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
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat