We saw neither hide nor hair of him, but his personality pervaded the wilderness; no living beast forgot his potential presence, for the price of unwariness was death. No deer rounded a bush, or stopped to nibble pods under a mesquite tree, without a preliminary sniff for el tigre. No campfire died without talk of him. No dog curled up for the night, save at his master’s feet: he needed no telling that the king of cats still ruled the nights; that those massive paws could fell an ox, those jaws shear off bones like a guillotine. By this time the Delta has probably been made safe for cows, and forever dull for adventuring hunters. Freedom from fear has arrived, but a glory has departed from the green lagoons (Leopold, 1928, p. 143-144).
This is the first of two posts concerning jaguars in the United States of America. It details the decline of this great cat, and the glory that was lost along with it. The second will focus on its unlikely return.
During historical times (late 1500s onward), jaguars have been reported in much of the southern United States. Their accepted range included parts of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana (Alanen, 2015; USFWS, 2012).
However, there are anecdotal references that place jaguars far outside this range. Rufus B. Sage (1857) told of an 1843 encounter with a spotted cat in Colorado. While there is some uncertainty over this creature’s identity, many reviewers believe it was a jaguar (Brown & Lopez-Gonzalez, 2001; Rabinowitz, 2014). I have also come across evidence of bounties offered for “tygers” in Natchez, Mississippi (Holmes, 1961). This is significant because during the 1700s, jaguars were sometimes referred to as tygers.
The most intriguing possibility is that jaguars once roamed as far east as the Carolinas. In The Jaguar’s Shadow, Mahler (2009) writes about two sources that place tygers in North Carolina. I have also located an article titled Carolina, or a Description of the Present State of that Country which mentions tygers in South Carolina (Ashe, 1682, p. 149). Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the validity of these sources.
The jaguar has a rare ability to generate admiration, even devotion, from its human neighbors. While this phenomenon is well documented in South and Central America, jaguars were also important to the indigenous peoples of North America (Pavlik, 2003).
The Mimbres, Hohokam, Casa Grande, and Anasazi all produced artwork which likely depicts jaguars (Brown & Lopez-Gonzalez, 2001). One spectacular image appears on a mural in New Mexico’s Pottery Mound site (Mahler, 2009; Pavlik, 2003). The painting was created by the Anasazi, and Pavlik (2003) calls it, “Well drawn and unmistakable” (160).
The jaguar also may have been featured in Native American spiritual practices (Pavlik, 2003). The mythical rohona, an important animal in Pueblo religion, was probably a jaguar (Mahler, 2009; Pavlik, 2003). In addition, it seems that some Apaches believed in a powerful form of jaguar medicine. After brutally murdering a man, one rogue Apache claimed, “I made jaguar medicine on him and grabbed him like a jaguar and killed him. I was like a jaguar” (Pavlik, 2003, p. 166).
Lastly, quivers made of jaguar skin were highly valued by several Native American tribes (Mahler, 2009).
Native Americans and jaguars alike were doomed by the arrival of European Americans. The earliest record I have of a Caucasian American killing a jaguar comes from James Ohio Pattie (1905). In 1820, he claims to have killed an animal resembling an African leopard in Baja California (Pattie, 1905; Brown & Lopez-Gonzalez, 2001).
Pattie’s encounter signaled the beginning of the end for North American jaguars. Over the next century, many of these magnificent cats were killed by ranchers and their employees. Still more were poisoned or shot by agents of the Biological Survey (Brown & Lopez-Gonzalez, 2001; Mahler, 2009). This arm of the US government later split to form two modern branches: The United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the secretive Wildlife Services (Robinson, 2006).
In 1963, the last known female jaguar in the US was killed by one of these government agents (Mahler, 2009). Jaguars received protection in the state of Arizona in 1969, but it made no difference. Jaguars were illegally shot in both 1971 and 1986, but prosecutions were never made (Brown & Lopez Gonzalez, 2001).
After the latter event, it appeared that jaguars had been extirpated in the United States. But el tigre persisted south of the border, and nature has an impressive ability to heal. Thus it would not be long before jaguars reappeared in the American southwest.
*For those interested in prehistoric jaguars, Twilight Beasts has an excellent post.
Brown, D. E., & López-González, C. A. (2001). Borderland jaguars: Tigres de la frontera. Salt Lake City, UT: The University of Utah Press.
Mahler, R. (2009). The jaguar’s shadow: Searching for a mythic cat. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Pavlik, S. (2003). Rohonas and spotted lions: The historical and cultural occurrence of the jaguar, Panthera onca, among the native tribes of the American southwest. Wicazo Sa Review, 18(1), 157-175. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1409436
Rabinowitz, A. (2014). An indomitable beast: The remarkable journey of the jaguar. Washington, D.C., Covelo, & London, UK: Island Press.