Helen Freeman

Conservationist who worked to save the snow leopard


Helen Elaine Maniotas, conservationist: born Everett, Washington 10 March 1932; Founder, Snow Leopard Trust 1981, Director 1982-96; married 1958 Stanley Freeman (two sons); died Bellevue, Washington 20 September 2007.

Helen Freeman has been called "the Jane Goodall of snow leopards". Optimistic and determined to succeed, she single-handedly set up the Snow Leopard Trust, an international conservation body dedicated to saving one of the world's most beautiful and charismatic animals, the snow leopard of central Asia. The trust, which now employs local staff in China, India, Mongolia, Pakistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, is based on an ethic of co-operation that was way ahead of its time when it started. Freeman also helped set up a self-sustaining breeding programme of captive snow leopards.

She was born Helen Maniotas, the only child of Greek immigrants who settled in Everett in Washington state where they ran the London Café. Her parents ensured that their bright daughter received a college education: she went to Washington State University, where she graduated in 1954 with a degree in business administration.

From her school days on, Freeman spent her spare time working as a volunteer at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. She became so fascinated with the animals that, once her children were in school, she returned to university – to the University of Washington, at Seattle – to study zoology, receiving a second degree, in animal behaviour, in 1973. This enabled her to join the staff of the zoo, where she was eventually appointed curator of education in the early 1980s.

The turning point in Freeman's life came with the arrival at the zoo, in 1972, of a pair of rare snow leopards from the Soviet Union, named Nicholas and Alexandra. She described the moment as "love at first sight". By watching them for hours at a time, she became expert in interpreting the animals' behaviour. "The more I learned, the more I saw them, the more interesting they were to me," she recalled.

Her expertise helped the zoo to design a programme that overcame the usual reluctance of snow leopards to breed in captivity. Over the years, Nicholas and Alexandra have produced 29 cubs. For five years from 1982, Freeman chaired the snow leopard "Species Survival Plan".

However, the snow leopard faces great pressures in the wild. There are thought to be between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals, scattered in remote, mountainous regions in central Asia. Adult animals stand about two feet high and weigh between 60 and 120 pounds. They are rarely seen by outsiders, but are hunted for their thick fur, and because they are seen as a threat to livestock.

In 1981, Freeman set up a foundation to help her favourite animal: the Snow Leopard Trust. Her credo was straightforward: "I think it's important that we preserve diversity," she said. "I don't think every animal we look at should be domesticated. We evolved to share with every other creature on this planet." However, she was ahead of her time in placing the emphasis on helping people to improve their standard of living in exchange for protecting the leopards and their rugged environment. From the start, the trust sought to make links with local officials and communities in central Asia, establishing partnerships and co-operative ventures, and working out ways for people and snow leopards to co-exist peacefully.

As the trust's first director, Freeman travelled, sometimes alone, to most of the countries where snow leopards are found. Using all her native persistence and charm to drum up support, she consorted with Maharajahs in India, trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, sailed the Yangtze River to Chungking in China, and helped to organise, and participate in, symposia on the snow leopard in China, India and the Soviet Union. She was also a tireless lobbyist of potential US supporters. She retired as director of the trust in 1996, but remained an active board member.

Among Freeman's awards were the Alumni Achievement Award from Washington State University and a medal of honour from the Woodland Park Zoological Society. She also won the 1998 Evergreen Award from the US government's wildlife service "in recognition of worldwide partnerships in wildlife conservation and understanding".

Freeman's achievements were the more remarkable because, for 30 years, she lived with a chronic and degenerative lung condition. A sense of humour helped. Recovering from a lengthy bout of coughing, she might say, "Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Others remember her driving along forest trails on her motorised scooter with "various grandchildren hanging off the handlebars".

She met her future husband, Stanley Freeman, on a boating trip which turned into a shipwreck adventure. They were married in 1958, and had two sons, Doug, who is now a vet, and Harry, who became a developmental psychologist. Freeman enjoyed a happy private life with five grandchildren and an assortment of pets, including a 90lb basset hound. Something of her indomitable spirit spills over in her memoir, Life, Laughter & the Pursuit of Snow Leopards (2005).

Peter Marren

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee