Orson: Two Decades As Jaguar Ambassador

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Orson checks out a colorful popsicle.

This October 21 is a milestone birthday for our black jaguar, Orson. The elder statesman of Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo will hit the ripe old age of 20. In zoos, only about 15 percent of jaguars reach the age of 20; for comparison, about 15 percent of Americans live to the age of 90! Orson may have slowed a little over time and sprouts a few more gray hairs every day, but he is still an impressive sight to see.

Orson came to the San Diego Zoo 15 years ago and in that time has educated, entertained, and amazed literally millions of Zoo visitors. Thousands more have been able to get inches away from him during our behind-the-scenes tours and summer camp programs. Unlike many cats that like to find a distant hidden part of their habitat to watch the world go by, Orson has always preferred to plop himself front and center in his exhibit where all can get an up-close look at him. This has made Orson one of the most popular animals at the Zoo.

On a recent behind-the-scenes tour, a young teenager told me that meeting Orson up close was “a life-changing experience.” Maybe that young lady will study jaguars and develop better conservation techniques to help them, maybe she will invent a renewable fuel source, or maybe she will become a hardcore recycler. Any way, Orson has done his “job,” inspiring people to become passionate about conserving both jaguars and our natural world.

On your next visit to the Zoo make sure to stop by and visit Orson. You may get to hear his roar filling the canyon or see him devouring a beef shank with his massive jaws. Just don’t forget to wish him many happy returns.

Update: On Sunday, October 21, at 11:30 a.m., Orson will receive some special birthday enrichment.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, The World’s Rarest Cats: Growing Up.