Patricia Nell Warren

Reg Riedel -- Pioneering Wildlife Worker

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 27, 2008 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: Costa Rica, IPEAT, Reg Riedel

Conservation work, especially with animals, may reg.JPGlook glamorous in TV and movies, but it's hard on those who commit to it. There is the 24/7 grind of animal care, the struggle to find funding, and the terrible heartbreak when things go wrong. Many achieve miracles with pennies and a handful of dedicated volunteers. One of those lonely achievers was Reg Riedel, who helped to pioneer innovative captive-breeding techniques aimed at returning threatened species to the wild. Reg was also a dear friend of mine.

Riedel's wildlife career had an improbable start -- he was a dancer. German by birth, he performed with European companies, notably the Paris Opera Ballet. Teutonically tall, handsome, blond, athletic and statuesque, with a flair for the dramatic, Reg was a natural for the stage. But interest in wildlife ran deep in his family -- his brother Joachim was a gamekeeper.

Around 1970, while touring Brazil with a dance company, Reg happened to visit a shop where he saw a cage containing two miserable-looking spotted kittens that resembled tiny ocelots. The owner said that Indians had brought them in. He insisted he'd cared for them well, with raw steak. But Reg could see they were not doing well -- glassy-eyed, no energy, with frail rickety bones. For $20, he persuaded the man to give them up.

Back at his hotel, his logical German mind went to work, and he realized that calcium deficiency was slowly killing those kittens. Muscle meat has little calcium. If they were with their mother, they'd eat every bit of a small bird or rodent, including the raw bone, which would provide them with the calcium needed for a healthy frame. So he got mice from a pet store, and coaxed the kittens to eat. At first it was touch and go. But finally they were thriving.

Getting the necessary permits, Reg took the kittens home to Paris, where they grew up in his apartment. Talking to Joachim and European experts, he learned that Daphne and Rio (as he'd named them) were not ocelots. An endangered species called the tigrina, they were another native of the rain forests of South and Central America. Tigrinas were notorious among zookeepers as shy, nervous, super-sensitive creatures that didn't do well in zoos and refused to breed there. Around the world, two dozen tigrinas were known to exist with zoos and private owners. Nobody knew how many were left in the wild -- like ocelots and other spotted cats, they'd been hunted heavily for their fur.

Reg was hooked, and decided to try breeding tigrinas himself.

Dramatic Career Changes

cat.JPGComing out had never been a crisis for Reg. He enjoyed his family's acceptance. As a complete pagan, he was never tortured by religious guilts. Even in his profession, being gay was not a problem. Right now, the crisis was economic. To do wildlife work, he'd need more money than he was making.

"I loved the ballet," Reg explained to me later, "but there wasn't much money in it unless you were a big star. So I switched to show dancing."

Moving to Las Vegas, Reg got hired by Donn Arden, legendary show producer who invented the iconic topless showgirl with the tall headpiece. Reg danced in Arden's "Lido de Paris" show at the Stardust and Bally's. By 1974, he was finally the big star -- male lead in Arden's "Hallelujah Hollywood" at the MGM Grand. He got to know two other notable gay male performers in Vegas -- Siegfried and Roy, and their famed tigers. For the moment Reg had the red-carpet life, and a relationship with Australian dancer Ross Davies, and more income on the side from real-estate investments. He applied for U.S. citizenship.

At his nice home near Vegas, under a Nevada wildlife permit, Daphne and Rio now lived in a large enclosed natural habitat that Reg had developed. His logical German mind had told him that tigrinas need to live in a secluded jungle-like setting of trees, vines, shrubs, rocks and logs, even a water feature, like where they'd live in the wild. Reg figured that tigrinas wouldn't breed in zoos because of the sterile unnatural environment, as well as the congestion of so many animals in one place -- especially big cats whose nearby roars and coughs were enough to frighten a small cat half to death.

To borrow a famous line from Jurassic Park, Reg had "spared no expense." Result: his two cats were so happy and relaxed that they were mating.

Reg's creative intuitions had put him on the cutting edge of a major trend. At that time, the best zoos were starting to worry about vanishing species. They launched breeding programs, using the stocks of endangered animals that they happened to have on hand. A flagship program was the Mongolian wild horse, extinct in the wild, its population reduced to 12 mares and stallions in zoos. But zoos were still behind the curve on creating natural habitats, which (on the scale that a zoo would need to do) could cost millions of dollars that stakeholders didn't want to spend. The first zoo habitats that were anything beyond window-dressing to appease visitors didn't start appearing till later in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Reg learned of a few other private small-wildcat owners who were doing what he did, and realized that they'd stumbled on some potent secrets of possible success.

Then, around 1975, during show rehearsal, came a life-changing back injury. A stagehand had left a section of hydraulic stage slightly un-leveled. As Reg was walking backwards while doing a lift with a 6-foot showgirl, he stumbled over the edge and fell backwards, with the girl on top of him. Overnight, his dance career was extinct.

He decided to go into wildlife work full time.

Meeting Reg

By 1976, Reg and Ross had moved to Mt. Kisco, N. Y., not far from New York City. They were living off rentals of Vegas property, and Reg was trying to establish a relationship with the Bronx Zoo, which was interested in small felids. I was living in the area, and first heard about Reg when I took my domestic cat, a purebred Somali, to the local vet clinic for shots. The vet pondered the typical "wild look" of my Somali and volunteered some information

"There's this German guy who comes in," he said, "who has two amazing little cats. They're smaller than your Somali, but they're spotted all over like tiny jaguars."

The vet conveyed my expression of interest to Reg, who invited me to his home. Adjoining the house, he had built two small but comfortable "aviaries," as he called them, for his little cat family. Vines screened them from the view of curious neighbors. Amazed, I sat with Daphne's and Rio's four kittens climbing all over me. They were not pets -- just curious. Reg told me that this was possibly the first litter of tigrinas bred in captivity, and certainly the largest. Ordinarily wild tigrinas have one or two kittens.

Reg was worried, though. The New York State Fish & Wildlife Service were cracking down -- justifiably so -- on the fad for wild animals as pets. They weren't issuing permits, and were making SWAT-like raids on any wild-pet owners that they heard about. At the moment, they deemed that the only proper owners for wild animals were zoos and governments.

So Reg was fearful about confiscation. "The Fish & Wildlife guys won't care about my good intentions," he said.

However, the conservation movement was taking a radical new direction, that would embrace the responsible, knowledgeable, dedicated private owner of wild animals. In 1975, the new Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) had launched. Nations that signed this ground-breaking international treaty were aiming to end the illicit trafficking that killed so many animals or dragged them into captivity. There was a place for individuals like Reg, whose serious efforts should be legalized and enabled through the CITES treaty.

Indeed, Reg had discovered several other Europeans and Americans who intended to work with tigrinas. Among them was Pat Quillen in California. Her landmark nonprofit research institute, S.O.S. Care, had a state permit and was working with several species of small wildcats. Pat would serve on the international taxonomic committee (TAG) for small cats, and become internationally known for her own innovative techniques of hand-raising orphaned baby wild animals.

So I fell in love with the idea of breeding wild species in hopes of saving them. Having grown up in the domestic livestock-breeding business, I had useful experience to offer as a volunteer. Reg and I had hit it off, and I decided to support his work. At the time I had a good job and was making money from bestselling gay novels. What better place to invest it than in our planet?

The Cat Ranch

We looked around for an affordable country property, and found 12 secluded acres in the hills outside Pawling, an hour's drive farther north. The place had two dwellings, and a large garage-like building that could be customized for animal care. We called it the Cat Ranch.

Working like mad, with help from a local building contractor, we "spared no expense." While the cats stayed in a low profile in Mt. Kisco, we built some large extravagantly landscaped aviaries around the large building. Through cat-doors, the animals could get inside for cozy warm sleeping quarters in winter. The set-up incorporated features that the state would require, including support by a licensed veterinarian. A wonderful local vet, Dr. Charles Frumerie, opened the way for our project's acceptance by town authorities.

Finally Reg took a deep breath and called Fish & Game. Our hearts were pounding when the uniformed animal cops arrived, with stern faces and holstered guns. But as Reg gave them the tour and explained what he wanted to do, they were blown away -- they'd never seen anything quite like this. They thumbed through Reg's file, with its proof that he'd carefully gotten permits everywhere else he'd been, including legal importation into the U.S. Result: the Cat Ranch became the first privately-owned wildlife-breeding facility in the history of New York State to have a permit.

With the tigrina program on the international radar screen, Reg's kittens began to fan out to other workers. He sent several to Pat Quillen, who bred them to her own cats -- creating an outbred bloodline whose descendants could someday hopefully be re-introduced to the American rain forests. (As per CITES regulations, captive-bred animals are never sold; they can change hands only through donations or breeding loans).

Fun at the Ranch

The years at the Cat Ranch were hard work. I was the grunt -- learning the right way to do everything, from cleaning runs to preparing those mice and other kinds of food. But we had fun too. Visits from other wildlife people were always fascinating. When Reg's brother Joachim, his sister and sister-in-law dropped in from Düsseldorf, Germany, there were big German meals with much wine and hilarity and story-telling.

Reg was a hoot to be around -- funny and mischievous. Despite the old back problem, he still kept himself in shape. In summer, he liked to work outdoors wearing nothing but his mustache and a thong, so his body would tan all over. One day two Jehovah's Witness missionary ladies ran into Reg's puckish sense of humor. They drove through our gate and knocked on Reg's front door with their pamphlets. He flung open the door with all the drama of the Vegas stage. The ladies found themselves staring at a nearly-naked six-foot-two sun-bronzed specimen of gay manhood.

"I'd looooove to hear about your religion," Reg purred in his best German accent.

But the ladies were retreating hastily to their car. They never came around again.

While I commuted daily to my editor job, Reg was the homebody. Now and then, he did go to New York City to party a little. Every head in Manhattan turned when he walked into a room, especially when he wore his European-made tight suede pants. He and Ross had broken up, but he was too busy with his work to brood much about being single. Indeed, Reg was one of the few gay men I knew in those days who didn't get eaten up by the drug scene or AIDS.

These days, he was expanding his work... into endangered tropical birds. The long-ago visit to Brazil had sparked an interest. He loved to talk about how intelligent and social the parrot family are, and acquired a few rare cockatiels and rosellas that needed a good home...which meant building the kind of aviary that could temporarily make a bird happy.

By 1980, however, the Cat Ranch was heading for change. I had run out of money, and my writing had languished because of so much attention on the animals. A number of people and zoos around the world now had Reg's tigrina bloodline, so he sent Rio to Pat Quillen and closed down the cat operation. While I was nailing a major contract for a Western historical novel, Reg was purchasing a property near Lake Carmel, not too far away, and building a new complex for birds. When he moved there, I sold the Pawling property and headed out West to do book research.

A Step Towards the Dream

Reg was not a good letter writer -- the most you could expect from him was a scrawled note signed "kisses all over."

But he adored long chatty phone calls; as the years passed, that was how we kept updated. Daphne finally died of old age. But the Costa Rican government was interested in his work, which was now organized as IPEAT, a not-for-profit rehabilitation and release center for tropical birds. He and Joachim bought 40 acres of rain forest in the mountains near San José, adjacent to the Braulio Carrillo National Park, and started to build. IPEAT was kept afloat by a little cohort of financial supporters, and there would be more dollars from a new thing called eco-tourism. Meanwhile, Reg was proud of his world "firsts" in half a dozen endangered bird species that no one else had been able to breed. Zoos and government programs sought him out for advice.

In 1999, when everything was ready in Costa Rica, Reg moved there. Now and then, we still talked on the phone. Work was going slowly but well. He had a Costa Rican boyfriend. Joachim came and went from Germany. There were a couple of wild tigrinas around -- he'd seen them.

Then, about a year later, Reg mentioned that he had liver cancer. Joachim took over the facility -- Reg's family wanted him home in Düsseldorf to help him find state-of-the-art treatment. But by spring 2001, chemotherapy hadn't helped.

That year I was finishing a new gay-themed novel, The Wild Man. The inspiration had been Reg, and a growing awareness of many other LGBT people in the conservation world. So I put a wildlife twist on a story about Spain that I'd wanted to write for many years. I mailed him a copy, and we had a last long phone chat. My Spanish tale was probably the last book he read, and he loved it.

By then, Reg was in the hospital, with morphine for the pain. His family had pledged to carry on with IPEAT, so he wasn't worried about the future. Having been immersed for a lifetime in a great stream of animals birthing and dying, he was very clear about what was happening. He was following their spirits out of life, into a great cycle that went out there somewhere and then came back to Earth. So he'd be back, to pick up his work where he left off.

"I'll see you next time around," he said. "Kisses all over, my dear."

Today a web search can pull up mentions of IPEAT by eco-travel companies and current projects for saving rare birds. Worldwide recession means that saving our planet is more of a life-or-death challenge than ever. Some landmark successes did come out of the captive-breeding programs -- notably the re-introduction of wild horses to Mongolia. But with global warming and accelerating development and destruction of wild land, time is running out for many wild species, many of which will vanish in the next couple of decades. Activists' focus is shifting from captive-breeding to release efforts, and to saving animals still in the wild.

Saving our planet is going to take millions of people who care enough -- including many more LGBT people like Reg Riedel -- to get the job done. Indeed, all our lives will depend on it.


further reading:


Pat Quillen and current international emergency efforts

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One of my favorite authors is Daniel Quinn - especially his Ishmael and Story of B novels. I really appreciate how he spells out that it's going to take more than getting the average citizen to recycle to get our environment back on track and then tries to go beyond that to examine some of our basic stumbling blocks.

Yes, I agree. It's going to get very complicated. Global trade is not going to synch very well with global fixes on the problems.
We will have to get very local and self-sustaining again. And that might prove to be impossible.

My brother, who is an inventor, has a startling thing to say. He points out that technology can never go backwards. It can only go forward, and destroys the steps that it has already walked over.

John R. Selig | October 29, 2008 6:08 AM

So many LGBT heroes go unnoticed as they live their lives day by day, away from the limelight. As we share their stories in the mainstream people realize that we are all more than a sexual orientation or gender identity. Knowledge is power.

What a beautiful story, Patricia. I wish that I had been given the opportunity to know Reg.

John Van Stry | March 6, 2009 5:31 PM

Wow, just wow.

I used to know Reg, I was one of the cat people that drifted into his circle, in the 80's. I still have some of the papers he gave me on hybrids. I had not heard he had died (I moved out west to pursue ambitions with big cats) and it makes me sad to hear this. I used to love going to his place to talk animals, one of the smartest people I'd ever met. I learned a lot about animals and plants from him.