The Jaguar’s Tale

Aug 2011

By: Laura Crawford Williams

The Beginning
I don’t know how to tell this story. I’ve tried to write it many times. The reason for my difficulty is emotional: a mixture of anxiety, desire, frustration, and failure. This is a sad story.

The story begins on a small estancia in Northeastern Argentina, where German and I met two captive jaguars: Sinbad and Simone. It was a chance meeting, not planned or expected. Before living in captivity, Sinbad and Simone were considered problem jaguars accused of killing livestock on nearby estancias. Problem jaguars are killed in Argentina, despite the fact that it’s illegal. Keeping jaguars in captivity without the proper qualifications is also illegal, so the man who trapped and kept them was also breaking the law.  He did it to save their lives, but what’s the lesser of two evils: to kill the jaguars or cage them? In the beginning, the answer was very clear to me, but now I’m not so sure.

Serendipity guides this story. Each time I returned to Argentina, we were consistently re-connected to Sinbad and Simone through random conversations and coincidental meetings with a variety of people in a variety of places. Overtime, I began to feel a sense of responsibility. I don’t believe in fate, but I can’t deny the unusual nature of the circumstances.

The First Visit
Jaguars are impressively powerful and I had a surprisingly strong emotional reaction to their size, strength, and demeanor. This is brutal beauty at it’s finest. Sinbad looked rather healthy but Simone was throwing up in her cage. I do not condone photography of captive animals, especially animals kept in conditions and circumstances such as Sinbad and Simone. (I will photograph rehabilitated animals that are no longer able to return to the wild.) But, repeated offers to donate time, materials, and money to improve the cats living conditions were wholeheartedly refused. The only answer I could find was to document the situation and then find a way to use the images to help them.

I spent the most time with Sinbad. He was very calm and accepting, even when I was very close. I watched his behavior carefully, slowly working my way closer and closer and staying low to the ground. By the end, I was using a macro lens as Sinbad lounged patiently against the bars. My surprise came when the keeper that had caged and cared for Sinbad for over a decade came near the enclosure. Sinbad’s demeanor changed completely. He growled, hissed, and roared while pacing. The difference in behavior was startling; I realized I’d been naïve to be so close. Sinbad’s giant paws had no trouble squeezing through cage bars in order to scratch his taunting keeper.

At one point, while German was on the phone, the keeper came to me and waved for me to follow him. He didn’t speak English so we were playing charades. He pointed to my camera and then placed me directly in front of Simone’s cage door. I was confused and then shocked as he slowly began to open the door. Simone stared and growled at him directly. She wasn’t interested in me… yet. He waved at me and pointed at my camera. I took 6 frames in a very confused and panicked state. On the last frame, through the viewfinder, I saw Simone turn her head toward me and stare directly. The keeper quickly slammed the door shut.

There’s a blurry line between what we feel we must do and what we believe is the right thing to do in a situation like this. Perhaps my choices could have been better. We did not walk away and declare true feelings of outrage or tragic sadness for the conditions and treatment of these animals. In my mind, the best interest of the animals superseded stating our dislike of the situation. We were being as friendly as necessary to convince the keeper to accept our help.

The Second Visit
Not satisfied that we had done all we could, we returned 2 weeks after our first visit. Again we were refused. The keeper was convinced that if he made things better for the cats, the government would “take his farm” and “exploit the jaguars”. We were frustrated and defeated, but we gave him money and he promised to get better food and health care for the cats.  Around the same time, German and I were beginning our photo tour business. Conservation education is an important part of our mission statement and we agreed that Sinbad was a perfect choice for our logo. Sinbad was to be our ambassador and he remains so today.

4 Months Later
While having dinner with a friend in Corrientes, one guest began telling the story of a hermit who lived with jaguars in the jungle of the Northeast. Guess who? The tale had taken a tragic spin after Sinbad killed the keepers’ brother when opening the cage to feed him. Afterward, Sinbad didn’t run away. He stayed in his cage with the door wide open. He had lived in captivity for so many years, that freedom was no longer a consideration. We asked what had happened to the cats but no one seemed to know. We finally found a newspaper article on the Internet, but it said only that the government confiscated the cats. It didn’t say where they had been taken.

1 Week Later
While walking through a small airport in the Northeast, a security guard stopped German for having a utility knife on his belt. The guard asked German to put it in the car and escorted him to the parking lot to do so. Upon seeing our company logo (with Sinbad in the middle), the guard mentioned his work with a local wildlife facility that had just received two new jaguars: Sinbad and Simone! Within a few days, we met the guard at a government owned rehabilitation facility and visited our old friends. It was one of the most depressing days in my life. The cats were caged in a small building that stood in the bright, hot sunlight. The cement walls were 5 feet tall and without windows. Only bars at the top allowed a view down into the cats’ separate compartments. I thought they had lived in the worst conditions before, but I was wrong. Both cats looked sick. Sinbad had lost weight and seemed diminished. Simone looked worse. Her tail was swollen with infection and her eyes cloudy. She was lying on her side and would only raise her head to look up. She had always been aggressive, constantly growling and pacing in the past. Now, she didn’t move beyond tossing her head for an occasional halfhearted growl. I saw scraps of meat but no water around them. The cages were very small, dirty, hot, and barren. I got up on German’s shoulders and began taking pictures down into the cages. Both cats were extremely lethargic and unresponsive. A worker confirmed that the cats had been drugged, but wouldn’t say why.

Two Days Later
A client was coming to travel with us for 3 weeks and we’d arranged for him to photograph raptors at a privately owned wildlife rehabilitation center. This center is extremely well equipped and has the very best veterinary care. On our tour of the center, the manager showed us enclosures set-up specifically for jaguars. But, the cages were empty. We were excited and talked about Sinbad and Simone. She knew of them and had been trying to get them moved to her facility, but political muscle was keeping this from happening. The man in charge of the government wildlife facility was standing in the way.

The End of the Story?
There is so much more to this story, but the summary is that despite the obvious benefits of the privately owned facility, all attempts to move the cats have failed. I ask that anyone who feels they can be more successful at changing the mind of self-serving politicians, please contact me and teach me what can be done. We’ve tried, our friends have tried, but we’ve been told that by fighting we are putting ourselves at risk. So, I’m walking a fine line into unknown territory. Is there a way to make the remaining years of these unfortunate animals a little better? In the beginning, I thought ‘alive and caged’ was better than dead. After this experience, I can no longer say that with conviction.