Another October comes to the San Diego Zoo, signaling an annual celebration on Big Cat Trail. October 21, 2013, marks the 21st birthday of Orson, our beloved black jaguar. This makes Orson the oldest cat at the Zoo and among the five oldest jaguars in accredited zoos in North America. For comparison’s sake, a 21-year-old jaguar is comparable to a human well over the age of 90. For his special day, we plan on putting a femur bone in a “gift” box, and he’ll get some frozen “blood-sicles.”
Although a little slower and a little grayer than he was in his prime, Orson is still an impressive guy. From local members who make weekly pilgrimages to visit Orson to out-of-towners who haven’t been to the Zoo in a decade but say, “I remember the black jaguar from my last vacation here,” Orson has long been a highlight of any visit to the Zoo.
Although Orson has lived in San Diego long enough to be considered a local, his green eyes and melanistic coat give you the feeling of an exotic creature from far away jungles. In truth, this is not entirely the case—jaguars used to roam the southwestern US with a range including San Diego County! Unfortunately, the last known wild California jaguar was killed near Palm Springs in 1860. Due to habitat loss and hunting, no significant population of jaguars has occurred in the US for about 100 years.
On very rare occasions, jaguars are still seen in the wild in the US, brief visitors from a population located in northern Mexico. Recently, a single jaguar has been photographed by scientists on multiple occasions in the mountains of southern Arizona. This has caused excitement and growing support to protect habitat in that area in the hopes that jaguars may repatriate the area they once roamed in the not-too-distant past.
Orson’s local legacy can be traced much further back into California’s prehistoric past. Around 80 specimens of Panthera atrox have been discovered a short drive north, at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. Though commonly called the American lion, this extinct cat is probably more accurately referred to as a giant jaguar. This distant ancestor must have been truly impressive, as it was five times larger than Orson! Most people probably think about how huge this cat’s head or teeth must have been, but in true zookeeper fashion, I can only imagine having to rake up five times more poop.
Make sure to stop by and visit Orson, who represents a recent, magnificent, and extraordinarily long chapter in the history of jaguars right in our backyard.
Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Don’t Miss the Lynx.