What We’re Reading: An Indomitable Beast – the Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar
Posted by on August 13, 2015

When it comes to survival, the jaguar is Top Cat. Most humans have never seen him — except, that is, in a zoo, or as a lifeless skin, a wall hanging, maybe, or a pricey full-length coat. (In the  1970s, jaguar furs fetched $20,000.)

So imagine: Wide open mouth (think horse-sized), jutting canines long as railroad spikes, sharper than pitchfork prongs, and then – crunch. There goes the skull of a giant rodent, or the vertebrae of something larger, like a cow. “Nothing kills like the jaguar,” writes big-cat expert Alan Rabinowitz.

In An Indomitable Beast – the Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar (Island Press), Rabinowitz indeed takes us on a journey, at once scientific, environmental, cultural, and highly personal — a quest on all fronts. He reaches back 2 million years ago to the Pleistocene era, when the “hero of this story” landed in North America by crossing glacial bridges from the European continent. During those icy times, dozens of carnivores literally sank to extinction. “[T]hose cats and other carnivores that did survive did so through a combination of luck and tenacity,” Rabinowitz writes. “Among them was the jaguar, a species that would be severely tested and shaped by these times. In the end, it would be the jaguar’s tenacity that set it apart and helped facilitate its survival.”

Rabinowitz, who has studied jaguar populations in South and Central America for several decades, heads the non-profit group Panthera, whose mission is to save endangered wildcats. He offers up a telling thumbnail of his quest:

“After three decades of witnessing the continued declines in big cat populations worldwide, I wanted to understand what had brought the jaguar to the unique place it occupied in the carnivore conservation world. What biological, cultural, and political factors of the New World and the people who inhabited it allowed there to be a twenty-first century range-wide jaguar corridor unlike anything else that existed with other living big cat species? And as I gained a greater understanding of ‘jaguarness,’ how the jaguar was indeed different from the other cats – in structure, in temperament, and in behavior – I also wanted to explain what seemed inexplicable, perhaps even unscientific. I wanted to understand the essence of the animal … ”

That quality of jaguarness – what makes the cat survive, despite cataclysmic environmental and human onslaughts — transfixed the ancient indigenous peoples of Central and South America, many who saw the big cat as a deity. A Maya creation myth put the beast on earth to lord over humankind “until humans learned ways, through weapons and tools, to control the jaguar.” The Olmec civilization, occupying what is now the Tabasco region of Mexico, paid homage to shamans and “were-jaguars,” tribal medicine men believed to turn themselves into the cat incarnate. Some ancient “jaguar cults” and “jaguar psychotics” mutilated their heads to be flatter, their teeth sharper, to look more like “the wild untouchable beauty.”  In some Amazonian cultures, “shamans transformed themselves into spirit-jaguars by snorting power hallucinogens or narcotics referred to as ‘jaguar sperm.’”

Indomitable Beast is rife with alluring jaguarana such as the above, as well as more scientific fare for those who favor epigenetics, phylogency, and “least-cost corridor models.” Rabinowitz’s work with big cats, particularly the jaguar, is well known and highly respected in wild-animal conservation circles. It has been a long journey for big-cat expert who as young boy lived with a debilitating stutter. He spent much time alone, and silent, like the cat. Once, as a small child, he came face to face with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo. “[That] taught me early in life that you could be big, strong, and clever, yet still locked inside a cage from which there was no escape.” He wanted to give voice to “the iconic animal of my dysfunctional childhood.” In Indomitable Beast, he has done just that.

Post by Mary Ann Hogan

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone