"Indomitable" Jaguars May Have Lessons in Survival for Us

Jaguar corridors in Central and South America are helping "the sumo wrestler of the animal kingdom" survive.

Alan Rabinowitz, author of Jaguar: An Indomitable Beast, has devoted his life to studying and protecting jaguars. He established the world's first jaguar sanctuary, the Cockscomb Basin Preserve, in Belize. And he was the moving force behind identifying and securing jaguar corridors throughout Central and South America.

Speaking from his home in New York, he talks about how a childhood speech impediment made him bond with jaguars, how a fur coat worn by Jackie Kennedy triggered a catastrophic decline in jaguar populations, and how looking to jaguars could help us deal with problems we face, like climate change.

The book begins with a moving story of a childhood encounter with a jaguar. Tell us about the young Alan Rabinowitz.

From the earliest time I can remember, I was unable to speak the way other people speak, fluently and easily. I was born with a debilitating stutter. I had very, very bad speech blocks and would spasm and shake, trying to get the words out. They called it "frozen mouth" at the time. So my entire childhood was filled with the feeling that I was not normal. But from a very young age, I realized I could take comfort from and even speak, semifluently, to animals. That was my comfort zone.

My father recognized this pretty early, and he would take me to the Bronx Zoo. My favorite place was the Lion House, as it was called back then—cage after cage of these big cats, roaring and vocalizing. I could feel their power and what I thought was their frustration at being locked inside these little cages.

But I would always be drawn to this one cage, with a solitary jaguar. All the other cats would charge at the bars or vocalize. But the jaguar would mostly stay quiet, watching everybody pass by, in a world of its own. That's the way I felt. So I would go to the bars, wait until nobody was around, and talk to the jaguar—tell it my hopes and dreams, whether it was a bad day at school or how stupid I felt people were because they didn't try to understand me.

And I would never leave that enclosure without promising the cats that if I ever found my voice, I would try to be their voice and help them. I had no idea what I would be in life or that I would ever work on jaguars. All I knew is that these cats made me feel whole. They were like me, trapped inside a cage not of their making. And if I could, I would one day help them out of that cage.

Twenty-six years later in Belize you had another, this time frightening, encounter with a jaguar. What happened?

After several years' research in the jungle in Belize, I had set up the world's first and only jaguar preserve. I went back into the area to look for jaguar tracks and in some ways say my goodbyes. As I was walking, I encountered a set of tracks I had never seen before—a big set of tracks from a large male. It was getting late, but I decided to follow these tracks a short ways into the jungle in case, by some stroke of luck, I could see this jaguar. It's not something I normally did, for obvious safety reasons. But I ended up following these tracks for several hours. I couldn't see the jaguar, though.

It was getting dark, I didn't have a flashlight, and I was a good distance from the camp, so I decided to turn around and go back. As I turned around, right in back of me was the jaguar. It could have killed me without me even knowing what had happened. But that was never its intention. It was just being curious. It wanted to know why I was following it, who I was, and what I was doing. I couldn't escape. The jaguar could easily outrun me. So without thinking, I decided to make myself small. I squatted down, hoping that if I made myself smaller, subdominant, maybe it would be OK.

And then the jaguar did a really funny thing. The jaguar sat down too and started giving a low grumble from its throat. It wasn't aggressive. It sounded almost as if it were talking to me again, like when I was a child at the zoo. But I was terrified. I stood up, took a step back, and fell. If the jaguar wants to kill me, I remember thinking, I'm about as vulnerable as I could be, lying on my back on the ground. But the jaguar just stood up and started walking back into the jungle. Then it stopped, looked back at me and gave another low, rumbling growl. The last thing I remember is looking into its eyes and hearing this thought in my head: "He's OK. I'm OK. We're both gonna be OK."

You call the jaguar the "sumo wrestler of the animal world." What do you mean by that?

[Laughs] The jaguar is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest cat in the world, behind lions and tigers. But compared with a lion or a tiger, the jaguar looks like a fireplug. It's got a massive skull, similar to a tiger's and lion's skull; a big, stocky body, which is much larger and more physically powerful than a leopard or even a mountain lion; short, stocky limbs; and a low center of gravity. All the good characteristics of a top-notch sumo wrestler.

I read somewhere that jaguars are the only big cat that can't be tamed, which is why they have never featured in circus acts. Is that right?

They can't be tamed in the manner that lions, tigers, and even leopards can be. They're much more unpredictable. I could see that as a kid. At the Bronx Zoo, all the other cats were doing almost what was expected of them: coming to the bars, charging at people, vocalizing. The jaguar just sat back.

If there's one defining characteristic that distinguishes it from the other big cats, it's that you never know what a jaguar is thinking. There have been people who have brought jaguars up as cubs and tried to tame them. But many of those people have had accidents. The jaguar is not a predictable, tame animal. That's why you don't see them in circus acts. You don't even often see them in zoos, because they're not a good exhibition animal. They're a lone, solitary, almost moody type of species.

The jaguar also kills in a unique way, doesn't it? Tell us about BFQ.

BFQ stands for bite force quotient. And pound for pound, the bite of a jaguar is the most powerful of the big cats, even more than that of a tiger and a lion. The way they kill is different, too. Tigers and lions, and the other large cats, go for the necks or soft underbellies.

Jaguars have only one way they kill: They go for the skull. I've actually seen where they've lifted the cranial cap off large animals, like a large tapir or a cow. It's the most incredible means of killing—terrifying and very, very fast. The jaguar is not typically an aggressive animal. But when it becomes aggressive, it's with explosive force. It's an ambush predator. A stalk-and-pounce animal. You won't escape a jaguar if it wants to kill you.

Among the Maya of Central America, and other pre-Columbian societies, the jaguar was woven into their mythology. Is that still true?

I call that the jaguar "cultural corridor," because what I realized is that there was folklore and mythology not only woven into individual cultures like the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca. Even in diverse cultures that evolved far apart, say in Argentina and Mexico, they have common elements in their beliefs about jaguars. To them, this massive, powerful animal of the jungle was a semideity. It was godlike but not a god. It was supernatural, but it was still of this Earth and could be killed. It was also an avenue into other worlds, but an avenue that could be somehow controlled and taken over by humans, if they could figure out the right way to do it.

In some of the early Maya hieroglyphics, anthropologists discerned a particular symbol that they believe meant "jaguar essence." These early cultures believed, as I have firmly come to believe, that there's something distinct about a jaguar. It's not just its power. It's something to do with its behaviors—its inner self. That is what makes it an immovable species. It's why I call my book An Indomitable Beast.

I was amazed to discover that the precipitous decline in jaguar numbers in modern times was triggered by a fur coat worn by Jackie Kennedy.

It wasn't Jackie's fault, because it was legal at the time. It was 1962, and Jackie Kennedy came out wearing a leopard coat. It wasn't a jaguar, as many people think. It was a leopard coat designed by Oleg Cassini. For years afterward he regretted having made that coat for Jackie Kennedy because it created such a huge fashion buzz.

Wearing spotted coats became the thing to do. And because of that, hundreds of thousands of spotted cats of all sizes—not just jaguars but leopards, ocelots, and margays—were killed. This caused such a precipitous decline in the spotted cat species, especially the jaguar, that finally, in 1975, an international convention called CITES implemented a ban on the trade of spotted cat fur coats. Sadly by that time, many jaguar populations had been wiped out and many of the more vibrant ones were down to dangerously low numbers.

In your early career, you come across as something of a misanthrope. You loved jaguars, but you weren't too keen on people. Then you had what you call a "jaw-dropping, light-bulb-over-the-head moment." What happened?

I think I did to other people what they did to me as a child: I put them in the box of always being the problem. So if we were going to save jaguars, I had to somehow separate human beings from the jaguars in the way I wanted to be separated from human beings. But I learned that this wasn't true. If I really wanted to save jaguars, I had to do a complete turnaround. And that complete turnaround came when we discovered the existence of the jaguar corridor.

Genetic studies had showed that jaguars were not only living inside their jungle protected areas, they were also leaving those areas. Young males were successfully dispersing through the human landscape. This was key. If I wanted to protect jaguars and save them from possible extinction, I had to work outside the jungle, in the human landscape. And that meant that people could no longer be seen as the problem. They had to be seen as the solution. And that brought me back to the world of people.

[Laughs] It didn't make me any less of a misanthrope. I still don't like being around most people. [Laughs] I'm a misanthrope even in my own family. I love my family, I adore my kids, but they all know I need my alone time. Even if it sometimes means walking out on all of them and going off by myself for days or even weeks at a time.

Tell us about the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, which is perhaps your greatest achievement.

The beauty of the jaguar corridor is that it's not my achievement at all! Because it was nothing we created. The jaguar corridor was always there. It's just that we hadn't seen it. Then new genetic tools became available in the late 1990s, using feces to get at DNA. And what they showed was that there was no variation in the jaguar throughout its range.

In other words, there had to be travel pathways that the jaguars were using. It was no longer a matter of looking at maps or speculating. The DNA fingerprinting showed that the jaguar corridor was a reality. I just had to go and find it. Now we know that there is a genetic corridor in 18 countries throughout Central America and most of South America. The only countries where jaguars have gone extinct are El Salvador, Uruguay, and Chile. We're just starting South America—but it will take at least another seven to ten years.

Will there ever be jaguars in the Lower 48 again?

Jaguars have been periodically coming up from Mexico, crossing the border into the U.S. since the early- to mid-1900s. But it's very difficult for dispersing jaguars to establish a breeding population in an area where they've been wiped out—even if there's abundant habitat and prey available. So, I do not believe the jaguar will establish itself naturally back in the U.S. It's been given some protected habitat and endangered species status, which is the right thing to have happened.

If we want to spend as much, if not more, money than we spent on the wolf in Yellowstone, it could be possible to reintroduce it. But I don't think it's a good idea. This part of jaguar range has long since changed and been degraded. And we desperately need those resources in other parts of jaguar range, where they're still fairly abundant and have a lot of habitat.

Your journey in search of the jaguar has taken you from the Bronx Zoo to shamans in remote villages in Central America. Do you feel you will ever fully comprehend "jaguar-ness"?

No, and I never thought I would. What I wanted was to get as close to it as a human being, with our limited brain capacity, can. But I think jaguar-ness is like how some people define the Tao. If you try to explain it or put it into words, you're not getting it, because it can't be defined by words. Indigenous people understood it better than we do because they never saw a clear line between people and jaguars, people and nature. It was a less anthropocentric view of the world.

But I know that jaguar-ness exists. And I think that if human beings try to understand it, we're better for it, and stronger. The jaguar has been on Earth many millions of years more than we have and has survived multiple extinctions. And I think we can learn from it what to do in instances like climate change. We can learn how to react and what behaviors to follow when there are catastrophic events, by looking at how the jaguar reacts to the same kind of events.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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