a proximal part in wild cat conservation with different foundations— one of that he started with his wife Helaine in 2018—sees it as a sort of mental therapy.
Their organization, The Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust, works alongside Panthera, a conservation group with a focus on getting the job done, as opposed to producing the most-detailed body of scientific research. Panthera’s work with jaguars, maintaining their migration corridors from Argentina to New Mexico, or the Furs for Life and Arabian Leopard Initiatives for another large spotted cat, have generated conservation successes that are as good as anything being done today.
Its not easy going through something like that and most folks dont do very nicely, says Jon. “Not that I’m perfect, but having the ability to work on something like this is the best gift to me… because it helps me through a transition in my life, and because it gives me purpose. ”
“I mean I lost so much. There are a lot of things I will ’t do anymore, really basic things like brushing my teeth and clipping my fingernails…”
“The thing about spinal cord injuries is that no two are the same. My recovery has been much slower, although Ive worked hard at my recovery, and Ive made plenty of progress, but then you ask yourself, well whats my purpose ? ’ And I realized my aim is to encourage wild cat conservation. ”
His trust contributed a few thousand here or there to Panthera, since they were among the only conservation assignments that had an awareness of what was needed to begin creating a brighter future for some 33 species of small wild cat that altogether receive around 1% of total cat conservation efforts. Together with his gigantic cash contribution, Jon also took up a board position.
“It was something I had been beginning to do, it was something that I have, quite fortunately, the financial resources for, but I also have the mental ability and I just believe God spoke to me and said: ‘this is the strategy. ‘”
In Jon, Pantheras founder and wild cat-brainiac Dr. Thomas Kaplan feel hes found somebody who wakes up in the morning and says what can I do to turn the screw of history just a little bit? ’”
“Jon’s out of central casting,” Kaplan told GNN. “I’ve really been waiting for someone with Jon’s talents and his enthusiasm and his dedication to come in the story. ”
There but for the shadows unseen
As I sat down with Jon and Dr. Kaplan on Zoom, the latter had already made his background a photograph of cheetahs lounging on the African Savanah, blending his fiery-orange hair with the grass in the picture, and committing a Bob Ross-like glow to his personality.
The dawn of Jon coming into the picture is really a game changer for small cat conservation,” said Kaplan. “I think it’s probably fair to say that nobody is doing and nobody will have done more to save the 33 species of cats than Jon and his loved ones. ”
“We’re prioritizing the cat species and we’re doing that according to a certain matrix, to be able to enable ourselves to know where to begin first. Were obviously going to give priority to people where the ecology is least well-known, he explains. [What is] the rarity? Do they overlap with other small cats or big cats inside their landscapes so that we can leverage and harness existing programs and scientific know-how. How vulnerable are they to extinction, how pervasive are the dangers ? ”
He details that the total mission is “a very ambitious one. ” They expect that by 2025, they’ll have more or less filled-in the ecology and invented protection plans for 50 percent of all the small cat species. By 2030, Panthera wishes to be at 100%, but the initial shot of Jon’s capital will be put to work right away prioritizing 11 cat species across Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Notably Asia, where islands such as Borneo and Sumatra can contain four or five small cat species, such as the Sunda clouded leopard, Borneo bay cat, the flat-headed cat, which goes fishing, and the marbled cat.
Our goal is that when we commence a program, we want to be able to have observable, measurable impact within five years in having the ability to save that landscape for those cats, says Kaplan. The U.S. government basically said, if Panthera can’t save the big cats then nobody could. ’ It’s what we’re known for. ”
In the course of our discussions, Kaplan eagerly seasons the ambitious rhetoric with the names of cats it’s likely you’ve literally never heard of before, and for a few of that, the only entry in the scientific record is a confirmation that, yes, they indeed, exist.
“Across the Americas we’re working on various species ranging from the first wild cat I ever saw: the bobcat, but also extending further south to ocelots, margays, jaguarondis, oncilla, Geoffroy’s cat. ”
“At the end of the day, we’re not academic in the sense that we’re doing this in order to prove a point; for us it’s all about applied science. What Jon is empowering us to do is really to fight the battle across the entire arc of the little cat trajectory as a way to do everything simultaneously. ”
A match made in heaven
“I think what’s unique [and what] actually attracted me to Panthera, they had a focus dedicated to species conservation. So it was cats and nothing else, and I’m a cat person. Ive always loved cats,” says Jon.
“Panthera had a focus, [and] wanted to grow. I don’t know that much about conservation but I’m willing to learn and I’ve learned a lot. But I know how to grow things, and so it looked like these skills could be applied to a different type of organization. ”
Jon is convinced he can contribute more than just money to the efforts of rescuing small cat species around the globe. He has nearly twenty years of business acumen, during which almost every action he took delivered the value of their services, the veterinary area, and the stake of the shareholders, up.
“We’re actually supporting people who are doing work with other small cats through the Small Cat Action Program.
Our aim here is to develop Pantheras effect on the ecosystems around the world that encourage cats, and so that requires particular direction, it takes seeing around corners, it requires some areas that perhaps aret traditionally a strong part of conservation organizations, things like financial management. ”
Large cats are often protected—tigers for example —by utilizing apex predator or umbrella species conservation strategies.
“Even tiny cats can be at the top of the food chain. You cant just conserve the cat without saving the cascade which means of course, the entire ecosystem has to be supported. So, through cats were having a much wider impact on the conservation of nature, says Jon.
What’s your favourite small wild cat?
“It’s kind of like asking me what’s my favorite child! ” Jon answered me, eliciting laughter from all the three people. He would reply that it was the tree-loving margay.
“They’re like monkeys. They can climb up trees, they could climb vines upside-down, and they can climb down trees headfirst. How do they climb down trees head first? Since they’ve evolved over time to rotate their paws to go in the opposite direction. ”
As an entrepreneur I have a particular affinity for the black-footed cat, explains Kaplan. “It’s Africa’s smallest wild cat, but if you think of it as a fighter pilot, it’s a 60% success rate when it goes out searching. ”
Amongst all the stuff one hears about biodiversity these days, little cats just don’t get much attention. However, if philanthropists in the future start donating to little cat conservation, it will be a direct effect of the marriage that’s just been made at Panthera—a match made in heaven it seems —as Jon, who almost lost all his nine lives, reflects on his horrific injury and reminds me “God always has a plan. ”
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