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Updated: July 6, 2021

Former IDEXX CEO finds new purpose in philanthropy after catastrophic bike accident

Jonathan Ayers
Photo / Hejung Kim
Jonathan Ayers, the former chairman, president and CEO of Westbrook-based IDEXX Laboratories Inc., talked to Mainebiz from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. about his catastrophic bike accident in 2019 and how he has found new purpose in philanthropy.

Two years after a catastrophic bike accident that left him quadriplegic, former IDEXX Chairman, President and CEO Jonathan Ayers has found new purpose in life through feline-focused philanthropy, as he relayed in an interview for the Mainebiz podcast series “The Day that Changed Everything.” 

He did so with candor and even humor, remarking that “not all bobcats are named Bob,” and reminiscing about cherished pet cats he says were part of his family for close to two decades. Alive today only in memory, the pets include an orange tabby “with limited intelligence except when it comes to food”: a “purr machine”; and a high-strung cat who liked having her teeth brushed.

Ayers, 65, a self-proclaimed “cat guy” now residing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla,, led IDEXX, a Westbrook-based veterinary diagnostic and software firm, for 17 years before leaving the company — and Maine — in October 2019. That was four months after the accident that changed his life forever.

The accident happened June 27, 2019, when Ayers was out cycling with about 15 others on Route 77 in Cape Elizabeth. When an inexperienced cyclist in the group fell in front of him, Ayers hit the bike on the ground, flipped over and landed on his head, unable to move. 

Although he was wearing a helmet and never lost consciousness, Ayers suffered a severe spinal cord injury. He said he knew right away he was “out of commission” and urged his employer to “take action now” on the company’s leadership.

During a full-body MRI that lasted two and a half hours on the day of the crash, Ayers mostly thought about his future. “I was trying to plan my new life, which is what I’ve been doing since then," he said.

Today though daily life remains a struggle and 25 hours a week of physical therapy, Ayers devotes much of his time energy to philanthropy on behalf of cats in the wild.

He does that via the Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust he and his wife established two months before his accident, and a New York-based nonprofit called Panthera devoted to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems. 

Ayers supports Panthera both financially — with a pledge to invest at least $20 million over the next decade — and as chairman of the organization’s finance and audit committee.

“I’m never going to go to some rainforest to see cats again — not in my condition,” he said, “but I know a whole lot about leadership and organizational growth.” 

‘Easier to get through the tough times’

Ayers sees philanthropy as a two-way street that also benefits him, grateful for the chance to make a meaningful contribution to a cause he feels so strongly about.

“I am a purpose-driven guy, and while I didn’t plan for this to happen, I am grateful that I have a new purpose,” he said. “By having something out there that you want to live for it makes it easier to get through the tough times.”

While he expects to be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life, Ayers also sees the upside of being able to pursue his philanthropic efforts as he remains active in IDEXX as both a shareholder and board member.

“One of the hallmarks of being a good businessperson is you accumulate wealth,” he said. “Well, now I’m in the wealth distribution phase, and that’s a big change … I want to distribute it while I’m still alive. So, it’s a completely different outlook on life, but it’s something I plan to do for as long as I’m able, and I would hope that would be a normal lifespan."

His advice to any business executive with philanthropic ambitions: “Start. Start somewhere … Whatever it is that you’re passionate about, start learning … because there’s going to be a point in time when it may be your major focus.”

Listen to the podcast episode here.

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