Rob Horwich Obituary

Dr. Robert H. Horwich of Gays Mills, WI, born on December 31, 1940, in Paterson, NJ, died following a brief illness on February 7, 2017, at Gundersen Hospital in La Crosse, WI.  Rob, or Robbie to his family, always had a keen interest in animals and he devoted his life to their conservation.  Although his high school guidance counselor told him he could never earn a Ph.D., he received a B.S. from Rutgers University and a M.S. and Ph.D. from University of Maryland. In his dissertation, Rob investigated the social behavior of squirrels.  His career spanned obtaining a post-doctoral appointment to India from the Smithsonian Institute, directing the Maryland House Natural History Museum, researching infant primate development at the Brookfield Zoo, developing reintroduction methods at the International Crane Foundation, and founding and directing Community Conservation, Inc.

Rob lived simply and generously, especially after moving to rural Wisconsin in 1976.  Even his rare extravagance was modest: adding an extra sugar packet to a cup of coffee, giving dollar bills to children for cakewalk fundraisers, or buying suitcases full of used trinkets.  This latter practice was part of Rob’s life as an artist; he turned the shiny detritus of consumer society into bizarre, beautiful, irreverent sculpture.  Visitors to his humble home on One Quiet Lane were greeted by the likes of plastic action figures glued with geometric arrangements of feathers and tinsel onto gaudy Tupperware platters.  Rob’s affinity for the unconventional allowed him to see solutions when others saw only problems.

When endangered cranes being raised in captivity were losing their wild instincts due to human contact, he pioneered the use of puppets and costumes to rear them.  When dam construction on the Kickapoo River was abandoned and the repossessed land was being abused and argued over, he saw opportunity to create a community-managed nature reserve.  And first in Belize, and then in places around the world, when local people were blamed for the loss of wildlife, Rob saw that informed and inspired communities have the power to conserve the beauty and integrity of their homelands.  In Belize, Rob realized that the howler monkeys he was studying were disappearing, so he refocused his efforts from academic research to conservation.  He worked with local villagers to create the Community Baboon Sanctuary, which became an internationally-renown model for conservation.

Later in his career, in India, Rob refined his simple but profoundly effective method as he worked to conserve forests for an endangered monkey called the Golden Langur.  He told local people that their forests were special, he asked for their help conserving the forests, and then helped them to create community groups equipped for this mission.  This approach catalyzed interest and pride, and from a few villages, the project proliferated into a federation of groups in 130 villages throughout the region working on Golden Langur conservation.  Rob called this process “conservation contagion,” and he persisted tirelessly to hasten its spread: in 15 countries Rob worked with 200 communities to conserve 1.5 million acres.

Just weeks before his death, he was working in Cameroon with local communities to conserve habitat for the Cross River gorilla, of which only a few hundred remain in the world.  Since Rob consistently sought to catalyze rather than maintain influence, many of his efforts have carried on without him.  He authored and co-authored numerous scientific articles and several books, was featured in and helped to produce a number of films, and served on various boards and committees.

Rob will be missed for his gentle and friendly spirit, for his delightfully odd sense of humor, and for his quiet, fierce love of the natural world.  He was preceded in death by his parents Edwin N. and Edna M. (Goldstein) Horwich.  He is survived by his sister Janet Weinberg and his nieces Lisa and Emily, his community of friends in rural Wisconsin, and a global network of people and places he touched.  A memorial service and celebration of Rob’s life will be held on March 11 at the Gays Mills Community Building, 16381 St Hwy 131, at 1:30 p.m.  Memorials may be sent to Community Conservation, Inc., 50542 One Quiet Lane, Gays Mills WI 54631.