Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Allison Stern

Allison Stern with Steve Sanderson (CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society) and husband Leonard at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual gala, 2006.
by Lesley Hauge

Allison Stern is delightful – and kind of bossy: ‘Have you looked at the CIA Factbook on the web? You should write that down …’(she leans over to see that I do) … ‘because that’s a good website if you need to know anything about geography.’ And: ‘If you go to the Galapagos, take hiking boots – get Merrells.  They’re really lightweight …’ (I have the feeling she’ll know if I don’t get Merrells) And: ‘I think I have the only husband in the world who would bring me an ant farm.’ (Holds aloft the package.) ‘How old are your kids? You should get one. He got it right around the corner at the Sharper Image, 73rd and Madison – so as you leave, pick one up.’

Allison with Jamee Gregory at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual gala, 2005.
So that’s me sorted – now for the Wildlife Conservation Society for whom she is a passionate advocate, trustee and board member and committee member deluxe (she sits on no fewer than four of the standing committees). ‘I have a very big mouth,’ she declares. It’s also a rather beautiful mouth, for she is classically lovely, a slender, blonde ex-model married for over 20 years to the ant-farm giving Leonard Stern, chairman and CEO of the Hartz group, whose great wealth, now in real estate, appropriately enough, once stemmed from selling pet products.

Presumably he gets his marching orders from time to time but she devotes a good portion of her week to the WCS, which maybe takes the heat off somewhat. In fairness, the bossiness is really a form of enthusiasm, let us call it structured enthusiasm, and it is immensely appealing – appeal is something she really knows how to deploy.

Although PR is not her formal role, it seems that one of the most valuable things she brings to the organization is an instinctive understanding of the way the media works. She constantly, almost unconsciously, ties thoughts into how they could best be disseminated into popular culture. Whilst discussing books we like, she comes up with the astute assertion that Queen Latifah should option all the Alexander McCall-Smith books featuring the Botswana lady detective, Madame Ramotswe. (So that’s Queen Latifah sorted too.)

Allison with Marcia Mishaan, Barbara Bancroft, and Debbie Bancroft at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual gala, 2004.
Bringing this acute media instinct to the WCS, she says: ‘Over the past 10 or 15 years, we were very publicity shy – if it wasn’t in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or Nature magazine, then it wasn’t for us. But in my opinion, I think a story about someone attacked by a forest elephant is a People magazine story … my goal is to see this organization step boldly into the 21st century.’

It is a formidable organization. Founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society, it has consistently had a clear mandate: promoting the study of zoology, educating the public and advancing the conservation of wildlife and wild lands.

It runs the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks (they don’t seem to like the word ‘zoo’ that much, at least not on the website) – although the flagship of the whole enterprise, the Bronx Zoo, remains as such. Some of the best and most prominent scientists in the area of conservation are funded by the WCS and currently there are WCS projects underway in 53 nations across the globe. In New York more than 300,000 school children in organized groups, visit the five main zoos over the course of a year.

Scattered throughout its website are evocative quotes about human beings ‘yearning to connect to wildlife’ and how this work is ‘essential to the integrity of life on Earth.’ And there is no doubt how deeply Mrs Stern feels about animals. ‘They fascinate me. If I know someone and they’re just not an animal person or have no compassion for animals, I can’t be friends with them.’
Allison Stern with Katharina Otto-Bernstein and friends at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual gala, 2003.
She showed her commitment to the organization by becoming a zoo guide at Central Park Zoo for two years before joining the board. Looking at me meaningfully over her coffee cup, she adds somewhat drily, ‘There were no women on the board at that time.’ But she clearly loved paying the dues expected of her. Amongst many of the rewards of that job was witnessing, one day, one of the polar bears catch and devour a hapless pigeon that had landed in its enclosure. ‘Just seconds’ she swipes gleefully at the air polar-bear style. ‘And then it was gone.’ She’s not only in it to cuddle the pandas. Of sentimentalists such as Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man fame, she yelps ‘That guy was a jerk! He was no more a scientist than my cat is! Grizzly bears are wild animals. THEY WILL EAT YOU!’

And of the other world where they will eat you, the one that is stretched out along Park Avenue, she says she has emphatically not taken up this particular cause for the social cachet. ‘I really do believe that the social cachet comes more with the arts organizations,’ she says. And then with the same strength of purpose (let us call it that now), she adds ‘I really don’t care what people think, I truly don’t. I love this organization. This is my thing.’