If you were ever to ask me what my favorite big is, I would not hesitate to tell you it’s the jaguar.
It actually still enthralls me that jaguars were once fairly numerous in the United States. How numerous is up to a bit of debate, but they were found throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were also found in much of Louisiana, but there are accounts of them coming as far east as North Carolina and maybe as far north as Kentucky or Ohio. These accounts have always been regarded as urban legends, but one must keep in mind that the jaguar actually evolved in the Old World before entering the New. There was actually a jaguar species or paleosubspecies found all over Europe up until 1.5 million years ago. In order for jaguars to get here, they had to go through the very cold land of the Bering Land Bridge, so our common notion that jaguars were always a tropical or semi-tropical species is a bit in error.
The jaguar is the only surviving Pantherine cat in the Americas. There was also a lion species or paleosubspecies that lived in both North and South America, but it is now long gone.
Humans have been hard on big cats. We’ve extirpated the lion from Europe and all of Asia but the Gir Forest. We made several populations of lion and leopard threatened with extinction, and we’ve waged such a successful war on the tiger that there is a very good chance that it won’t be known in the wild within just a few decades.
There is no breeding population of jaguars in the United States anymore. They were killed off for their pelts and because jaguars do kill horses and livestock.
But every few years, a jaguar is captured on trail camera or winds up being bayed up by cougar hounds. It’s said to be a wanderer and very little is done about it.
We used to be a big cat nation, but now we don’t even consider those that do wander up from Mexico to be native. The idea of a jaguar in this country is at once romantic but also repugnant. We might lose our minds as we debate wolf reintroduction, but no one talks about the “Texas leopard” anymore.
It’s much a phantom as the American lion, the European jaguar, and the Smilodon are.
I can remember the first time I laid eyes upon a jaguar. It was at the Cincinnati Zoo when I was about 5 years old. There were two jaguars in a large enclosure that was surrounded by thick glass. The spotted one was reclining in the background, but the black one was lying up against the glass. My dad had me sit next to the glass and pretend to pet the great beast, which paid me no mind at all as my dad recorded it on a VHS cassette.
Every time I see a photo or film of a black jaguar, I think of that one.
It never lived wild. it never killed a deer or a horse.
Yet it still had all the essence of a big cat. Smooth and gliding, yet chiseled and sharp. Like cutlasses on springs.
We turned the wolf into a symbol of wilderness, and we managed to restore to it. And now we fight about the best way to manage them, but the idea of jaguars in the Southwest or Louisiana or Texas just sounds like a fools’ mission.
The wolf of the Northern Rockies and the Midwest’s North Country survived by romanticism, but el tigre never got the same treatment.
He will not wander the White Mountains of Arizona or the piney river bottoms of Louisiana. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that this animal lived here only at the margins of its habitat. Never mind the extensive records of these animals in the United States.
The species just can’t be preserved here.
I suppose we have a bit of Trumpism in our ideas of what an American native species is. A wolf sounds like it belongs here.
A jaguar doesn’t.