jaguar keeper


A Jaguar Milestone

Orson, our black jaguar, recently hit a milestone as he turned 18 years old at his longtime home on the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. For Orson it was just another day, except for receiving a special frozen treat, a half of a cow femur bone, and handful of fish frozen into a “blood-sicle” (a mix of water and liquid from thawed meat products).

Within accredited zoos across North America, less than 10 jaguars are older than Orson, which puts him in an exclusive club. Much like housecats, any jaguar in his late teens is considered to be quite old. In rare instances jaguars have lived into their late 20s. In the wild, most jaguars live less than 10 years, as they must work hard for their meals and don’t have a staff of keepers and veterinarians looking after their well-being.

Orson’s longevity is a tribute to all of the keepers, vets, and nutritionists who have looked after him. Care of older animals like Orson can be very challenging. Animals have the innate instinct to mask any illness or injury they may be suffering from, because in the wild the slightest show of weakness may cause a predator or competitor to single them out. This is made even more difficult with a dangerous animal that you can not readily get your hands on to examine. We have trained Orson on several behaviors so we can more easily examine him. He stations on a scale for his weight to be taken, and he holds his mouth open on command for dental inspections. Fortunately, Orson has been amazingly healthy for his age, with just a small flare-up of arthritis in his knee.

On your next visit to the Zoo, make sure to stop by and appreciate Orson, the senior member of our Zoo’s cat collection. If you look closely, you may see a few gray hairs on his underside betraying his age.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguar Rotation Continues.


Jaguar Rotation Continues

Nindiri goes for a swim.

As many of you big cat fans may already know, our jaguars were again rotated at the San Diego Zoo (see previous post, Jaguar Rotation). After a stay of over three months, Orson returned to his traditional home on Big Cat Trail while Nindiri traveled back to the cat exhibit in Elephant Odyssey.

Upon Orson’s return, he spent quite a while investigating all the smells Nindiri had left in the exhibit; this is exactly what a wild jaguar spends a large portion of its time doing.

Males travel their territory monitoring the status of any nearby cats, with special attention to females that may be receptive to breeding. On top of getting the opportunity to check out Nindiri’s smell, Orson spent time in some areas of the exhibit he rarely used, as the two of them utilize the same space differently.

Shortly after Nindiri’s release, she was already playing in her pool, which was stocked full of fish that Orson hadn’t bothered to fish out. Unlike your typical house cat, most jaguars enjoy time in the water. Jaguars are excellent swimmers, and wild jaguars even hunt prey, such as caiman, in the water.

The timing seemed right for the move in regard to the change of seasons, too. On its exposed location on the mesa top, the Elephant Odyssey cat exhibit stays several degrees warmer than that of the Big Cat Trail exhibit, which is much more shaded on the side of the canyon. For the summer months, the water-loving Nindiri can take a refreshing dip in the expansive pool while Orson, who usually prefers to stay dry, will stay cool in his shady home.

Keep an eye out for our next shift as we utilize both exhibits to maximize the quality of life of both of our marvelous cats.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Jaguar Rotation


The rotation of our two jaguars has been the cause for adjustment for both human and cat along Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. During the very first days that some of our regular visitors ambled down the path to find Nindiri on exhibit where they were accustomed to seeing Orson for over the past 10 years, some came to me concerned that something bad had happened to the elderly Orson. Although I was able to reassure them that Orson was fine enjoying the modern digs up at Elephant Odyssey (see post Zoo Legend Finds New Home), I too noticed one thing missing: Orson’s frequent roar, which could be heard up and down the canyon as he declared Big Cat Trail his domain.

Nindiri seemed to take the change much more in stride. Before the Elephant Odyssey project was completed, Nindiri spent several months “sharing” the exhibit on Big Cat Trail with Orson on a rotating basis. She seemed very confident entering the exhibit; apparently she remembered her time here. The first thing she did was go examine all of the areas Orson regularly scent marked, one enriching experience we expected with this change.

At over 17 years old, Orson was the elder statesman of Big Cat Trail. In contrast, at a spry 2½ years old, Nindiri arrives as the youngest cat in the area. Her youthfulness shows with her exhibiting more activity and spunk throughout the day. Despite being half Orson’s weight, she broke a perch in her habitat the very first day exploring. More recently I observed her trying to get at one of the sprinkler heads that hang from the roof. She will also take time to play with her rabbit carcass in the pools, while Orson would take the more “mature” path and get down to eating his rabbit immediately. These kinds of reactions are the type of enriching behavior we hope that the exhibit rotation will bring for both of our jaguars.

Many people assume that we must tranquilize or sedate our large carnivores to transfer them, but this is not necessarily true. Both of the jaguars were trained to enter their transport crates on their own accord through positive reinforcement, meaning that they received a treat for entering their crate and being calm. In fact, I only had to do three such “sessions” with Orson before he was ready for his move to Elephant Odyssey. On the day of the move I asked him into his crate, gave him a treat, and closed and secured the door behind him as he calmly waited for more food. Although any move of a potentially dangerous animal is a serious matter, the ease with which we were able to move our jaguars allows us the possibility of making changes like this that should enhance both of their lives.

On your next visit to the Zoo, make sure to visit both of our jaguar habitats. You may be surprised by who is where and what they will be doing with the increased enrichment in their lives.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Jaguar Answers

My last post about the jaguars at the San Diego Zoo (see A Zoo Legend Finds a New Home) generated some questions I’d like to answer. Now that Orson, our black jaguar, is living in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey next door to a pair of lions (see post The Pride of Elephant Odyssey), readers were curious to know what the two different cat species thought of each other and what that future holds for possible jaguar cubs.

Orson has handled the presence of our two lions in stride. Despite the fact that they will never be together on exhibit, they do share an indoor holding area in which they can see each other and at times will use some of the same portions of the exhibit, thereby overlapping territory. Orson has shown absolutely no fear, even though our lions are significantly larger than he is, and they have not exactly been very welcoming. However, just as the lions got used to Nindiri, the previous jaguar, they will get used to Orson.

And what of Orson’s breeding history? That is a little bit more complicated. When we breed animals such as jaguars, we work cooperatively with other zoological institutions that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and set goals together. Genetic diversity is the number-one concern. All animals are paired for breeding very deliberately to maximize genetic diversity. In Orson’s case, he has been removed from the breeding population due to a lack of information regarding his family tree. We really try to only breed animals of 100-percent known lineage, meaning that we can track exactly who they are related too and can usually trace them all the way back to wild-caught ancestors. For Orson, about half of his family tree is missing, and therefore he has been excluded as a breeder pretty much his whole life. On top of Orson’s family tree issues, he is also an older animal, possibly beyond breeding age, and wouldn’t likely make a very compatible mate for our rather young, vivacious Nindiri. The old guy is enjoying his retirement years while Nindiri is just reaching adulthood.

Now, we do want to breed Nindiri, and we are currently looking for a good genetically compatible animal to pair her up with, but with only a limited number of males in AZA-accredited zoos, combined with the need to mate her with an unrelated individual, we may be waiting a little while. Watch for a future breeding pair to unfold as time goes by.

For those not familiar with the layout of our lion/jaguar complex in Elephant Odyssey, atop the holding building roof, nestled between the two primary exhibits, is an area that can only be seen from the top level of our double-decked buses. This little rooftop “penthouse” comes complete with water feature, cave, plants, and a great view of the elephants. This space wasn’t really built with exhibition in mind but rather for breeding jaguars. Jaguars, like most cats, are solitary animals and, aside for breeding time, will often choose to be by themselves. It would be very unlikely that a pregnant female would tolerate a male in her territory, and a female with cubs would want absolutely nothing to do with another adult jaguar. When the Zoo obtains a breeding pair of jaguars, it will become necessary to separate them from each other for perhaps extremely long periods of time. The rooftop space was built as a solution for what to do with whichever individual wasn’t on exhibit at that time. We can give access from the holding building to the roof, thereby providing them exhibit space without being in the primary enclosure. For now, we don’t have a breeding pair of jaguars, and therefore, all the cats being managed in Elephant Odyssey have the option of being on exhibit every day. That being said, we aren’t the type to waste that extra space, and for the past many months the on-exhibit cats have been taking turns with access to the “penthouse” just as soon as the Zoo closes. This is just one more way we can offer a little more variety in the lives of our already-pampered cat friends.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


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.