Life and death and the jaguars of the mind

Jaguar attacking a tapir

In 1913, former President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt visited a remote part of Brazil, where he shot dead a wild jaguar. Posing for a photograph, he pulled back the jaguar’s lips to reveal its sharp fangs. “Its flesh, by the way,” he wrote, “proved good eating, when we had it for supper.”

A little over a century later, another man went on a jaguar hunt, this time in the Peruvian Amazon. His name was Celsor and he believed an elderly hunter from a village downstream had turned into the big cat when he died. As Emma Marris reported for National Geographic, Celsor shot the jaguar through the heart with a bow and arrow, then burned its body to ensure the man’s dangerous spirit would not return.

To Celsor, the hunt was urgent. The jaguar had killed dogs and chickens; a villager could be next. To Roosevelt, killing the jaguar was sport. It affirmed his masculinity. While he called himself the ‘conservationist president’, his view of the jaguar was rooted in prejudice, not science. Celsor’s spiritual beliefs, meanwhile, have a surprising link to ecology.

Such differences of perspective determine whether people kill jaguars wantonly or out of necessity. For a species being nudged to the edge of extinction, the way people think matters. But the jaguars of the mind are always evolving. And, as new research shows, when money enters the picture, opinions can soon shift.

Jaguar headshot — Pascal Blachier / Wikimedia Commons

The jaguar is the largest predator in the lands it roams. It once thrived across much of South America, all of Central America, and into the southwestern United States, but hunting and deforestation have slashed its numbers and range.

To Roosevelt, the jaguar was a pest, a malevolent predator of livestock. He was an ardent naturalist but also a macho man, for whom loving nature meant controlling it, hunting it and showing off the trophies. While he promoted efforts to conserve game such as deer and elk, he saw their predators as cowardly yet vicious killing machines.

Roosevelt’s framing of jaguars as “savage”, “dangerous”, and “man-eaters” served to rationalize his violence towards them, says Sharon Wilcox of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a new study, she contrasts Roosevelt’s portrayal of the jaguar with that of two other influential American writers of the early 20th century: Ernest Thompson Seton and Aldo Leopold. She charts a marked evolution.

Seton, who wrote dozens of books about wildlife between 1868 and 1945, said he aimed to “present a more pleasing conception of the jaguar than the established picture of it as a monster of unmitigated and bloody ferocity.” He wanted to show instead “the animal’s human side”.

Wilcox says Seton’s writing “marked the beginning of an inclusive, non-anthropocentric environmental ethos that recognised the negative impacts of short-sighted, progress-driven, human-oriented management on the landscape”.

Roosevelt was enraged. He said Seton and other writers undermined the scientific credibility of natural history with their prose, which bestowed animals with human-like intent and admirable qualities such as heroism, intelligence, and loyalty. He called them “nature fakers”.

One of Roosevelt’s targets, William J. Long, fired back in an open letter: “I find after carefully reading two of his big books that every time he gets near the heart of a wild thing he invariably puts a bullet through it.” Long said Roosevelt took delight in “whooping through the woods killing everything in sight”.

Indeed, Roosevelt lamented that only one species had eluded his gun in the United States. It was the jaguar. It was already near-extinct there, thanks to habitat loss and eradication programs to protect livestock. When the third writer in Wilcox’s study, Aldo Leopold, sought out the jaguar in the Colorado River Delta in 1922, he “saw neither hide nor hair of him.”

Leopold was chasing a ghost. Two decades later he wrote that: “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.”

The malign jaguar that prowled Roosevelt’s pages had evolved into another animal altogether by the time Leopold recorded the decline of the species. Leopald saw that predators have intrinsic value, and that when they disappear their functions too are lost. Wilcox says that, by showing nature without centring it on human needs, he helped usher in a new era of eco-centric conservation.

It was a huge shift from Roosevelt’s anthropocentrism. But even this transformation feels small when compared to the perspectives of people living further south, for whom the boundary between humans and jaguars is not fixed.


Jaguar warrior painted on mural at Cacaxtla, Mexico more than a thousand years ago

“Jaguars have been prominent in the mythology and religious and political symbolism in many parts of Central and South America, from ancient times to the present day,” says Glenn Shepard, an ethnobotanist and anthropologist based at the Goeldi Museum in Belém, Brazil. “There is also a widespread concept that some people — warriors, shamans — turn into jaguars.”

In some places, the ability to transform into a jaguar is seen as a sign of spiritual power, as among the Baniwa people of the northwest Amazon. By contrast, says Shepard, the Matsigenka people who live in the Peruvian Amazon are afraid of turning into jaguars. They believe that some elderly people begin changing into jaguars at night, a process that culminates in full transformation when they die.

Shepard realized the Matsigenka beliefs in ‘were-jaguars’ had roots in ecology when he saw skulls of jaguars that villagers had killed. In most, the teeth were extremely worn or rotten, or missing altogether. Shepard surmised that the jaguars into which the Matsigenka say old and infirm people transform are themselves old. They would struggle to take a peccary or tapir, but would find a village child easy meat.

“Whenever a jaguar appears close to a village, it is always considered to be an old or ill person who has begun the process of transformation,” said Shepard, in a 2014 conference presentation. “People’s justified fears of such old, infirm jaguars appear to become enmeshed with their ambiguous attitude towards old and infirm loved ones.”

Did Roosevelt hear such stories? “His work certainly incorporated local residents’ stories about jaguars, including indigenous groups,” says Sharon Wilcox, but “he had a funny position to these narratives. If they confirmed his perspectives on jaguar behaviour, he readily reported them. If they conflicted, he tended to dismiss these as non-‘expert’.”

But Roosevelt was an outsider in the jaguar’s realm. Eco-centrism was alien to him. He was of European heritage and Judaeo-Christian thinking, which framed the wilderness as a threat that must be tamed. But the cowardice and malevolent violence with which Roosevelt falsely painted jaguars might have easily been a self-portrait.

The jaguar he killed in 1913 had taken refuge up a tree from a pack of “yelling and howling” hunting dogs, having been chased through a swamp by five men on horseback. Roosevelt slew it with his favourite rifle, “with which I have killed most kinds of African game, from the lion and elephant down.” He said it fell from the tree like a sack of sand.

The marauder that day was not the jaguar. It was Roosevelt. His description of the hunt is, however, thrilling, and it portrays him in heroic terms. To paraphrase an African proverb about lions: “Until the jaguars have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”


Theodore Roosevelt with the jaguar he shot in 1914

Roosevelt’s views are passé now, thanks in part to writers like Seton and Leopold, who changed public attitudes towards predatory animals. Today, people will travel long distances and pay large sums in the hope of seeing a wild jaguar, not shooting one. But one problem that concerned Roosevelt — predation of livestock — remains a reality for ranchers in the Pantanal region of Brazil where he shot his jaguar.

In a study published in July 2017, however, ecologist Fernando Tortato and colleagues showed that jaguars in this landscape bring in 56 times more in ecotourist dollars than they cost ranchers when they prey on their cattle. They say a small tourist levy could compensate ranchers for their losses, enabling jaguars and livestock to coexist, and that tourists are willing to pay.

Tortato, who is the jaguar scientist at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, says ecotourism diversifies job opportunities without excluding livestock activity: “The local community sees the jaguar as a source of revenue and not only losses.”

And so the jaguars of the mind continue to evolve, in this case into animals worth more alive than dead. Whether cast as violent killers or noble beasts, as ghosts or money-makers, they are always shifting into new forms, reflecting changes in how we think about the world about us. It seems that whoever looks into a jaguar’s eyes finds something of themselves looking back.


This article was first published by on 23 October 2017

Image credits: Jaguar attacking a tapir—Wikimedia Commons; Jaguar headshot — Pascal Blachier / Wikimedia Commons; Jaguar warrior painted on a mural at Cacaxtla, Mexico more than one thousand years ago—Wikimedia Commons; Theodore Roosevelt poses with the jaguar he shot in 1913— The American Museum journal / Wikimedia Commons; Ecotourist photographing jaguar—Fernando Tortato/Panthera.


Marris, E. 2016. The Anthropologist and His Old Friend, Who Became a Jaguar. National Geographic. [Read online]

Wilcox, S. 2017. Savage jaguars, king cats, and ghostly tigres: Affective logics and predatory natures in twentieth-century American nature writing. The Professional Geographer. Published online: 10 August 2017 [Read online]

Wright, R. M. 2013. Mysteries of the Jaguar Shamans of the Northwest Amazon. University of Nebraska Press. [Download sample]

Roosevelt, T. 1914. Through the Brazilian Wilderness. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons. [Read online]

Shepard, G. 2014. Old and in the way — Jaguar transformation in Matsigenka. Paper presented at the International Congress of Ethnobiology, Bhutan, June 2014 and the Conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, Goteborg, Sweden, June 2014. [Read online]

Tortato, F. R. et al. (2017). The numbers of the beast: Valuation of jaguar (Panthera onca) tourism and cattle depredation in the Brazilian Pantanal. Global Ecology and Conservation 11: 106-114. [Download PDF]

Marley, J.E. 2017. Curiosity saves the cat: Tourism helps reinvent the jaguar. [Read online]


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