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.