As a quadriplegic, Jon Ayers cannot move his limbs, but his voice is full of excitement. His eyes dart around his office, projecting the illusion of a rainforest that fills his imagination with such enthusiasm that trees and vines will soon appear in the corners of my office.
Margay, Gab 2212, CC License / Jonathan Ayers Florida home, Hejung Kim
Jon describes a Margay, a tree-dwelling wildcat from Central and South America, and the only species that can climb a tree head first – a trait he likes the four-kilogram cat above all others.
The margay is just one of more than 30 different small wildcat species, many of which are little known – they become invisible in the great shadow of big cats like lions and tigers.
But unwilling to see some of the most charismatic animals evolution ever spawned silently go into the night, Jon is investing a personal fortune of $ 20 million to reverse declining trends in wildcat populations around the world.
Ayers is a Panthera person, a felide person and the former CEO of one of the world’s most successful veterinary diagnostics companies: ITEXX Laboratories. He headed the company for 17 years in order to noticeably advance the standard of veterinary medical care.
Under his leadership from 2002 to 2017, ITEXX’s annual revenue rose from $ 380 million to $ 2.4 billion, while its share price rose more than 40-fold. Jim Cramer of NBC’s Mad Money called ITEXX “one of the hottest stocks out there” in an interview with Jon in May 2019.
Shortly after this performance, a bicycle accident tragically ended the use of his limbs, only his helmet keeping him from dying. He is stepping down from leading ITEXX to focus on his health and recovery. For the first time since his accident, he is speaking to the public again, eager to share the details of his new adventure – a leadership and funding position with one of the most effective conservation organizations in the world: Panthera.
“What is the plan?”
Ocelot / Tom Smylie, CC license
“When you have a catastrophic accident, you face a number of challenges,” Jon Ayers tells GNN. Jon, who has taken on a proximal role in protecting wild cats through several foundations he started with his wife Helaine in 2018, sees it as a form of mental therapy.
Her organization – The Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust – worked with Panthera, a conservation company that focuses on getting the job done rather than producing the most detailed 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 the other great spotted cat have resulted in conservation successes as good as anything done today.
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“It’s not easy to go through this, and most people don’t do it very well,” says Jon. “Not that I’m perfect, but being able to work on something like this is the greatest gift for me … because it helps me through a transition in my life and because it gives me meaning.”
“I mean, I’ve lost so much. There are a lot of things I can’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 alike. My recovery has been much slower, even though I’ve worked hard on my recovery and made great strides, but then you ask yourself, “Well what’s my purpose?” And I realized that my goal is to help protect wild cats, ”says Jon.
His trust added a few thousand to Panthera here or there as they were one of the few conservation missions that really knew what was needed to create a brighter future for 33 different species of small wild cats, which in total receive around 1% of the total Cat protection efforts. In addition to his massive monetary contribution, Jon also held a board position.
“It was something I started with, it was something I fortunately have the financial means to do, but I also have the mental faculties and I just think that God spoke to me and said, ‘This is the plan. ‘”
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In Jon, Panthera’s founder and savage insane Dr. Thomas Kaplan felt like “having found someone who wakes up in the morning and says:” What can I do to turn the story a little bit? “
“Jon is from the central casting,” Kaplan told GNN. “I’ve really been waiting for someone with Jon’s talents, passion and dedication to come into the story.”
Invisible there except for the shadows
Leopardus tigrinus / Groumfy69, CC license
When I met up with Jon and Dr. Kaplan put on zoom, this had already turned his background into a photo of cheetahs lounging on the African savanah, mixing their fiery orange hair with the grass in the picture and adding a Bob Ross-like glow to his character.
“The advent of Jon coming into the picture … really is a game changer for protecting little cats,” Kaplan said. “I think it’s probably fair to say that no one is doing anything and no one has done more to save the 33 species of little cats than Jon and his family.”
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“We prioritize the cat species and do so according to a certain matrix so that we know where to start first. We will of course give priority to those who are least aware of the ecology, ”he explains. “[What is] the rarity? Do they overlap with other small or large cats in their landscapes so that we can use and utilize existing programs and scientific know-how? How susceptible are they to extinction, how widespread are the threats? “
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He explains that the overall mission is “very ambitious”. They hope that by 2025 they will more or less fill in the ecology and come up with protection plans for 50% of all small cat species. Panthera aims to be 100% by 2030, but the first injection of Jon’s capital will work immediately, prioritizing 11 species of cats in Asia, America and Africa. Especially in Asia, where islands like Borneo and Sumatra can contain four or five small species of cats, like the cloudy Sunda leopard, Borneo bay cat, flat fishing cat, and marbled cat.
“Our goal is to be able to have observable and measurable effects within five years of starting a program in order to save this landscape for these cats,” says Kaplan. “The US government was basically saying, ‘If Panthera can’t save the big cats, no one can.’ We are known for that. “
As our discussions progressed, Kaplan zealously spices up the ambitious rhetoric of the names of cats you probably have never heard of, and for some of them the only entry in the scientific record is an affirmation that they do indeed exist.
“We are working on a variety of species across America, from the first wildcat I ever saw the bobcat, but also further south to ocelots, margays, jaguarondis, oncillas and Geoffroy’s cats.”
“Ultimately, we’re not academic in the sense that we’re doing this to prove a point. For us, it’s all about applied science. What Jon really enables us is to fight the full arc of the little cat’s trajectory and be able to do it all at once. “
Made a match in heaven
“I think what is unique? [and what] I was really drawn to Panthera, they had an emphasis on conservation. So it was cats and nothing else, and I’m a cat person. I’ve always loved cats, ”says Jon.
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“Panthera had a focus [and] wanted to grow. Now I don’t know that much about conservation, but I am ready to learn and have learned a lot. But I know how to grow things, and it seemed like those skills could be applied to a different type of organization. “
Jon is confident that there is more than just money he can do to help save small cat species around the world. He has had nearly 20 years of business acumen, with almost every move he took to drive up the value of the services, the veterinary field, and the shareholder stake.
“We support people who work with other small cats through the Small Cat Action Program.
“Our goal here is to increase the impact of Panthera on ecosystems that cats support around the world. This requires some leadership, a cornering view, and some disciplines that may not traditionally have been an important part of conservation organizations like financial management. “
Big cats are often protected – tigers, for example – using strategies to conserve apex predators or umbrella species.
“Small cats can also be at the top of the food chain. You can’t just preserve the cat without preserving the “feline landscape,” which of course means that the entire ecosystem must be supported. So we have a much broader impact on conservation through cats, ”says Jon.
What’s your favorite little wildcat?
“It’s like being asked what my favorite child is!” Jon answered me and made all three of us laugh. He would answer that it was the tree-loving Margay.
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“They are like monkeys. They can climb trees, they can climb grapevines upside down, and they can climb trees upside down. How can they climb trees head first? Because they have evolved over time to turn their paws in the opposite direction. “
“As an entrepreneur, I have a special affinity for the black-footed cat,” explains Kaplan. “It’s Africa’s smallest wildcat, but if you consider it a fighter pilot, it has a 60% success rate when it comes to hunting.”
Among all of what you hear about biodiversity these days, little cats just don’t get a lot of attention. But if philanthropists start donating to protect small cats in the future, it will be a direct result of the association that was just formed in Panthera – a match made in heaven, it seems – like Jon who almost has lost all of his nine lives, reflects on his terrible injury and reminds me, “God always has a plan.”
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