The Washington Post

Janet Fesler, lifelong wildlife advocate and adventurer, dies at 69

Janet M. Fesler, a highly effective if periodically tart-tongued staff member of the World Wildlife Fund who was once chased by what she was sure was a people-eating, 13-foot lizard in Indonesia, died of leukemia July 28 at Georgetown University Hospital. She was 69 and a District resident.

Ms. Fesler spent nearly 30 years at the WWF and its predecessor organizations before retiring in 2006. She became director of board relations and special assistant to the president of the WWF, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of habitats and species around the world.

Her duties included arranging travel expeditions to exotic and faraway places. She once arranged an elegant luncheon in a Mexican jungle complete with candelabra and linen tablecloths.

William K. Reilly, who was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, was among the WWF chiefs she served.

“She set the gold standard,” said Reilly, who described Ms. Fesler as “shy and retiring” in matters concerning herself but aggressive and tenacious in matters concerning the wildlife fund or its board.

Reilly recalled one occasion at a formal board dinner where Ms. Fesler learned that the socially ambitious wife of one of the fund’s deep-pocketed board members had been sneaking into the dining area during pre-dinner cocktails and rearranging name cards to place herself at the head table.

Ms. Fesler rearranged the cards back again and then confronted the culprit as the dinner guests were taking their places. “‘You are not here. You are down there,’ ” he quoted her as saying.

Reilly also remembered a staff member huffily complaining that Ms. Fesler had been heavy-handed in her rewriting of a document the staffer had prepared for the wildlife fund board.

“I’ll have you know I am an English graduate of Smith College,” the staffer complained.

“Then your complaint is with them, not me,” Ms. Fesler replied.

Janet Martin Fesler was born Jan. 15, 1942, in Washington and grew up in New Haven, Conn. She was a 1964 graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, where she was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and in 1965 she received a master’s degree in teaching at Yale University.

Early in her career, she was a high school teacher in Falls Church and served on the staff of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and then in Bologna, Italy.

She then joined the staff of the Conservation Foundation, which later merged into the World Wildlife Fund. Periodically she left for other short-lived jobs and activities.

In the mid-1970s, she spent about a year assembling the picnic cookbook for summer events at Wolf Trap performing arts center in Vienna. She helped popularize a range of pates, soy sauce and ginger marinades, cold summer soups, cold rice salads, black-bottom cupcakes, and lamb in sour cream-and-mint sauce at a time when such recipes were not widely appreciated by concertgoers in the area.

She never married. Survivors include a brother.

“There was never a dull moment with Janet,” recalled Pamela Ebsworth of Seattle, a friend of 25 years who had participated in many of the WWF trips with Ms. Fesler.

Ebsworth was with her on the Indonesian island of Komodo when the 13-foot lizard, known as a Komodo dragon, burst out of a cage and chased them until uniformed guards restrained it.

Years later, they would have great fun remembering the event, but the Komodo dragon was a fearsome reptile at the time, Ebsworth insisted.

“They do eat people,” she said.

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