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Millionaire Quadriplegic Jon Ayers is Giving it All to Save Wildcats, Finding New Purpose

As a quadriplegic, Jon Ayers can’t move his limbs, but his voice is full of emotion. His eyes roam his office, projecting the illusion of a rainforest that is filling his imagination with such enthusiasm that trees and vines are soon beginning to appear in the corners of my office as well.

Margay, Gab 2212, CC license / Jonathan Ayers at his Florida home, Hejung Kim

Jon is describing to me a margay, a tree-dwelling species of Central and South America, and the only species that can come down from a tree head-first, a trait that makes him love the 4-kilogram cat. above all others.

The margay It is just one of more than 30 different species of small wildcats, many of which are little known and go unnoticed under the great shadow of big cats like lions and tigers.

But Jon isn’t about to see some of the most charismatic animals evolution has ever produced quietly go into the night, and he’s investing a personal fortune of $ 20 million in an effort to reverse downtrends in populations of wildcats around the world.

Ayers is a panthera person, one felid person, as well as the ex-CEO of one of the most successful veterinary diagnostic companies in the world: ITEXX Laboratories. For 17 years, he led the company to appreciably promote the veterinary medicine standard of care.

Under his leadership from 2002 to 2017, ITEXX’s annual revenue went from $ 380 million to $ 2.4 billion, while its share price enjoyed a more than 40-fold increase. Jim Cramer from NBC Bad money called ITEXX “one of the most popular stocks on the market,” in a interview in the studio with Jon in May 2019.

Shortly after this appearance, a cycling accident tragically ended the use of his limbs, and only his helmet prevented him from passing away. Leaving the leadership of ITEXX to focus on his health and recovery, he is speaking with the public again for the first time since his accident and is eager to share the details of his new adventure: a leadership and funding position in one of the conservation organizations. most effective in the world: Panthera.

“What’s the plan?”

Ocelot / Tom Smylie, CC license

“When you go through a catastrophic accident, you face a number of challenges,” explains Jon Ayers to GNN. Jon, who had taken an upcoming role in wildcat conservation through several foundations, one of which started with his wife Helaine in 2018, sees it as a kind of mental therapy.

His organization, Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust, worked together with Panthera, a conservation team with a focus on getting the job done, rather than creating the most detailed body of scientific research. From Panthera work with jaguars, preserving their migration corridors from Argentina to New Mexico, or the Furs for Life and Arabian Leopard Initiatives for the other great spotted cat, they have produced conservation hits that are as good as anything ever made today.

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“It’s not easy going through something like this and most people don’t do it very well,” says Jon. “It’s not that it’s perfect, but being able to work on something like this is the greatest gift to me … because it helps me through a transition in my life and because it gives me purpose.”

“I mean I lost a lot. There are a lot of things I can’t do anymore, really basic things like brushing my teeth and cutting my nails … “

“The thing about spinal cord injuries is that no two are the same. My recovery has been much slower, although I have worked hard on my recovery and made a lot of progress, but then you ask yourself, ‘well what is my purpose?’ And I realized that my purpose is to support the conservation of wildcats, ”says Jon.

Their trust contributed a few thousand here or there to Panthera, as they were one of the only conservation missions that were truly aware of what it took to begin creating a brighter future for some 33 different species of small wildcats that in total they receive about 1%. of total cat conservation efforts. Along with his huge cash contribution, Jon also served on the board.

“It was something that I was beginning to do, it was something for which I have, very fortunately, the financial resources, but I also have the mental capacity and I believe that God spoke to me and said: ‘this is the plan’. “

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In Jon, Dr. Thomas Kaplan, founder of Panthera and Crazy Brain, feels he has found “someone who wakes up in the morning and says ‘what can I do to turn the story around a little bit?’

“Jon is out of the core cast,” Kaplan said. GNN. “I was really hoping that someone with Jon’s talent, passion and dedication would make history.”

There except for the invisible shadows

Leopardus tigrinus / Groumfy69, CC license

When I sat down with Jon and Dr. Kaplan at Zoom, the latter had already made his background a photograph of cheetahs lounging in the African Savanah, blending their fiery orange hair with the grass in the picture, and rendering a Bob Ross style. glow to your character.

“Jon’s arrival on the scene … really is a game changer for small cat conservation,” Kaplan said. “I think it’s probably fair to say that no one is doing and no one will have done more to save the 33 species of small cats than Jon and his family.”

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“We are prioritizing cat species and we are doing it according to a certain matrix, to allow us to know where to start first. Obviously we are going to give priority to those where the ecology is less known ”, he explains. “[What is] the rarity? Do they overlap with other small or large felines within their landscapes so that we can tap into and take advantage of existing scientific knowledge and programming? How vulnerable are they to extinction, how widespread are the threats? “

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It details that the general mission is “very ambitious.” They hope that by 2025, they will have more or less complete ecology and will have developed protection plans for 50% of all species of small cats. By 2030, Panthera wants to be 100%, but Jon’s initial capital injection will go live immediately, prioritizing 11 species of cats in Asia, America and Africa. Especially Asia, where islands like Borneo and Sumatra can contain four or five species of small cats, such as the Clouded leopard, Borneo bay cat, the flat-headed cat, who goes fishing, and the marbled cat.

“Our goal is that when we start a program, we want to be able to have an observable and measurable impact in five years to be able to save that landscape for those cats,” says Kaplan. “The US government basically said, ‘If Panthera can’t save the big cats, no one can.’ It’s what we’re known for. “

In the course of our discussions, Kaplan enthusiastically peppers ambitious rhetoric with the names of cats you’ve probably never heard of before, and for some of which, the only entry in the scientific record is a confirmation that, yes. They, in fact, exist.

“Throughout the American continent we are working on a variety of species ranging from the first wildcat I saw: the lynx, but they also extend further south to ocelotsmargays jaguarondis, oncilla, Geoffroy’s cat. “

“At the end of the day, we are not academic in the sense that we are doing this to prove a point; for us it is applied science. What Jon is allowing us to do is really fight the battle throughout the entire arc of the little cat’s trajectory and be able to do everything simultaneously. “

A match made in heaven

“I think what is unique [and what] It really attracted me to Panthera, they had a dedicated approach to species conservation. So they were cats and nothing else, and I am 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 much about conservation, but I am willing to learn and have learned a lot. But I know how to grow things, so it seemed like those skills could be applied to a different kind of organization. “

Jon is confident that he can contribute more than money to efforts to save small cat species around the world. He has nearly 20 years of business acumen, during which nearly every action he took raised the value of services, the veterinary field, and shareholder participation.

“In fact, we are supporting people who work with other small cats through the Action program for small cats.

“Our goal here is to grow Panthera’s impact on ecosystems around the world that support cats, and that requires some leadership, you need to see around the corner, you need some disciplines that maybe not traditionally. an important part of conservation organizations, things like financial management. “

Big cats often protect themselves (eg, tigers) by utilizing predator or umbrella species conservation strategies.

“Even small cats can be at the top of the food chain. You can’t just keep the cat without conserving the ‘cat landscape’, which means, of course, that the entire ecosystem must be supported. So through cats, we have a much broader impact on conserving nature, ”says Jon.

What is your favorite little wildcat?

“It’s like wondering what my favorite son is!” Jon answered me, eliciting laughter from all three. He would reply that he was the tree-loving margay.

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“They are like monkeys. They can climb trees, they can climb vines upside down, and they can come down from trees headfirst. How can you get down from the trees head first? Because they have evolved over time to rotate their legs to go in the opposite direction. “

“As an entrepreneur, I have a special affinity for the black-footed cat,” explains Kaplan. “He is the smallest wildcat in Africa, but if you consider him a fighter pilot, he has a 60% success rate when he goes hunting.”

Among all the things one hears about biodiversity these days, little cats just don’t get a lot of attention. But if philanthropists in the future start donating to the conservation of small cats, it will be a direct consequence of the union that was just made in Panthera, a union made in heaven apparently, like Jon, who almost lost his nine lives. , reflects. about his horrible wound and reminds me that “God always has a plan.”

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