Mongabay Features

Interview with Jonathan Ayers

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.

Tiger in Nepal. Photo credit: DNPWC/NTNC/Panthera/WWF/ZSL
Tiger in Nepal. Big cats have received the lion’s share of conservation funding that goes to wild cats. Photo credit: DNPWC/NTNC/Panthera/WWF/ZSL

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.

Jon Ayers, Photo credit: Hejung Kim
Jon Ayers, Photo credit: Hejung Kim

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.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.