- Most people are familiar with the world’s “big cats”: Lions, tigers, leopards, jaguar, puma, and cheetah. But far fewer people know about the much larger number of small cat species, which range from the ancestors of domesticated house cats to the flat-headed cat to the ocelot.
- Small cats’ lack of visibility has meant that haven’t received big cats’ level of conservation funding. But small cat conservation efforts may have just gotten a significant boost with Panthera — the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to wild cat conservation — announcing Jonathan Ayers as its new Chair of its Board of Directors.
- Ayers — the former Chairman, President and CEO of IDEXX Laboratories, a publicly-traded company that develops veterinary products and technologies — in March pledged $20 million to Panthera. A significant portion of that commitment is for small cat conservation.
- Ayers pledged the funds after a cycling accident in June 2019 left him a quadriplegic. Ayers says the experience, which prompted him to step down as CEO of IDEXX, gave him a purpose: saving wild cats through conservation efforts. Ayers spoke about his background, his love of cats, and conservation broadly during a recent conservation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Most people are familiar with the world’s “big cats”: Lions, tigers, leopards, jaguar, puma, and cheetah. But far fewer people know about the much larger number of small cat species, which range from the ancestors of domesticated house cats to the flat-headed cat to the ocelot. Yet, like big cats, these small cats play important roles in the ecosystems they inhabit.
Small cats’ lack of visibility has meant that haven’t received big cats’ level of conservation funding — collectively they get only a small fraction of the dollars that go toward lions, tigers and jaguars, for example. But small cat conservation efforts may have just gotten a significant boost with Panthera — the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to wild cat conservation — announcing Jonathan Ayers as its new Chair of its Board of Directors.
Ayers — the former Chairman, President and CEO of IDEXX Laboratories, a publicly-traded company that develops veterinary products and technologies — in March pledged $20 million to Panthera. A significant portion of that commitment is for small cat conservation.
Ayers pledged the funds after a cycling accident in June 2019 left him a quadriplegic. Ayers says the experience, which prompted him to step down as CEO of IDEXX, gave him a new sense of purpose: saving wild cats through conservation efforts, including creating opportunities for communities that live in and around their habitats.
“I asked myself, ‘What do I do now?’ ‘What’s my purpose?’ And I realized that it was time to give back,” he told Mongabay. “Now is the time to put to use some of the financial benefits that I had received as a result of being in business and pursue this really important goal of conserving species and in particular, cats, because they’re a very important part of the biodiverse ecosystems in which they inhabit.”
Ayers will replace Panthera Founder Thomas S. Kaplan as the organization’s Board Chair. Kaplan will remain on Panthera’s board and take on the new role of Chair of The Global Alliance for Wild Cats, a coalition of philanthropists that aims to establish a $200 million wild cat conservation fund.
Ayers says he hopes to expand the audience for cat conservation, which would translate to more resources for both big cat and small cat conservation efforts.
“One of my visions for Panthera is to build appreciation for wildcats among more people and then get them involved, whether that’s via supporting conservation efforts or some other means,” he said. “Panthera, with its focus on charismatic cats, can play a big role in rallying people around the importance of nature, the importance of biodiversity, and the importance of conservation.”
Ayers spoke about his background, his love of cats, and conservation broadly during a recent conservation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JON AYERS
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in wild cats?
Jonathan Ayers: I’ve always been a cat guy. I love cats.
My relationship with cats, of course, has been domestic cats. I also love and appreciate nature.
I also have a biology background. And I understand and appreciate complex ecosystems.
One day I thought to myself: I love cats, I love nature. What kind of cats are in nature? And then I found out there are a lot of different species of cats. And the more I looked into it, the more interested I got, including in the importance of conserving these cats in nature.
Mongabay: What’s your favorite wild cat and why?
Jonathan Ayers: That’s a really tough question, because I love all 40 species. It’s kind of like asking: “Which is your favorite child?” But ones I have a special bond with are the Margay and the clouded leopard. They’re both arboreal, meaning they live in the trees, and they have incredible evolutionary adaptations. They’re like monkey cats.
Mongabay: You mentioned that you have always been a fan of cats and you’ve become, more recently, a fan of wild cats. There are over 43 million households in the US with domestic cats. Why should pet owners care about what happens to wild cats?
Jonathan Ayers: The domestic cat was my background. About 40 percent of U.S. households do have a cat as a pet and most of them are considered members of the family. If I take my daughter, for example: I showed her the flat-headed cat, which is one of the 33 species of small cats, and she says, “That looks like my Potato,” which is the name of her cat.
So I think that people who understand cats and they love them for what they are — an amazing evolutionary marvel — then I think it’s not a very long step to understand that wild cats are cousins and are also amazing creatures: Amazing products of evolution.
Cats go back six million years, a period during which many other species have come and gone. And when you appreciate that, you come to the conclusion, it would be a real shame to wipe them all out in a couple of hundred years after they’ve survived, you know, three to six million years. So I think cats have the ability to bring special attention to the conservation of biodiversity.
Mongabay: You recently announced a $20 million dollar commitment over the next 10 years to the Global Alliance for cats. What is that? What is the aim of that program?
Jonathan Ayers: This is the inspiration of Tom Kaplan, the founder of Panthera and also the founder of the Global Alliance. His vision was he wanted to get a group of people who were willing to commit $20 million over 10 years to wildcat conservation, maybe through Panthera, maybe through other ways. It was a commitment to wildcat conservation because that was Tom’s goal in founding Panthera.
I’m the sixth member of the Global Alliance. My $20 million will be through Panthera, primarily directed at funding the small cat program.
I was asked to join the Global Alliance and I’m able to do it. I think it’s a visible commitment to wildcat conservation. I wanted to dedicate that primarily to the 33 species of what we call small cats, as opposed to the seven species of big cats that have gotten probably ninety-nine percent of all the conservation attention.
I felt that these small cats are very important parts of their ecosystems, are under threat, and in many cases, we know very little about them. They’re also cute: They look like cousins of our domestic companions.
Mongabay: In 2019 you suffered a cycling accident that left you without use of your arms and legs. How are you doing now? And how did that tragedy influence your decision to step down from your leadership role at IDEXX Laboratories and get more involved with cat conservation?
Jonathan Ayers: I started to be involved with cat conservation even when I was CEO of IDEXX, but I didn’t have that much time.
But as a result of the accident, I realized I really wasn’t going to be in a great position to continue as CEO. So, as they say, I stepped down, but since I actually don’t do any stepping. I like to say “I kind of rolled off” or “now I’m a chairman of a different kind.” So once I was no longer CEO of IDEXX, I asked myself, “What do I do now?” “What’s my purpose?” And I realized that it was time to give back, since I spent my entire career in business and had been extraordinarily successful. But now is the time to put to use some of the financial benefits that I had received as a result of being in business and pursue this really important goal of conserving species and in particular, cats, because they’re a very important part of the biodiverse ecosystems in which they inhabit.
Mongabay: You’ve had an incredibly successful career in the private sector where you oversaw this period of stratospheric growth at IDEXX Laboratories. How are you applying that business acumen to your philanthropic efforts just beyond making generous donations?
Jonathan Ayers: I actually think that’s just as important as the financial contribution because we need all the leadership capability we can muster to solve these very, very challenging conservation objectives.
I’m a good strategist. I’m good at figuring things out. And I can add a lot of value in partnership with people who dedicate their lives to conservation. Between us, we can put together effective strategies and then the professionals are really good at executing them. Those skills are very transferable once you start to understand what an NGO is all about and its purpose.
Mongabay: Leadership is something which is often identified as a gap in the conservation space generally. Since you are coming from a leadership role in the private sector, it seems like you could bring a lot to that conversation. Do you see opportunities to leverage that knowledge?
Jonathan Ayers: Well, you mentioned leadership as a gap in conservation organizations: Leadership is a gap, generally speaking, everywhere, even in business. People who have the right combination of strategic skills, people skills, requisite knowledge of their space and the ability to get things done is rare.
In my experience, you have a lot of people in leadership positions that really don’t have all those pieces. And so that’s true in any endeavor. But when you have that kind of leadership–and it’s usually collaborative leadership–you can accomplish ten times what you might have accomplished otherwise.
If I look at my prior company, IDEXX, where I was CEO for 17 years, the stock price is almost 100 times what it was when I joined. Well, maybe without as good leadership, it could be 10 times, which would still be really good returns. But it’s 100 times higher. This is what I’m talking about.
Really good leadership can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of an organization in achieving its purpose. And what better area to focus on than species conservation, especially cat conservation since they are key players in these ecosystems.
Mongabay: You come from a career in the veterinary industry. What do you think veterinarians and those in this industry have to offer wildcat conservation?
Jonathan Ayers: First of all, they can help bring attention. They went into the veterinary world because they love animals and, for many veterinarians, their love of animals may have come from visiting the zoo and seeing the wild cats. And many veterinarians dreamed of being a wild animal veterinarian when they were kids, but there are very few jobs in that area so they end up working with domesticated animals. But many of them still have that interest. And so they can bring attention and financial resources.
And I think they’re a very special audience for the pitch we’re making for biodiversity and species conservation because we’re talking about cats.
Mongabay: Expanding on this further, what role can successful businesses like your former employers, IDEX and Carrier play in conserving wildlife and preserving nature?
Jonathan Ayers: Many companies are attaching themselves to social causes. Just think of the number of brands, sports teams, and automobiles that are named after cats. There is a lot of potential here. Unfortunately, these cats don’t get a royalty on their name. But I think cats deserve some attention if these companies get the benefit of their names and in their branding.
Mongabay: Who would be your top get in terms of a partner, like a corporate partner or, you know, a brand for your efforts with Panthera.
Jonathan Ayers: Panthera and other conservation organizations have already had success with companies like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. These high-end consumer brands and fashion brands have already proven to be great business partners.
I think it’s our role to say: “It will help your brand’s impression on your customers and clients to be attached to a tangible and charismatic cause.” One of the most charismatic groups of species are the wild cats, starting with tigers, lions, and jaguars. They can be used to bring attention, financial resources, and talent to species conservation.
Mongabay: There are obviously a lot of conservation organizations out there. Why did you choose Panthera?
Jonathan Ayers: Panthera is just absolutely a perfect match. I love cats. And cats are really important. So Panthera is unique because its focus is conservation of the 40 species of cats. I didn’t really want to get involved in other areas: I wanted to focus on cats.
Why cats? Cats are really critical members of the ecosystem. There are apex predators or they’re near the top of the food chain. And by conserving cats, you’re conserving these biodiverse landscapes around the world since most biodiverse landscapes on the five major continents have cats as part of their ecosystems.
Mongabay: Are there certain aspects of Panthera that distinguish it from other conservation organizations in your view?
Jonathan Ayers: Yeah, first of all, my huge kudos to Tom Kaplan for having conceived of an organization that’s focused on cats, I think that was a brilliant insight. And then he spent the last 15 years building Panthera. And we have an amazing CEO in Fred Launay.
I think what makes Panthera unique is that it’s not just about Panthera. Panthera has a vision here, which I share, of leading, coordinating, and collaborating across the several major and many smaller NGOs which focus, in part, on cat conservation. I think if we work together, we can achieve more than if we work individually. That’s not human nature. Most organizations want to build their own capabilities. But Fred, the leadership team, the board, Tom and myself, we all share a vision that, first and foremost, it’s about the cats. It’s not about us. We’re here for the cats. So how can we have the greatest impact? And one of the ways we can have the greatest impact is to provide cat leadership among multiple NGOs that are willing to collaborate. To draw more attention and more focus and more capability and more synergy in our conservation efforts.
Mongabay: What’s your vision for Panthera?
Jon Ayers: There are three things. Understanding the importance of preserving biodiversity and the important role that cats play in the ecosystem as apex or meso predators, which makes them umbrella species and indicator species. And that these species exist.
Many of my friends in the animal health space have little to no knowledge of wildcats. When I tell them I’m working on wildcat conservation, they assume I’m referring to feral cats: domestic cats that have reentered the wild again.
When I tell them I’m not talking about feral cats, they then think I’m talking about cats in the zoo. They are then surprised to learn that tigers and other cats can still be found in the wild. And I explained to them why they are important and need to be conserved. I find that as you get more into the conversation, people get more and more interested.
So one of my visions for Panthera is to build appreciation for wildcats among more people and then get them involved, whether that’s via supporting conservation efforts or some other means.
It’s going to take time for us to get in harmony with nature in terms of our appreciation for nature and recognizing the importance of nature to humanity. But I think we are well on that way to that journey.
Panthera, with its focus on charismatic cats, can play a big role in rallying people around the importance of nature, the importance of biodiversity, and the importance of conservation. Over the last 100 or 200 years or 300 years, in the case of some places, we wiped out a lot of biodiversity by either expanding livestock or by turning wilds into farmland. But now I think we’re better at appreciating how we can peacefully coexist and appreciate and retain the benefits of biodiversity and its ecosystem services.
Mongabay: When it comes to wildcat conservation, most of the attention and dollars go to big cats: tigers, lions, and jaguars. What’s the pitch for small cats?
Jonathan Ayers: That’s true. Historically, 99 percent of the very small amount of funding that goes to cat conservation goes to the seven large cat species. You mentioned tigers, lions, jaguars. Those are probably the top three.
And while not enough attention and funding is even going to those, one percent is going to thirty-three species of small cats which are all over the world. But these species are important parts of the ecosystem.
They just don’t get the attention that the big cats do. But they are incredible. So if they get attention, they have just the same opportunity for charismatic connection as we do with the big icons: The big cats.
Mongabay: Have you seen cats in the wild?
Jonathan Ayers: I’ve seen one cat in the wild. I was cycling in a rural part of Maine, and a bobcat ran across the road about 100 yards ahead of me.
Now, with my condition and the extreme difficulty with traveling, it’s just not going to be possible. And unfortunately, it’s just not going to be part of my experience going forward: Like many things I’ve had to let go.
But I’m really good at visualizing things and I’m really good at understanding things from an intellectual point of view. So it may sound odd that I’ve never seen anything in the wild and haven’t done any conservation, but I think I can bring a lot to the equation nonetheless.
Mongabay: Wildlife conservation is inherently as much about people as it is about animals. So what are some of the strategies that the Ayers Wildcat Conservation Trust, which is your own entity, and Panthera are undertaking to strengthen and support local communities in and around cat habitats?
Jonathan Ayers: Yes, this is a really important observation and a really important question, because conservation is just not science. It’s a social science, because we have to find ways for humans and these biodiverse landscapes and cats to coexist.
Now, it turns out these biodiverse landscapes have a lot of benefits for humans. They provide a lot of ecosystem services. The most obvious one is tourism. But there are a lot of other ecosystem services that come when you have a balanced ecosystem with apex predators at the top of the food chain.
And so you have to bring people along. Panthera is very dedicated to working with people who are adjacent to, or local to, these biodiverse areas, whether they are protected areas in Africa or the Brazilian rainforest. There are many examples where working with local people is critical to success. You can’t do it otherwise.
Mongabay: Beyond habitat loss and killing, due to the perceived threats against wildlife, wild cats are often targeted by poachers for their skins and other parts, do you have thoughts on ways to address that issue?
Jonathan Ayers: Yeah, that’s a big threat, particularly with the big cats. First of all, the right governance needs to be in place. Many places have laws, but they may not be effective in securing those spaces. And then sometimes poachers come from outside of the area.
There are very effective strategies to countering poachers: it’s really just a matter of resources, leadership, and building the talent and capability to do that.
Mongabay: What about the Furs for Life program?
Jon Ayers: That’s a Panthera success story. When we were looking at threats to the leopard, we realized that there was a group that was killing leopards to get skins for their religious ceremonies. Panthera indicated to the group that the practice was drastically diminishing populations of leopards around them and offered up an alternative: A synthetic leopard skin that looked just like a real leopard skin and provided a way to continue the custom. The group adopted the synthetic skin, which eliminated an important threat to a declining leopard population in the wild. And since leopards were an important part of their culture, they appreciated that leopards could continue to exist in the wild.
Mongabay: Technology is an increasingly important tool in conservation, with uses from monitoring habitat to fighting poaching. What are some of these innovative tools that are being used to conserve wildcats?
Jonathan Ayers: Technology runs the gamut. Panthera is really focused on a couple of areas.
One is camera trap technology that captures cats. Let me give you an example. Historically, we’ve developed really good camera traps for big cats. Well, guess what? We don’t see the small cats because they go right under the camera. They’re there at the wrong level. So we’ve learned how to better capture a small cat by camera.
Small cats are harder to collar and track than big cats because they’re smaller. But technology is getting to that point where we can do that-collars are lighter and more durable.
Another area is data. We are collecting a lot of information, but we need to put it into a coherent database that is shared across conservation organizations.
This information can help with data deficiencies. For many of these species, we don’t know what their real territories are or to what degree their numbers are declining. And without that kind of information, it’s really hard to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation strategies.
Another one of the things that have been a huge change is molecular analysis of the genome. For example, we think there are 40 species of wildcats, but we don’t know that for sure. They are probably a couple of more species that we’ve lumped together, but we will find through molecular analysis of the genome that they are actually different species.
Genetic analysis has been a huge tool that we’ve used to help understand cat biology and therefore give us effective conservation strategies.
Molecular genetics is an area where I’m very comfortable because IDEX was a technology company, which prides itself on being the technology innovator in diagnostics. Therefore I’ve got a strong background in biology and the diagnostic side, which gives me some background that I can transfer over to the technology of conservation and the database challenges.
Mongabay: Is Panthera doing anything with environmental DNA?
Jonathan Ayers: Yes, we are. When a cat poops, we call that scat. We can determine the presence of cats without even capturing the cat just looking at the scat. Some cats are really hard to find, especially the small cats, but you can find their scat.
Mongabay: I want to take a step back and talk about conservation more broadly. Are there gaps that you see in conservation generally? Or put another way, what are some of the things that the conservation sector needs to do better in order to make itself more appealing or more relevant to the general public?
Jonathan Ayers: Clearly species conservation is underfunded. We can measure the impact of conservation. There’s no doubt that species in particular areas are declining, under threat, or, in some cases, have gone extinct. These are measurable. And once these are gone, they’re not coming back. We’ll have a dead planet.
So we have to find ways to live with nature. Nature is important to our existence as humans. And we can maybe solve the climate change problem, but with a dead planet, what do we have? So I believe that species conservation is under-recognized in its importance. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about working on this, not just through Panthera, but more broadly to bring attention to the issue. And we know when we bring attention, people say, “Yeah, that’s important.” And they will allocate some of funding to species conservation.
Cats are really charismatic. Including small cats, they look like a cousin of your house cat. And once they have an appreciation, they are more inclined to protect wild cats in nature.
Mongabay: Why should a family in a place like Ohio care about the future of a tiger in the wild?
Jon Ayers: If you like tigers and maybe the mascot of your local high school sports team is the tiger, wouldn’t it be a shame if tigers didn’t exist in the wild anymore? So I think the importance of maintaining tigers in the wild is important to our very being and our very identity given that we have attached our identity, rightly so, to these amazing creatures.
Mongabay: Cats have charisma, but when it comes to environmental issues, something like climate change feels like it’s easier to place a value on it because you can say “There’s going to be this much economic damage from climate change,” whereas with biodiversity, it’s fuzzier to quantify the value and factor into economic decision making. So given your background in business, do you have ideas on how we may be able to improve the economic argument for wildlife conservation and with the goal of persuading more governments and companies to factor animal well-being into their decision making?
Jonathan Ayers: I am a trained economist and I understand that. I would counter by saying that we have much more tangible measures on our impact when it comes to species conservation than we can have with climate change, and it is just as important. But beyond that, these ecosystems that cats inhabit have tremendous ecosystem services value to the humans that live near them.
The most obvious example is ecotourism. And much of the local economy in parts of Africa is devoted to eco-tourism. It took a hit during Covid, but it will come back.
But there are other reasons why biodiversity is important. When you lose an apex predator or an important piece near the top of the food chain, everything goes out of whack: All of a sudden you may have too many rodents or some other issue that costs money to address. So it’s important that we live in balance with nature.
Then there’s just the psychological gratification of having these charismatic species which are the protectors of these ecosystems. And so by protecting the protectors, we’re protecting ourselves from the loss of these important ecosystem services.
Mongabay: Do you have thoughts on how to scale up philanthropic support for conservation efforts since the sector represents such a small proportion of philanthropic giving these days?
Jonathan Ayers: That’s what I, and the Panthera board, plan to devote attention to. I think there is a tremendous opportunity because conservation of species conservation receives such a tiny amount of total giving to nature conservation, and philanthropy generally. Broadly speaking, I think it’s a matter of bringing attention to the right people, whether they’re private funders or government funders.
I think, in general, we are in a world where people have a greater appreciation for nature and for the importance of our planet. I think we have a growing pie, and that we can grow the pie further by saying, “Hey, biodiversity is important, too, and we know how to conserve it.”
The next constraint is building the talent base. That’s about not just leadership, but people on the ground: Ideally people who are local to these diverse landscapes. In other words, people who are part of local communities. Building that talent base will take time.
Growing things is something I know how to do. I grew the company [IDEXX Labs] many fold over a two decade period. That involved building the funding base and the talent base to deliver tangible results.
Panthera, with a scientific approach, can demonstrate tangible results from these investments and success begets success is what I found. When people say, “Oh, that is really exciting and that’s achieving results, I want to contribute to that.”
I know that’s achievable. And I’m convinced that I will be part of the growing chorus that is singing the importance of that objective.
Mongabay: Environmental issues are often very depressing and a lot of people struggle with the degree of problems facing the world, to the point where some feel traumatized. You’ve had to deal with your own traumatic experience resulting from your tragic accident — and it seems like your ability to rebound could be inspiring to other people. Is there any advice you’d give someone who’s trying to persevere through such a traumatic experience?
Jonathan Ayers: Well, first of all, I think we just have to recognize it’s hard when you have so much taken away from you. It’s hard to readjust and it’s a process. But if you can create and carve out a new life from the remaining assets that you have, which can give you purpose for persevering. And I think that’s really the part process of the transition that goes through when somebody goes through a traumatic health change in their life. And it does not just have to be paralysis from a spinal cord injury: There are many other traumatic health experiences. The point is here that I still have a brain. I didn’t have any brain injury with my accident. I’m not dead. I have my talents. Maybe I can’t do twenty thousand things, but I can do two thousand things, so let’s focus on those two thousand things. One of the things I can do is bring my talents to this important cause, which gives me purpose, along with my family. This is what gives me purpose to work through the health challenges I have with this condition.
Mongabay: What would you say to a person, especially a young person who is concerned or disappointed about the direction of environmental trends like climate and biodiversity loss?
Jonathan Ayers: We can only try. We have to do what we can do.
Yes, these challenges are rather overwhelming but I believe we can change the direction. We have to allocate our resources and our attention to it. And so I think this is where young people can have an impact. I think young people are even more in tune with the importance of the environment. And as they appreciate the importance of biodiversity, they can play an important role.
Mongabay: So would you say that you’re encouraged by the young generations’ level of concern for the environment?
Jonathan Ayers: I am. I’m also encouraged by their love of animals. I mean, it’s already been proven that millennials are much more attached to their pets than the baby boomers were. And baby boomers were pretty attached. And then Generation Z is even more than millennials.
This is why the companion animals space has grown so much in the last 20 years. And it’s not a long step from that to understand the importance of these same animals in the wild.
I do see a growing interest in nature. And I think we’re getting better at it. We’ve learned a lot just in the last 10 or 20 years about conservation. We’re getting better every day. We’re applying technology. We’re applying new camera tracking and new geospatial technologies. We know how to control poaching. We are learning more about these species. And so as we become more productive, that means the investment we put in has a greater impact. So I am very optimistic that we can turn the tide. That’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take decades. But we can turn the tide so that we preserve the remaining biodiversity that we have on this planet.