Finding a new purpose: Jonathan Ayers donates 20 million to protect wild cats

A group of lions with cubs walking on green grass
A group of lions in Namibia; Image: Paul Funston

After a spinal cord injury, successful businessman and previous IDEXX CEO Jonathan Ayers has found a new purpose in protecting wild cats. Ayers recently teamed up with Panthera, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing innovative strategies to save the world’s wild cat population, and donated $20 million for wild cat conservation measures. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm spoke with Jonathan Ayers and Thomas S. Kaplan, Panthera’s founder, about their shared passion for wild cat preservation and their future plans. 

Jonathan Ayers, a man with a blue shirt and shorts sits in a wheelchair in front of a house with a pool
Jonathan Ayers at his home in Florida; Image: Hejung Kim

Creating a multi-million dollar company

“I am a son, a husband, a dad, and I am a highly capable leader. I was running IDEXX but am retired now,” Jonathan Ayers says about himself. He has always been a smart businessman. Since joining IDEXX in 2002, it grew in annual revenue from $380 million to $2.4 billion, with a 40-fold increase in share price. Under his leadership, the veterinary diagnostic company became ‘one of the hottest stocks in the market,’ according to Mad Money’s host Jim Cramer, where Ayers had one of his last public appearances shortly before acquiring his disability. 

Becoming a person with a disability

In 2019, Ayers had a bike accident that severely injured his spinal cord, leading to paralysis. Acquiring a disability after having lived a very active and athletic life was quite a change for him. “I was the CEO of a rapidly growing company. I was working 60 or 70 hours a week, and you always think about your job. There are millions of demands and more things than you could possibly do. And I was a dedicated amateur athlete and spent between 8 and 14 hours a week working out. I was in top physical condition, which helped me to deal with all the stresses of life,” Ayers explains life before his injury. 

Recovering from spinal cord injury

Over the last year, he has been focusing on his health and rehabilitation, which doesn’t leave much time for anything else. “What I learned is I have to do therapy. I am doing it 30 hours a week, which is a significant part-time job. Only if I do my therapy I will feel better and improve function. I have had some core strength come back, as well as some arm and shoulder strength. You know if you work at it, you will progress. So where I am today is different from where I was a year ago or even only three months ago,” Ayers explains. His spinal cord wasn’t fully severed, leaving some room to regain function – how much, his doctors don’t know, but he is determined, just like he is in any other area of his life. 

Jonathan Ayers speaks out for the first time

Once he had worked through the acute phase of his injury, Ayers felt ready to open up about his new life as a person with a disability. “I think people don’t really understand disability in general because it is such a broad category of things, and all disabilities are different. When we talk about the subcategory of paralysis from spinal cord injury and all the challenges, I need to do a lot of educating because sometimes people don’t know how to react, and they feel embarrassed because they don’t know how to react,” Ayers explains his motivation to speak out about his disability. He wants people to learn more about the unique circumstances of every person living with a spinal cord injury. 

Ayers remembers one specific event where the people around him didn’t quite understand his disability. “I had a business meeting after I was injured, and it was in a conference room in a hotel. During the break, all people left, and they closed the door behind them, but I couldn’t open the door. They wanted to keep their valuables safe, and they weren’t thinking, so I had to wait until one came back because people just don’t know.”

Finding a new purpose after the accident

Adapting to different life circumstances after becoming chronically ill or acquiring a disability is often described as going through a grieving process with various steps leading to acceptance in the end. “The one thing that’s important to understand about spinal cord injuries is that when you are injured, you go through a physical shock phase, which takes time to work through – about three months – and then after that, you start adapting to the condition, which can take years,” Ayers says. “Adapting to a new life is a three-phase process. The first one is letting go. Obviously, when you have an abrupt injury, it’s a sudden change, so you have to let go a lot. I would say I am mostly through the letting-go-phase. Then there is something called the messy middle. When one door closes, another opens, but it gets messy in the hallway. I am somewhere in the middle.” 

In 2019, Ayers stepped down as the CEO of IDEXX to focus on his health and create a new life that’s better suited for his ever-changing disability. “It took a couple of months to figure out I couldn’t go back to my job. It wasn’t immediately clear. I thought, ‘OK, I just do a few months of therapy, and then I will be back in my job.’ But I couldn’t, and it left a void. I started to ask myself, ‘Why did this happen? What’s my purpose?’ And the answer was to focus on wild cats, and that gave me a lot of mental strength,” Ayers explains. 

Naturally, he used his leadership nature and business skills and fully immersed himself in his new project: Protecting the wild cat population around the globe together with Panthera. 

What is Panthera?

Panthera is a non-profit organization dedicated to ‘ensuring a future for wild cats and the vast landscapes on which they depend.’ Thomas S. Kaplan, PhD, founded the organization with his wife Daphne and with who he calls ‘the closest to a genetic brother,’ Alan Rabinowitz, in 2006. “Panthera was created in order to provide a comprehensive answer to all of the challenges facing the conservation of wild cats,” Kaplan says. And Panthera is the only global organization that solely focuses on wild cat conservation. “The importance of this focus is that cats are within their landscapes the umbrella species under which all the other flora and fauna can be protected. By definition, because cats require a lot of land and food, if an ecosystem can support the cats, it means the ecosystem is thriving. Therefore, when you save the big cats, the apex predator, you have the opportunity to save the entire landscape.” What he means by that is that when we are saving the jaguar, for example, we are also saving 800 species of birds.

Thomas S Kaplan, a man with curly brown hair sits in a boat on a river. The golden hour sun shines in his face. He is holding a huge camera in his hands.
Thomas S Kaplan in Brazil; Image: Steve Winter

Who is Thomas S. Kaplan?

Thomas S. Kaplan and Jonathan Ayers have a lot in common. They both are incredibly passionate about protecting wild cats in their natural environment, and it’s this passion that drives them. Kaplan is also a successful businessman who has been investing in natural resources for 30 years. “I turned out to be a pretty good businessman because I knew what I didn’t know, and I surrounded myself with brilliant people. That’s the key,” Kaplan says. Kaplan lives with his wife and three children in New York and Paris. Besides his work for Panthera, his second passion is art. “I have been known to collect a painting or two,” he is being very modest, considering Kaplan is known to have the largest private collection of Rembrandt paintings in the world. 

Kaplan co-founded Panthera because he felt it was a crime to do nothing while wild cats are facing extinction. “When I fight, I am all in. Unfortunately, the amount of philanthropy that is given to the environment is maybe one or two percent. That’s for the entire environment! If you then look at wildlife conservation, it’s maybe 10 percent of that. When you look at the big cats, it is maybe 10 percent of that.” According to Kaplan, people in his kind of business – if they understand what they are up against – are either a bit delusional or wildly passionate about their cause. “I am a little bit of both,” he says. “But I do believe that it is helpful to be willing to say, ‘I am not going to give up,’ even when people tell you that you can’t win. Jon Ayers is built the same way. He is wildly passionate and brilliant!”

When two strong leaders team up

In 2017, Ayers’ relationship with Panthera began. “I have always liked cats. IDEXX was in the animal health business. So my love of cats has also been integrated with my role as CEO. And I love nature and value the biodiversity. So I put two and two together,” Ayers says. After receiving a book about wild cats, he developed a strong passion for the small wild cats in particular and, as a consequence, created the small cat program with Panthera in 2019. “I always said that the person that comes and becomes my partner in this would arrive on a white horse. And Jon arrived in a wheelchair. But in no way does that impair the impact he has. He decided to reboot himself and give himself completely to this cause,” Kaplan adds. 

$20 million for wild cat preservation

When Ayers is asked why he decided to donate such a large sum to Panthera, he simply states, “Because I had it to give.” He continues, “Most of your life, you are working really hard, and if you are in the right business, and you are financially responsible, you are making more than you can spend. Now, you accumulated it, and you ask yourself, ‘To what purpose did you have the fortune to accumulate this wealth?’ And I think that’s part of the answer: My purpose was to support nature.”

However, he knows that donating is about more than just giving away money. “It’s about giving it away responsibly. And that’s a skill that requires some development,” Ayers explains. 

Where does the money go?

“I am going to Acapulco,” Kaplan sings. “I have a gambling addiction you might want to know about.” He jokes. “No, in all seriousness, we have a plan laid out. Over the next five years, we aim to be able to have 50 percent of the scientific work done for all the small cats. We plan to have at least one-third of scientific programs established for the small cats species with the aim that within five years we change the trajectory of those species’ arc.” Ayers donation will specifically be used to preserve the small wild cats around the globe, including the clouded leopard, ocelot and black-footed cat, among 30 other small and little known wild cat species. 

“You never know from where greatness will come. Jonathan has the ability to be the biggest game-changer in wild cat conservation. Being able to work with people like that and knowing that because of them, species that might otherwise become extinct in our lifetime are going to continue to exist–there is no greater psychic gratification than that,” Kaplan says about the generous donation.

Panthera’s successes

One of Panthera’s success stories Kaplan is very proud of, and what he calls ‘applied science,’ is their Furs for Life project, which was created to protect the leopard. “We knew that the leopard population in southern Africa was diminishing, but we didn’t know why. So we followed the trail back to a religious group [the Nazareth Baptist Church eBuhleni, commonly known as the Shembe Church] that had changed their rules, and instead of only the leaders being allowed to wear leopard, they opened it up to everybody. We proved to them what was going on, and we said, ‘Would you mind if we give your people faux fur?’,”  Kaplan explains. According to Panthera, only fewer than 5000 leopards still exist in South Africa and it is estimated that 800 of those are killed each year for their fur. So every saved leopard is a significant success. “We showed [the religious group] what our synthetic fur looked like, and they agreed. We literally saved thousands of leopards that would have been hunted by giving them faux fur. We designed it; we had it manufactured; we had it shipped in.” Since the project was started in 2013, the use of real leopard fur has decreased by 50 percent. 

Future vision

For Thomas S. Kaplan and Jonathan Ayers, nothing is stopping them; there is no final goal or success. They will continue their work until they can’t anymore. When Kaplan is asked where he wants his organization to be in a far-away future, he says, “I hope to achieve that the organization will be so strong, so well funded, so held on a pedestal as the gold standard of wildlife conservation, and the proof of that would be that people would barely remember my name.” With the support of wildly passionate partners, to put it in Kaplan’s words, like Jonathan Ayers, this vision might come true rather sooner than later. 

By Karina U. Sturm

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