Day of a Jaguar

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Nindiri, the San Diego Zoo’s young female jaguar, spends most of her time in an enclosure behind the main jaguar exhibit in Cat Canyon (see Karen’s previous blog, Jaguars: Meet Nindiri). However, she is often visible beyond the back right corner of the main exhibit.

When she first arrived at the Zoo, she often spent the night in a large, open box, bedded with hay and located at the upper corner of her enclosure. Now that the weather is cooler, she sleeps in a double-walled “dogloo,” which is heavily bedded with hay. At the first check of the day, she knows food is not offered, and she tends to sleep in, so I must approach the sunroom where the dogloo is kept and peer into the dark interior, while a sleepy-eyed cat peers back.

Later in the morning, I return to service the area and rotate Nindiri onto exhibit for part of the day. By this time, she is up and active and very ready for breakfast. I give her a portion of her food in order to take the edge off her never-ending appetite. Despite her eagerness for food, she is a slow eater, and it takes her many seconds to consume even a smallish meatball.

Nindiri is always eager to shift onto the exhibit, but I must also shift our gorgeous, black jaguar, Orson, off exhibit and service (clean and prepare) the exhibit before releasing her into it. A cardboard box placed in the sunroom provides a good distraction for her energies. A training session provides more of her daily diet, another outlet for her energy and mental stimulation.

While we house two jaguars in close proximity, they are never put together. Adult jaguars are solitary in the wild, and Nindiri and Orson are not recommended for breeding, according to the Jaguar Species Survival Plan, which manages jaguars in captivity across North America. This requires a carefully choreographed rotation so the two cannot come into contact.

Behind the back wall of the jaguar exhibit are four bedrooms and a small alcove leading to the exhibit door on the back left-hand side of the exhibit. The sunroom, a small area, has doors leading into the alcove and into the back area, called the garden room, where Nindiri spends most of her time. Orson moves off exhibit into the bedrooms via a door toward the right-hand side of the exhibit and remains in rooms two and three, so there is always a buffer room between the cats. Once the exhibit is serviced, Nindiri is shifted through the alcove and onto exhibit. Orson is then shifted into the garden room until the rotation is reversed later in the day.

Nindiri knows that something will have changed in the exhibit and she quickly explores the area. Usually, she’ll start with a meatball hunt, searching for the small meatballs that were left in different locations each day. Enrichment options are frequently changed, to provide novelty for the animals. If the large, plastic bowl is in the exhibit pond, that is often her next stop. She pulls the bowl out of the pond and around the exhibit; we assume this is a demonstration of the jaguar’s tendency to cache food in the wild. She doesn’t try to take the bowl up into a tree, but often leaves it in the cave. Because Orson has recently exited the exhibit, she will also be experiencing his odors—another enrichment option for both of them. Once she has exhausted the options, she often rests on the lower bench on the right-hand side of the exhibit, or on the flat area just below, watching the world go by.

Late morning or early afternoon, she is shifted into the bedrooms where she will find a snack to keep her busy while Orson is returned to the exhibit. Once she is released into the sunroom and garden room, she may also have another training session with the last of her food. New enrichment options may have been placed in these back areas, so she has something else to do or explore.

And so another day is done.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.