Arizona Jaguar Symbolizes Hope, Controversy

Wild jaguars were thought to have been killed-off in the United States, until an Arizona rancher saw one 14 years ago. The lone jaguar became a symbol of hope. More recently, when it died, it became a symbol of controversy. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been ordered to put together a plan to bring the hemisphere's largest cat back to the Southwest.

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Everyone thought wild jaguars were long gone here in the U.S. until, 14 years ago, a rancher in Arizona spotted one. That lone jaguar became a symbol of hope, and more recently with its death, a symbol of controversy. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been ordered to put together a plan to bring the hemisphere's largest cat back to the Southwest. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: No one knows if there are any jaguars left in the Southwest U.S. They are stealthy and reclusive, so the only place you and I are likely to see the powerful cat is in the zoo.

What are they getting?

Ms. DEBORAH HENLEY(ph) (Zookeeper, Reid Park Zoo): This is horse meat and beef heart. And they get this twice a day, and they also get additional meat midday, like a midday snack. So...

ROBBINS: Zookeeper Deborah Hanley feed sister jaguars Nikita and Simone at Tucson's Reid Park Zoo. These jaguars are dark, almost black. Others are tan with black spots. Nikita and Simone were born in captivity. They wouldn't survive in the wild.

But at least one jaguar, nicknamed Macho B, was living along the border in southern Arizona until last year. That's when he was captured in a leg hold snare by a team from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. At the time, Bill Van Pelt told reporters his team was trying capture mountain lions and bears, not jaguars.

Mr. BILL VAN PELT (Arizona Game and Fish Department): We did not set out to capture this animal. This was an incidental capture.

ROBBINS: Macho B was tranquilized, fitted with a radio collar and released. Twelve days later, the elderly jaguar was recaptured, sick with kidney failure. Van Pelt said Macho B had to be euthanized.

Mr. VAN PELT: And while the loss of the jaguar is very disappointing, both from an emotional and a scientific level.

ROBBINS: Its capture may also have been illegal. A recent congressional investigation concluded it wasn't incidental at all, but a bungled, intentional operation. The Center for Biological Diversity was one of the conservation groups which pushed for that investigation.

The center was also responsible for getting the jaguar on the endangered species list, and most recently successfully suing the government to create a recovery plan for the species. Kieran Suckling is its executive director.

Mr. KIERAN SUCKLING (Executive Director, The Center for Biological Diversity): We have a moral responsibility to recover a species that we, as a nation, drove out of America by shooting and gassing and snaring every last animal.

ROBBINS: But Alan Rabinowitz says there is no evidence that a large population of jaguar every existed in the U.S. Rabinowitz is a jaguar biologist who helped establish the world's first jaguar sanctuary in Belize. An individual jaguar can cover 30 miles a day. So Rabinowitz say Macho B was an anomaly, roaming in and out of the country.

Jaguars exist by the thousands from Mexico down to South America, but their numbers are declining, so Rabinowitz says governments and conservations should work to save them south of the border.

Dr. ALAN RABINOWITZ (Jaguar Biologist): Trying to recover an animal that has not occurred in the United States, at least in historic times, I can't see where that makes a lot of sense.

ROBBINS: The Fish and Wildlife Service is studying what land would be necessary for jaguar survival, called critical habitat. Then it will draw up a recovery plan for the animal. After that, it'll be time to decide if it makes sense to actually bring jaguars into the United States.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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