A Jaguar’s Legacy

We'll miss you, Orson!

We’ll miss you, Orson!

The final day of April was a somber one at the San Diego Zoo, as we had to say goodbye to Orson, our melanistic jaguar. At an extraordinarily advanced age of over 21 years, Orson had developed irreversible geriatric conditions that had begun to impact his quality of life. Fortunately, we can take solace that Orson’s legacy will carry on through the countless people he entertained, amazed, and inspired throughout his life.

Orson had many unique traits that drew people to him. The most obvious was his handsome melanistic coloring that only betrayed his spots when the sunlight hit his coat just right. His most engaging trait was simply that he habitually perched front and center where visitors could see him up close and bask in his impressive roar from mere feet away. Many people also fondly recall the weekly tug-of–war matches Orson had with his keepers. Using a hanging pulley system, Orson would battle a team of keepers, which were several times his weight but only a fraction of his strength, for the rights to a shank of meat. Needless to say, Orson always won!

Orson’s effect on people was obvious from the legions of members who made weekly pilgrimages to visit him to the numerous guests who could clearly remember him despite many years passing between visits. I’m sure that a great number of visitors over the years would agree with a teenager who once told me that seeing Orson was a “life-changing experience.” A visit with Orson clearly enhanced people’s respect for jaguars, wildlife, and our natural world in general.

At times the celebrity status Orson enjoyed could rub off slightly onto his keepers. In my time away from the Zoo, I moonlight as a hockey referee. One night after a game, I was leaving the ice and heard someone yell, “Hey, ref!” from the stands. As a rule of thumb, no one has a compliment to give a referee, so I put my head down and quickened my pace toward the locker room. The voice continued, “Hey, ref! We know you. You take care of Orson.”

It was a privilege to take care of such a charismatic animal who was a legend in his own time. Although we will all miss Orson, his legacy will live on in the people he amazed, the children he inspired, and the hearts he touched.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Cheers to a Local Legend.


Jaguar Cubs at Last!

Welcome, little jaguars!

About one year ago I wrote a blog post titled Jaguars: The Next Step. We had just recently introduced the San Diego Zoo’s jaguars with the hope of producing some much-needed cubs. As it turns out, the next step was the first step in a rollercoaster year that included hundreds of hours of behavioral observation, collection of more fecal samples than I care to remember, lots of amazing moments between the cats, and the heartbreak of an unsuccessful litter born in October.

Hold still! Each cub received a quick exam, including a weigh-in.

Over the course of the year we compiled a huge amount of jaguar data, some of which will be shared with other zoos all over the world to improve zoo-based breeding of this endangered cat. We saw our young, small Nindiri grow into an adult female, trading in some of her playful ways for more mature endeavors. We saw Guapo grow into a more confident animal as he figured out just how to get along with our always-spicy Nindiri. It was a year of many firsts for our jaguar friends and their keepers. We also achieved another milestone, something that we haven’t seen in San Diego for more than 20 years.

I have the privilege of announcing that a year’s worth of hard work, patience, and a major cooperative effort by people and jaguar has paid off. On April 26, Nindiri gave birth to two healthy, thriving little cubs, the first surviving jaguar cubs born at the San Diego Zoo since 1989. She quickly proved that she really has what it takes to be a great mother. Nindiri has been extremely attentive, opting to stay in her den box with her cubs nearly 24 hours a day. The few minutes away that she does take involve grabbing a few mouthfuls of food, a quick drink of water, and then back to her duties as mother.

There are some well-deserved privileges to being a jaguar keeper!

Our first official exam took place on their fourth day of life and involved getting a weight and a very quick all-over check by one of our vets. Much to my surprise, their eyes were already open. I hadn’t expected this to happen until they were at least a week old. Both cubs passed their quick exam with flying colors. The exam also gave us an early glimpse into personality. The first cub examined displayed some Nindiri-like attitude, hissing at me as I gently picked it up—a girl! The second cub, a boy, was quiet throughout the exam and seemed much less bothered by our imposition. Cleary cub #2 got his personality from Dad.

In the coming weeks will come the eating of solid foods, learning about our visitors, swimming lessons, figuring out how to get up into trees and—more importantly—just how to get down, and many, many other lessons that a jaguar cub must learn. Nindiri’s duties will continue to change throughout their many stages of life, and she has much to teach. It turns out that with these new cubs we are embarking on a new Next Step. A step toward a new, more maternal Nindiri. A step toward the next generation of jaguars. A step toward the conservation of this amazing species and ultimately a brighter future for the breeding of jaguars in our much-needed breeding programs. This next year will be another year of firsts, and I hope that you will share it with us.

Our new little residents will be off exhibit for a while, but look for them in Elephant Odyssey in the not-too-distant future.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Zoo Conference: AZA.


Mountain Lions and Palm Trees

Can you see the 2nd pair of eyes?

Did you ever think about how palm trees might move mountain lions (pumas) and jaguars around? Where we’re working in Southeast Peru with the Botanical Institute of Texas, remote camera photos of mountain lions aren’t really common, but they’re not rare, either (see post Mountain Lion: Sensing Humans). Earlier this year we started seeing more mountain lion feces than usual on one trail, and we also started seeing photos of jaguars, which we hadn’t photographed there for several months.

Our working hypothesis (our best guess) was that the big cats were moving back into the area because a lot of white-collared peccaries moved into the area to feed on ripe palm fruits, and the big cats hunt peccaries. In other words, we think that perhaps the palms indirectly influenced the movements of the big cats. Of course there are many reasons why a mountain lion might decide to walk up one trail versus another. One reason is to improve its chance of finding food, as I just described. Another reason a mountain lion might walk up a trail is to follow a sexy mountain lion!

One series of photos (see below), taken by a remote camera, shows two adult mountain lions traveling together. The first two photos show an adult mountain lion walking down a trail with two eyes visible in the distant background; the second two photos illustrate that the second pair of eyes belonged to another adult puma.

The only reason I can imagine that these adults would be together is that it was mating season. The odds are pretty low that we’ll eventually obtain images of a mother mountain lion walking down a trail with her cubs, but wouldn’t that be neat? If we do get photos like that, I’ll be sure to share them with you!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program.


Jaguars: The Next Step

Is Guapo ready for love?

This last week, the resident jaguars at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey had their first official introduction. As some of you probably remember, Guapo, our male, came to live in Elephant Odyssey at the end of March (see post, A Handsome Newcomer). Guapo came to us as the result of a breeding recommendation with the hopes that he would be a good match for our female, Nindiri (see post Jaguar: Meet Nindiri). Since Guapo’s arrival, the two cats have been getting to know each other through a variety of ways, starting with sound.


Even before Guapo moved to Elephant Odyssey, he could be heard calling to Nindiri from the Zoo’s hospital during his quarantine period (all new animals coming into the Zoo are required to have a quarantine period). Since moving to Elephant Odyssey they have been taking turns on exhibit, in their bedrooms, and in the rooftop penthouse, giving them a chance to get to know each other by smell. They have also been able to see each other when housed side by side in the bedroom complex as well as playing a little peek-a-boo from the rooftop.

This last week the decision was made to take the next step toward jaguar cubs. With Nindiri firmly in her estrous period, it was time for these two cats to be together. Animal introductions can be tricky, because even with all the homework that we do ahead of time, we can never fully predict an animal’s behavior. Therefore keepers take a lot of precautions to ensure that we are ready for whatever we may get.

Introductions initially took place in the off-exhibit bedroom area where keepers could monitor the situation a little more closely and ultimately intervene if the two decided that they just couldn’t get along. With many animal care staff members in attendance, the doors between bedrooms were opened, and the cats got their first opportunity to fully interact. Guapo and Nindiri came together in a flash, and a small little scuffle ensued. Both had been a little startled to see that door open for the first time and responded accordingly.

Once the dust settled, the fun really began. Nindiri was immediately infatuated with Guapo. She wasn’t quite sure just how to behave around him, but she knew that she wanted to be close, and she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Guapo played it very cool. He sat nice and calm and made it as clear as possible that he was not a threat. The two continued this way for the better part of an hour with him lying quietly, even appearing to fall asleep, and her sneaking back and forth between bedrooms just to get a peek at him.

With the success of the initial introduction over with, we then moved on to getting these two as much time together as safely possible. With jaguar cubs as the goal, we needed to provide ample opportunity for courtship and subsequent breeding. After another round of off-exhibit introductions, the decision was made to move this relationship outside onto exhibit. Happily, the move to exhibit went well, and the cats have been spending their daytime hours hanging out on exhibit together ever since.

So far lots of really great courtship behaviors have been seen, and we are optimistic that all this time spent together will lead to jaguar cubs and ultimately a contribution to the conservation of this endangered species. Not only would the birth of jaguar cubs be something to celebrate, but all the behavioral data collected will ultimately help to strengthen the captive-breeding programs of jaguars everywhere.

Guapo and Nindiri will continue to spend time on exhibit together for the duration of this estrous period, giving us all an opportunity to peer into the lives of a breeding pair of jaguars.

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


Feline Fun

A northern Chinese leopard enjoys bone day.

Providing enrichment is one of the most enjoyable, and important, parts of caring for the cats that live on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. Enrichment is an item that stimulates the physical and mental health of an animal by encouraging the animal to exhibit natural behaviors just like their wild counterparts do. In a modern zoo, this is considered just as important as providing food, water, and shelter to an animal. As a keeper, it is very rewarding to watch an animal become engrossed with a novel item I’ve given to them.

Scent is an important part of a cat’s life and something I try to offer often as enrichment. All cat species (except lions) are solitary by nature but still communicate with other cats through scents. We use fresh herbs, spices, perfume, and even elephant dung to enrich our cat’s noses! Orson, the melanistic jaguar, favors cinnamon. His entire head turns red after he spends time rubbing it on a sprinkling of cinnamon. Our snow leopards and Siberian lynx are not as picky and enjoy nearly any unique scent that I offer them. My theory is that these two types of cats that naturally live in very sparse habitats, and therefore have large home ranges, find scent even more important, as the chance that they will happen upon another cat is unlikely.

We also like to give items that the cats can bat around and chase, simulating the act of hunting. Lately we’ve received a lot of dried gourds that some of the cats really enjoy play hunting with. The irregular shape of the gourds makes them roll unpredictably, and the dried seeds inside rattle, which also entices the cats. Our two cougars particularly enjoy a new batch of gourds, batting them around and even carrying them in their mouths. Our snow leopards generally are not as enticed by play toys, and although I’ve never observed them play with the gourds, there is evidence that they also enjoy them. When I return to work the next morning, the gourds have always been moved and are sometimes even smashed into bits!

Whole food items are something that every one of our cats enjoys. Most days the cats receive a nutritionally complete mix of beef, vitamins, and supplements. We regularly add items such as bones and rabbit carcasses to give them food items that more closely resemble how they would naturally feed themselves. Whether a cow femur or a rack of ribs, all of our cats will spend hours chewing on bones to remove every bit of meat and maybe even some marrow from inside the bone. This is not only fun for the cat but great for their dental health, as it acts like a good brushing of their teeth, just like when you give your dog a milk bone.

Although it may seem a little gruesome to some, when rabbit carcasses are offered, it is very enriching to the cats as they get to “harvest” a whole animal just as they would if they made a kill in the wild. Jama, our North Chinese leopard, is unique in that he prefers to remove all the hair from his rabbit before he eats it. Skyy, the female Siberian lynx, tosses her rabbit around in the air just like your house cat may do with a favorite toy!

The next time you visit Big Cat Trail, try to find the enrichment items that each cat has that day; it could be a toy, treat, or just a log with really good bark to scratch on.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Mountain Lion Home Makeover.


A Handsome Newcomer

Guapo explores his new home.

More exciting news coming out of Elephant Odyssey! On March 29, a male jaguar named Guapo, meaning handsome or good-looking, moved into our cat complex to become the fourth big cat to call the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey home. Guapo is five years old and came to us from another zoo. He is joining us with the hopes that he will ultimately breed with our other resident jaguar, Nindiri.

Jaguars, like many of the species kept at the San Diego Zoo, are managed under a nationwide breeding program intended to maintain good genetic diversity as well as to create a safety net population in zoos. These powerful cats are currently listed as a near-threatened species with a declining population. Like many species around the world, jaguars are susceptible to habitat loss and degradation, loss of prey base, illegal hunting, and direct conflict with humans. Guapo represents a blood line that is not well represented in the United States and therefore is a genetically valuable individual. We are definitely going to be keeping our fingers crossed that some sparks will fly between these two beautiful cats, but the success of this potential breeding pair will ultimately lie with them.

Nindiri is lovingly referred to as a little firecracker. While very small for a jaguar, weighing in at only around 80 pounds (36 kilograms), Nindiri has a feisty little personality and can be rather intense. I like to say that she makes up for her small stature with attitude. Guapo seems to be a much different kind of cat with a much more laid-back approach to life. His gentle nature and lack of bravado are a stark contrast to his female counterpart. At approximately 130 pounds (59 kilograms), he has a size advantage over Nindiri, but all of us that are privileged to work with them are sure that she will call all the shots. Let us all hope that opposites really do attract!

For now, Guapo is acclimating to his new home and his new keepers. There are lots of new things for him to discover. Whether it be the features of his new enclosure, the rooftop penthouse where he spends time when not on exhibit, or just living across the hall from two huge lions (see post The Pride of Elephant Odyssey), you can guess that his transition will be an interesting one.

Guapo rotates exhibit time with Nindiri, so please come to Elephant Odyssey and welcome him to the San Diego Zoo family.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguar Answers.


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.