Saturday, May 15, 2010
It was on a sunny spring morning in 2007 at the National Zoo that I met Devra for the first (and last) time. I felt so honored when she let me go with her into the newly constructed enclosure of a family group of golden lion tamarins. They are, of course, exquisite. Like jewels, improbable. And as I watched them, leaping easily from branch to branch, I felt a rush of gratitude to Devra for all the hard work and sheer determination that had prevented these glorious little beings from joining the dodo, and a growing number of other creatures, on the list of extinct species. Now as I write this, in my home in faraway Bournemouth, I think back to that April day when Devra introduced me to that little family. I remember how the adult male approached Devra, paused, then reached out to take a piece of fruit. It was, for me, a magical moment, symbolizing the trust of a very small primate for the woman who has worked so passionately to prevent his enchanting species from vanishing forever from Planet Earth.
During our discussion afterwards Devra recalled, with a smile, some advice she was given at the start of her work: “Don’t get involved with tamarins. They are going extinct – it will be bad for your career.” It was fortunate for all of us, especially the golden lion tamarins, that she chose to ignore that advice and take the path her heart dictated.
Her untimely death is shocking, and I was incredibly saddened when I heard the news. Conservation has lost a real giant and her family and friends have lost a warm, dynamic and courageous human being. But her legacy lives on deep in the Brazilian rain forest and the mysterious stands of bamboo in the mountains of China. She will not be forgotten.
Jane Goodall Ph.D., DBE
Founder – the Jane Goodall Institute &
UN Messenger of Peace
I first met Devra in 1997 at my first meeting of the International Committee for the Conservation and Management of the Lion Tamarins in Brazil. I had just taken on the international studbook for the Golden-headed Lion Tamarin. Being still very green in the world of conservation, I remember well during that first meeting being in complete awe of the sheer force of nature that was Devra. Her tremendous energy, drive and dedication, combined with great skill and insight into both the theory and practice of conservation biology, and with much warmth and understanding for the people involved, were awe inspiring.
I had the privilege to get know Devra better over the years as we met at least once per year in Brazil. What I will always remember about Devra is that she never did anything in halves, whatever she did, she gave it 200%: laugh, eat sushi, generate urgent pragmatic conservation action without cutting corners on the science, show true interest in what went on in the personal lives of friends and colleagues, get a room of people to cut to the chase and formulate a conclusion after hours of discussion, meaningfully socialize with absolutely everybody in any room in any place on the planet, and much more. I will dearly miss Devra, not only as a conservation professional that we can only aspire too, but also as a truly, one of a kind, gem of a person. My warmest thoughts go out to Devra’s family and friends for who this loss must run so deep. I hope that in time you can find some comfort in the knowledge that Devra lives on in the lives of the hundreds of people that she touched personally and professionally.
In 1996, while living in San Diego, CA I came to meet Don Lindberg of the San Diego Zoo (one of the big panda experts). I was after a job at the Wild Animal Park - and was getting nowhere. Don recommended I intercept someone visiting from the Smithsonian's National Zoo who was going to be in town briefly. Good thing he corrected my calling her “Deborah” before she showed up. And there was the energetic Dr. Devra Kleiman - full of questions and eager to help. She may have been sporting her famous triangle earrings and matching animal eyeglass holders – but can’t recall. She was the first person I had ever met representing Smithsonian or its National Zoo. She returned to DC and two months later I got the call. Smithsonian... called me!??
Devra had stirred up an opportunity with the Golden Lion Tamarin Project, and with only two phone interviews and no guarantee, I literally packed up my car that night and drove across country to seal the deal. A week later in DC - and virtually penniless, I came to find the program director had moved to Brazil permanently and the position had dissolved. I was crushed, but I accepted that risk and spent the next 4 months (every day) combing the National Zoo. Through Devra's continued advice, I eventually met the crew at the extraordinary Amazonia Science Gallery, settling into my new life and job in DC. It's incredible what one person, rather unknowingly, can do to alter the direction of your life. I'm convinced had I not met Devra on that beautiful sunny day at the San Diego Zoo, I would not be in DC or have these years of experience with the Smithsonian Institution. I might otherwise be cleaning up after condors.
I enjoyed knowing Devra in the Department of Zoological Research building of the National Zoo. She was a delight during lunchtime – toting about her gigantic salad bowl. And you always knew when Devra was in the building, because she would invariably let out one of her charismatic cackles that would quickly travel down the hallways. What a great sense of humor she had – and anyone with a big brain who can laugh like that – that’s good people.
Thank you, Devra. Little did you know - but it was a meeting with you in under an hour that changed my life. May you rest in peace - and enjoy knowing how many people you really touched in this world.