Adam Roberts ’90 is carrying on work that began more than five decades ago, when a book and a movie about an orphaned lion cub raised awareness for animal rights across the globe.
Roberts, who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Stephanie, daughter Mia, and their two dogs and five cats, was named CEO of Born Free USA on February 3. Previously the organization’s executive vice president, he has been traveling the world for the past decade, rescuing animals that have been mistreated, working to strengthen laws designed to protect wild animals in the United States, and touting international animal rights treaties. He plans to continue that work as Born Free USA’s new leader.
“We’re looking to improve and enhance animal rights laws at the state and federal level here in the U.S. as well as do a lot more in the area of international animal rights policy,” Roberts says. A month after assuming his new post, he traveled to Ethiopia, where a Born Free chapter operates a shelter for lions, cheetahs, and other big cats that have been abused or neglected in zoos or other facilities in Africa.
Initiatives currently on Roberts’ radar: the adoption of a federal law governing the breeding of lions and tigers and another that would regulate the sale of primates as pets. Born Free USA has also joined an international public relations campaign aimed at finding a suitable home for a capuchin monkey recently confiscated from pop singer Justin Bieber at a German airport.
The organization was founded in England in 1984 by Will Travers, whose parents became animal rights activists after they starred in the 1966 movie Born Free. The film was based on the true story of Elsa, a lion cub who was raised in Africa by wildlife conservators George and Joy Adamson, then released back into the wild. Travers praised Roberts for overseeing Born Free USA’s growth over the past decade.
“Adam’s contribution to Born Free has been above and beyond anything we could have imagined,” he says. “He started as a one-man volunteer operation with a laptop, and now, Born Free USA is a powerhouse with impacts across America and throughout the world.”
Roberts, who majored in English literature at Vassar, says he gained awareness about animal cruelty the summer between his freshman and sophomore years when he saw a film about the treatment of livestock at slaughterhouses. That inspired him to become a vegetarian—something that wasn’t all that common on campus in the mid-1980s. He and a few other students approached the staff at the All Campus Dining Center about their new diet, “and the people there were very responsive,” he says. “It was great the way they opened their minds to preparing the food for us. One of the things I learned at Vassar was how to live ethically.”
Roberts had no plans to pursue employment in the animal rights field until two fellow members of the Vassar debate team suggested it shortly after he graduated. He says he sent some résumés to several such groups and had two job offers within a few weeks. Roberts spent 13 years at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., working his way from administrative assistant to assistant to executive director. He left that job in 2004 to join Born Free USA.
Roberts says one of the highlights of his tenure with the organization was helping to oversee the rescue of more than 100 primates from a wild animal preserve near San Antonio in 2012. The 106 macaques and one baboon were moved to newly constructed quarters at the 186-acre Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary in Texas. “If we hadn’t stepped in with a plan, this large group of primates would likely have been euthanized,” he says.
Roberts says he’s encouraged by the progress animal rights activists have made over the past two decades, noting 180 countries have become signatories of an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. “Over the years, we’ve had significant successes with this treaty in place, and we’re looking to extend protection to elephants, tigers, sharks, and other threatened species,” he says.
“But at the same time,” Roberts adds, “the rise of the Internet has made it much easier for people to buy and sell wild animals. So, while people are becoming more aware of why you shouldn’t keep these animals in captivity, the Internet makes them more accessible to people who want them.”
Roberts has ambitious goals for Born Free USA as he assumes leadership of the organization. “It’s been quite clear to me over the last 10 years that there’s support for what Born Free does, and going forward, we need to build bigger rescue operations,” he says. “The global wildlife trade is among the most profitable illicit enterprises, along with drug and gun running. It’s a wildly destructive and cruel enterprise that must be controlled.”