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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game