In this image I see perfection, a creature perfectly adapted to and living in harmony with its environment. Full disclosure, I tend to view all animals that way. By that I mean they are fully what and who they are, true to their nature with no desire to be other than that. Each species is unique, and individuals within the species have distinctive personalities. Anyone who has lived with a pet understands this. Some might argue about wild animals living in harmony with their environment because of the predator-prey relationship, but the food chain is precisely how life sustains and perpetuates more life. An animal out of harmony with its environment would be one that tends to destroy it or use it up. Ultimately it would destroy itself because, as the links in a chain—or ecosystem—are weakened or destroyed, the chain fails.
A friend sent me the link to a video that shows a jaguar in the mountains around Tucson, Arizona. Some publishers reported that it’s the “last jaguar in the United States,” but that’s not accurate. Alan Rabinowitz, the world’s leading authority on jaguars, provides a map in his book—An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar—that shows their range from Argentina, through Mexico and into the American Southwest. Most fascinating, is the existence of an “underground railway” (his term), a swath of land running the length of their range that allows modern day animals to feed and breed while skirting fences, cattle land and human habitation. Considering that jaguars are more active at night, it was indeed unusual to capture one on camera, much less in Arizona. If you’re interested in jaguars or animal conservation more generally, Rabinowitz’s informative and encouraging book is a must read.
Jaguars are at the top of the food chain. Considered a “keystone” species, they play an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating the populations of the animals they hunt. Their bite is exceptional among big cats, able to pierce the shells of turtles and armadillos. Their unique killing method is to pierce through the skull. After years of research, Rabinowitz found that jaguars shy away from humans, there being very few incidents of attacks. Even fewer reports are conclusive. DNA indicates that the forerunners of today’s jaguars crossed the Bering Strait land bridge connecting Asia to North America between 280,000 and 510,000 years ago, following the deer and other animals that covered the landscape in huge herds. According to current estimates, jaguars were here before our earliest ancestors appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago.
Being the only cat that is as much at home in the water and in trees as on the ground, indigenous cultures regarded them as masters over all dimensions—gods of both the Underworld and the celestial realm. The Tucano Indians of the Amazon regarded the jaguar’s roar as thunder. To them he was the god of darkness. The Arawak Indians say everything has jaguar spirit, nothing exists without it. Olmec imagery depicts an abundance of where-jaguars, beings that are part human and part jaguar. Maya kings, Aztec rulers and shaman, as shapeshifters, transformed themselves into jaguars to gain strength and free themselves of all cultural restrictions. But why deify them? Addressing that question, Alan Rabinowitz says the word for him that best explains it is “indomitable.” Jaguars are impossible to defeat. It’s why rulers and warriors throughout Mexico, Central and South America took the name “Jaguar.” By identifying themselves with the animal’s spirit power, they became powerful, like unto the gods. Native Americans did the same thing with the buffalo. The Chinese have their dragon, the Russians their bear and we our bald eagle. It’s not the animal per se that was regarded by the ancients as divine, it was the qualities of spirit they saw in them that was respected, glorified and emulated. Those qualities of spirit represent the perfection of attributes we would like to have. It’s like wanting to be a superhero.
What in our day are the qualities of spirit that we want to emulate? Who do we want to be like when we grow up? What are the traits we admire today, and where do we find them? In sports figures? Movie and television characters? The celebrities who play them? Living and not living saints, sinners, comic book hero and cartoon characters display specific powers of spirit. Their stories are all about that. Personally, I think indigenous people, Native Americans in particular, were wise to recognize and adopt the qualities of animals, birds, reptiles and insects. They made great effort to observe their spirits so they could learn from them how to live in harmony with nature. Without the distractions of human personality, self-seeking, socialization and gamesmanship, the Great Spirit is more evident. Sometimes startlingly so. Just look in the eyes of a jaguar—or your dog or cat. What you’re seeing there is life perfected.
Harmony, when it appears, makes one feel as though one was getting a slight but thrilling intimation of, or even recognition of, a total perfection to which we all really belong.
An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.
Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
Panthers and jaguars are close cousins genetically. Panthers have spots. Jaguars have florets with spots in the middle. Both can be black overall, but each will have the distinctive marking, just darker. The male and female that I photographed were young and medium-sized. I’ve seen pictures of jaguars that are nearly twice this size.
ABOUT THESE IMAGES
On line I discovered that the closest zoo that had jaguars was in Akron, Ohio. I wanted to shoot a cover for my second novel, Jaguar Wind and Waves, so I called ahead and they assured me that I could photograph two of them—close up but behind glass. Photographing animals through glass is never desirable, so I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived and was guided to the display by an administrator. The architect of the jaguar display was apparently someone who understood that people would want to take pictures of these beautiful animals without annoying reflections. So while the cats were outdoors with lots of vegetation, rocks and trees to climb on, we humans were behind clean glass with a fully enclosed and dark grotto surround us, eliminating reflections. What a delight!
I had the shot I wanted—of just the side of a jaguar to show the black florets—an hour after my arrival. But I was so taken by the jaguars and having so much fun photographing I stayed another day and made close to two hundred exposures. It has long been on my bucket list to pet a jaguar, but that wasn’t possible. Understandably.