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Sun June 8, 2014

A Boy And His Jaguar Speak To Children Who Feel Misunderstood

Alan Rabinowitz is famous for studying jaguars. The renowned zoologist and conservationist is responsible for the world's first jaguar sanctuary, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve in the mountains of Belize. His books about working with big cats have sold millions of copies.

His latest book is different — it's not about conservation policy or animal behavior. It's a picture book about his own childhood. Rabinowitz grew up with a severe stutter, something he had to overcome before he could pursue the career that has made him a voice for endangered animals.

Rabinowitz spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the book, A Boy and a Jaguar, and why he still finds it painful to read his own story.


Interview Highlights

On his first encounter with a big cat

The first time I saw a big cat was when my father took me to the Bronx Zoo, when I was about 4 years old I believe, and I went into ... the Big Cat house, which they had back then — cage after cage of big cats, of lions and tigers and jaguar. And it was after that first instant, even at that young age, I knew that this was to be my home away from home.

On growing up with a stutter

I was born with a very debilitating stutter. ... I still stutter now, but now I have the tools to control it, and I'm controlling it now as we speak. But when I was a young child, there was no control, and my kind of stuttering were the blocks — solid blocks — not just the repetition. So in trying to get the air flow and the words out, I would turn red, my body would spasm.

I was put in special classes in school for disturbed children because they really didn't know what to do with me back then in the New York City Public School system. So ever since I was a child, I had the idea that I was broken — now that was to human beings. What I discovered was when I was with animals, that I could talk to them alone. I could be myself. And my father saw that and took me to the zoo, to the Bronx Zoo.

On his connection with jaguars

As a young child there was one particular animal that I felt the closest to, and it was a lone jaguar. It sat back there in its enclosure, watching, while all the other cats would come to the bars and roar and vocalize, the jaguar just watched everything. It used its sound, its voice, sparingly.

But I would go up very close to the cage and eventually it would come over and it would pace back and forth in front of me. I made a promise to that jaguar: If I ever found my voice, I would try to find a place for us. I would try to be their voice and find a place for us. And I had no idea as a child what I meant by "I'll find a place for us." I think I was just trying to calm myself as much as associate with the animal, but I truly — it came from the heart.

On choosing to write a children's book

Believe it or not, as simple as this children's book was — all my other books are hundreds of pages ... it was hard to write because I didn't want to write it as an adult telling the story of my childhood. I wanted to go back inside and pull that child back out which has always been in there. But that child is a broken child, or at least a child who thought he was broken. And that was painful. I remember crying as I wrote this book. It's even painful now reading my own story because I never wished any young person to go through anything like that, that much pain.

On connecting with children who feel different

If I was walking on the street and I heard a child stuttering, I was always torn between whether I should go speak to the child or speak to the parents and offer help and advice. People don't often take that in the right way. But I felt just like I wanted a voice for the animals, I needed a different voice for the children, and this book gives me that voice. Because I feel while this is book of my childhood and it's about a boy that stutters and it's about jaguars, it's not just about a boy that stutters.

All children at some point in their life go through periods of feeling misunderstood or shut off from the human world. Whether they have a real disability or just something inside themselves that's not quite like everybody else. And I wanted this book to speak to all of those children because I don't think adults realize, unless you've gone through it as a child, what a lasting mark such pain leaves on a young person.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Alan Rabinowitz speaks for the jaguars. The renowned zoologist and conservationist is responsible for the worlds first jaguar sanctuary. His books abouts big cat sold millions of copies. Now he's written a picture book about his childhood. It's called "A Boy And A Jaguar" and begins with the first time Rabinowitz's saw a big cat.

ALAN RABINOWITZ: The first time I saw a big cat was when my father took me to the Bronx Zoo when I was about four years old, I believe. And I went into the lion house - the big cat house which they had back then. Cage after cage of big cats of lions and tigers and jaguars. And it was after that first instant - even at that young age, I knew that this was to be my home away from home.

RATH: Now you have a stutter and our listeners would have no idea about that. But as a child it was pretty debilitating for you. But you can talk fluently to animals. Tell us about that.

RABINOWITZ: Well, I was born with a very debilitating stutter. I have a severe stutter. I still stutter now but now I have the tools to control it. And I'm controlling it now as we speak. But when I was a young child there was no control. And my kind of stuttering were the blocks - solid blocks. Not just the repetition. So in trying to get the airflow in, the words out I would turn red. My body would spasm. I was put in special classes in school for disturbed children because they really didn't know what to do with me back then in the New York City Public School system. So ever since I was a child I had the idea that I was broken. Now that was to human beings. What I discovered was when I was with animals that I could talk to them alone. I could be myself. And my father saw that. And he took me to the zoo - to the Bronx Zoo.

RATH: And that served as the inspiration for your life's work that you became the voice for these cats.

RABINOWITZ: It's kind of interesting how life works. I mean as a young child there was one particular animal that I felt to the closest to. And it was a lone jaguar. It sat back there in its enclosure in a corner watching. While all the other cats would come to the bars and roar and vocalize, the jaguar just watched everything. It used it's sound, its voice, sparingly. But I would go up very close to the cage and eventually it would come over and it would pace back and forth in front of me. I made a promise to that jaguar. If I ever found my voice, I would try to find a place for us. I would try to be their voice and find a place for us. And I had no idea as a child, what I even meant by I will find a place for us. I think I was just trying to calm myself as much as associated with the animal. But I truly - it came from the heart.

RATH: Yeah well, I mean, and you've delivered on that promise. You've literally made a space for jaguars. You're responsible for them having a protected area. But to do that, Alan, you had to speak in some of the most high pressure situations one could imagine. How did you conquer that?

RABINOWITZ: Well fortunately by that time - it wasn't until I was a senior in college when my parents heard about an experimental clinic. And I - that clinic ended up giving me the tools to manipulate my mouth, my tongue, my lips. Even with my controls, if I was in a very high pressure situation and I got really nervous or scared I would go back to blocking and stuttering quite a bit. So I was really worried that first time in Belize when I had to appear before the cabinet and try to fight for the world's first and only jaguar preserve. But all I keep on thinking to myself is that I made a promise.

RATH: And that moment of triumph when you're speaking in Belize, it's rendered beautifully in this book. Why did you decide to turn your story into a children's book?

RABINOWITZ: Well, believe it or not, as simple as this children's book was all my other books are hundreds of pages - this book seems very simple in its appearance. And yet it was hard to write because I didn't want to write it as an adult telling the story of my childhood. I wanted to go back inside and pull that child back out, which has always been in there. But that child is a broken child or at least a child who thought he was broken. And that was painful. I remember crying as I wrote this book. It's even - it's even painful now reading my own story. Because I never wish any young person to go through something like that - that much pain.

RATH: It's hard to read it without crying. And the wonderful thing is it does end triumphantly. A lot of young kids struggle with speech problems, you know, stuttering and a whole host of other issues. Have you shared your story with kids before this?

RABINOWITZ: Not in a large, large platform. If I was walking on the street and I heard a child stuttering I was always torn between whether I should go speak to the child or speak to the parents. And offer help and advice. Some - people don't often take that in the right way. But I felt just like they wanted a voice for the animals, I needed a different voice for the children. And this book gives me that voice because I feel - while this is a book of my childhood, and it's about a boy that stutters and it's about jaguars - it's not just about a boy that stutters. All children at some point in their life go through periods of feeling misunderstood or shut off from the human world whether they have a real disability or just something inside themselves that's not quite like everybody else. And I wanted this book speak to all of those children because I don't think adults realize. Unless you've gone through it as a child. But a lasting mark - such pain leaves on a young person.

RATH: Alan Rabinowitz studies jaguars. His new picture book is called "A Boy And A Jaguar." Alan, such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

RABINOWITZ: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.