Recently, I’ve been thinking about jaguars, three in particular. One is on my wall, his or her face slightly hidden behind a tree branch in the Belize Zoo, or at least that’s where I think it was taken. You wouldn’t know it was a zoo, since there are no bars or concrete to be seen. (While I haven’t visited the Belize Zoo, it’s said to be well-run and not to take animals from the wild, but rather foster orphans and rehabilitate animals in need.) In Belize, the jaguar is in a manner of speaking, king. You see the big cat’s image on everything from painted calabashes to Mayan temples, T-shirts to hotel logos. Perhaps as many as 50 jaguars live in or around Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as the Jaguar Reserve. I walked the trails in the Sanctuary in March and although we were keen, we didn’t see a jaguar live (or much mammalian life at all, apart from us humans).
Tantalizingly though, our guide, the elegantly named Florentino, who was of Mayan descent, pointed to a paw print in the mud. “That,” he said with certainty, “is the print of a jaguar.” We stopped and looked, wondering when the cat had been by (“in the last two or three days,” Florentino assured us, as we squinted at the impression in the now dry mud). Since we didn’t see that cat or any other, we had to content ourselves with the leaf-cutter ants. They marched up and down trees and across fallen branches, bright green pieces of leaf held aloft, never seeming to tire. We also saw the remains of a plane piloted by jaguar expert and New York City-based scientist Alan Rabinowitz that crash-landed years ago in the forest. Since then, the trees had taken back much of the ground and the plane was rusty and musty and covered in lichen.
I can’t help but wonder what Rabinowitz, Florentino, and that elusive jaguar would make of Jorge, the third jaguar. Until recently he lived in the Denver Zoo, expatriated from Central America. In February, he attacked and killed a young female keeper. In the effort to free her, Jorge was shot dead. Jaguars’ “unpredictable” nature and “lack of facial expressions” were blamed by commentators, as were the zoo’s safety procedures. Zoo partisans fingered animal rights activists as “exploiting” the tragedy for their own ends. If only Jorge had been that jaguar whose print we’d seen. He’d still be alive, an embodiment of the imagination and a flesh-and-blood reality. And he would have been able to choose whether to observe humans from a distance or distance himself from us altogether.