How we talk about wildlife matters. The words we use to describe a species can provide insight on how we feel about it – which in turn can reveal clues about how our cultures view such creatures. But it is not a one-way street: our words can also change how our societies conceptualize wildlife. A new paper written by Dr. Shari Wilcox examines how three of the 20th Century’s most prominent nature writers talked about jaguars.
Dr. Wilcox’s article is titled Savage Jaguars, King Cats, and Ghostly Tigres: Affective Logics and Predatory Natures in Twentieth-Century American Nature Writing. It deals with the work of Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Aldo Leopold. Wilcox provides a brief introduction to each author, and then examines the ways they described jaguars. Using excerpts and illustrations from their publications as evidence, she found that each writer conveyed different meanings about Panthera onca (jaguars’ scientific name). Below is a summary of some of her findings.
Theodore Roosevelt was a major figure in the 20th Century conservation movement. However, he favored predators less than game species (e.g. deer and elk). He portrayed jaguars as savage man-eaters, seemingly only ascribing them value as trophies on a wall. The killing of a jaguar was a hyper-masculine act that brought prestige to the hunter.
Ernest Thompson Seton and Aldo Leopold did not agree with Theodore Roosevelt about jaguars. Both of these men started out as predator-killers, and each one underwent a conversion after having profound experiences with dying wolves. They came to regret their past deeds, and set out to change Americans’ attitudes towards carnivores. But they used slightly different tactics.
Seton wrote about animals in a highly anthropomorphized fashion. He gave them human-like qualities and motives, seeking to evoke feelings of empathy amongst his readers. He depicted jaguars not as monsters, but as “masterpieces of creation” (Wilcox, 2017, p. 5). To Seton they were not meant to be trophies, but sentient beings with lives of their own. Leopold held similar, though less romanticized, views.
Aldo Leopold stressed predators’ functions in ecosystems. As one of the first modern ecologists, he championed conservation for its own sake – not just for the benefits it gave to humans. Leopold embraced the interrelatedness of life: of which our species is yet another participant.
Wilcox found that Leopold emphasized how jaguars affected animals and people in the American Southwest, although he did so poetically. He wrote that the jaguar’s potential presence caused deer to exercise caution, and that el tigre (as jaguars are sometimes called) was a frequent topic of campfire conversations. Leopold also artfully described the hole that was left by the extirpation of jaguars in the United States Bordlerlands.
Dr. Wilcox’s recent publication demonstrates the power of the written word to both convey and create wildlife-related beliefs. Such meanings, in turn, might influence how species are treated. This is a particularly strong lesson for myself. I am becoming increasingly convinced that I can best advance big cat conservation as a communicator, rather than as a traditional researcher. As such, I will need to be mindful about which messages I am sending through my words.
Regardless of your path in life, I suggest you check out Dr. Wilcox’s paper. It provides good information on three of the 20th Century’s most influential writers, and shows how they each contributed to understandings of “jaguarness” (Wilcox, 2017, p. 7).