black jaguar


Cheers to a Local Legend

Come with Orson a happy birthday!

Come wish Orson a happy birthday!

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.

Orson finds a tasty treat.

Orson jumps up to claim his prize.

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.






Orson: Two Decades As Jaguar Ambassador

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.


Zoo Legend Finds New Home

jaguar_orsonFor more than a decade, one of the most memorable and recognizable faces on our Big Cat Trail has been an amazing black jaguar named Orson. Practically a San Diego Zoo mascot, Orson is known and loved by not only our Zoo community but also by anyone who has had the privilege to gaze upon this majestic animal. Many of our Zoo members include a visit with Orson in his Big Cat Trail exhibit as part of their regular route through the Zoo. Well, for many of our members, their routes are about to change!

This past week, Orson’s world just grew a whole lot bigger with a move up to the brand-new jaguar exhibit in Elephant Odyssey. His new home includes ample climbing structures, a large pool stocked with live fish for the taking, a cave featuring a toasty “hot rock,” and a larger exhibit footprint than his previous space. The always level-headed Orson took the move in stride, and after a little apprehension he began exploring his new surroundings. His inquisitive nature had him learning about the properties of glass in the viewing windows, something that he had not experienced in his previous exhibit, and wading into the large pool on his very first day. The bus road behind the exhibit also became an early source of entertainment as Orson began stalking the vehicles that passed by his new home.

The previous jaguar housed in this exhibit, a two-year-old female named Nindiri, had also left a lot of female Jaguar smells to investigate (read Jaguar: Meet Nindiri). The work of covering up those smells with his own scent began almost immediately. The move provides a high degree of enrichment as it is likely that Orson, an older cat with a touch of arthritis, will enjoy the more direct sun of Elephant Odyssey’s jaguar exhibit, particularly during the cooler winter months.

This first move is actually a part of a bigger plan to provide a little more excitement in the lives of both of our jaguars. Both the Elephant Odyssey exhibit and their Big Cat Trail home serve as nice accommodations, offering up something different at each part of the Zoo. Therefore, in the name of providing the best for both of our jaguars, the ultimate goal will be to put in place a kind of regular rotation that will allow both cats to enjoy both exhibits, thereby expanding the territories for both of them. The frequency of moves and seasonality of the changes will be dictated by our cats, but the hope is that both cats get the most out of their exhibits by experiencing them intermittently, much like wild jaguars can experience portions of their range at different times throughout the year.

For now, though, I would like to invite all of you devoted Orson fans to come up to Elephant Odyssey to visit an old friend and get your “Orson fix.” Watch him enjoy his change of scenery and possibly get a new perspective on a San Diego Zoo staple. And as we move forward, keep an eye out for some upcoming moves between our jaguar exhibits as we strive to provide the most fulfilling and enriching life for both of our beautiful jaguar ambassadors.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, The Pride of Elephant Odyssey.


Favorite Jaguar Moments

I am privileged to work the exhibits in Cat Canyon. Each species has its own mind set; its own management challenges, its own beauty. Each individual, its own personality.

We have two jaguars. Orson, a magnificent black jaguar, and Nindiri, a small female with the more normal coat pattern of black spots on a golden coat. They are placed on exhibit, one at a time, during the day. Each seems to enjoy their time on exhibit and the admiration of guests and staff alike. When I think of them, several moments come to mind:

– I love Orson’s glossy, black coat. If you look closely when the sun shines on his coat you’ll see that he has black spots, it’s just that his are against a black background. He is a gorgeous combination of power and beauty. Awesome is an over-used word these days, but it truly describes Orson.

– Orson’s eyes have a green hue.

– During the warmer months, Orson was often draped over the forked branch at the front of his exhibit when I walked by at the morning’s check. This is a very jaguar thing to do.

– Nindiri drapes herself across the forked branches, but not well. One would think her smaller size would make it easier for her. However, she seems uncertain where to put her belly and can be seen frequently adjusting her balance. This is a recent behavior for her. She doesn’t stay there long, possibly because it’s not a comfy position for her. Perhaps she’ll get better with time?

– In the afternoon, with dappled sunlight filtering into the exhibit, Orson often rests on his back, right at the front of the exhibit, watching the guests from an upside-down vantage point.

– Seeing Nindiri resting on the bench on exhibit, her energy stilled for the time being. She looks content.

– Nindiri’s efforts to drag a large bowl out of the pond are always impressive. The bowl is almost as big as she is, but her determination overcomes obstacles as she moves it around the exhibit.

– I enjoy watching their tails. They look like they’ve got a separate brain in their tail tip. The tail tip is often moving, seemingly independent from whatever the cat is doing.

Stop by our jaguar exhibit and find your own favorite moments.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, A Jaguar’s Day.

Jaguars are the featured animal in the January issue of ZOONOOZ, our member magazine. For video and a photo slide show of Orson and Nindiri, visit our ZOONOOZ page.