Helen Freeman, Snow Leopard Conservation Pioneer, Fondly Remembered

Source: ISLT Website

Honoring a Conservation Hero

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of Helen Freeman on September 20th after a long, courageous battle with lung disease. Helen was a remarkable woman, mother, wife, and friend. She was loved dearly and returned that love with all her heart. During her seventy five years she accomplished many things that have made the world a better place.

Born Helen Elaine Maniotas, daughter of Harry and Goldie Maniotas, on March 10, 1932, she grew up as the only child of Greek immigrants in Everett, Washington. Her parents owned and operated the London Café in Everett for over forty years and made her college education a priority. After graduating from Washington State University in 1954, she began dating Stanley Freeman. It was the simple boating trip turned shipwrecked adventure which convinced her to marry this future safety engineer. Thus began a 49 year marriage of enduring love and an endless series of safety debacles. Helen’s life of adventure would take her halfway around the world where she consorted with Maharajas in India, trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, sailed the Yangtze River to Chungking in China, and organized and participated in Snow Leopard Symposia in the Soviet Union, China and India.

Helen and Stan have two sons, Doug and Harry, who carry with them their mom’s love of animals (Doug is a veterinarian) and love of people (Harry is a developmental psychologist). Once Doug and Harry were old enough to go to school she began her career at the Woodland Park Zoo as a volunteer docent and returned to school at the University of Washington to complete a second degree in animal behavior. It was at this time she found the second love of her life, the snow leopard. She spent countless hours studying this elusive cat and ultimately became one of the world’s foremost experts on the behavior of the captive snow leopard. Meanwhile she took a job at the zoo and worked her way up to Curator of Education in the early 1980s. In 1981 she founded the International Snow Leopard Trust. Under her guidance the ISLT pioneered new approaches to snow leopard conservation and its habitat in Asia. Traveling and working in Asia, many times as a lone woman, she earned the respect of local government officials and conservationists across Asia, Europe and the United States. She pioneered innovative conservation practices that placed local peoples at the center of the movement. Helen inspired so many people to help her cause that the Snow Leopard Trust continues to grow stronger and accomplish goals Helen envisioned almost thirty years ago.

During her illustrious career she received many awards and acknowledgments of her achievements. These include the Alumni Achievement Award from Washington State University in 1990, Acknowledgment of Appreciation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997, the prestigious Evergreen Award in 1998 “In Recognition of Worldwide Partnerships in Wildlife Conservation and Understanding”, and also a medal of honor from the Woodland Park Zoological Society for conservation and education.

Helen was a force of love and indefatigable determination. She lived with a chronic and degenerative lung condition for thirty years. During this time she founded an international conservation movement, published a collection of memoirs, read veraciously and always, till her last breath, challenged us to be true to ourselves. All this and she knew how to laugh at life and find the absurd in her daily struggles. For instance, she might reply, after briefly recovering from a particularly lengthy bought of coughing, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play.” She thrived on discussion and would probe, question, and challenge us to look deeper into what is essential and meaningful in our lives and follow our hearts. Some might say that in the end she lost her battle with her illness, but they would be mistaken. She managed her disease, not the other way around. It did not diminish her but strengthened her resolve and, as with business and family, she negotiated and compromised, but in the end, it was her call.

Helen is survived by her husband Stanley, their son Doug and his wife Julie, and their children Madison and Mallory; their son Harry and his wife Grace, and their three children, Elena, Harrison, and Willa. Although her lung condition did not slow her enthusiasm and involvement in her grandchildren’s lives, they did slow her scooter with various grandkids hanging off the handlebars as she motored along forest trails. Now we will carry Helen with us along our own trails and look to her for guidance along the way.

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