News of a jaguar sighting in New Mexico's Bootheel sends a writer on a five-year quest to see the rare cat himself.
By Richard Mahler
Editor's note: Desert Exposure's Southwest Storylines columnist Richard Mahler has a new book out this month, The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat, published by Yale University Press. As the publisher describes The Jaguar's Shadow: "When the nature writer Richard Mahler discovers that wild jaguars are prowling a remote corner of his home state of New Mexico, he embarks on a determined quest to see in the flesh a big, beautiful cat that is the stuff of legend — yet verifiably real. Mahler's passion sets in motion a years-long adventure through trackless deserts, steamy jungles and malarial swamps, as well as a confounding immersion in centuries-old debates over how we should properly regard these powerful predators: as varmints or as icons, trophies or gods? He is drawn from border badlands south to Panama's rain forest along a route where the fate of nearly all wildlife now rests in human hands. . . . Along the way, he is forced to reconsider the true meaning of his search — and the enduring symbolism of the jaguar."
We're delighted to present an excerpt from The Jaguar's Shadow, specially adapted for Desert Exposure by the author.
The 60-year-old guide and fourth-generation rancher fronted a mounted team following a cadre of carefully trained dogs.
A Marlboro man look-alike whose six-foot-six frame towers over any animal he rides, Warner Glenn was escorting client Al Kriedeman on the fourth morning of a 10-day hunt. The party was driving each dawn to the western base of the Peloncillo Mountains from the nearby Malpai Ranch. Their goal was to track, bay and shoot a trophy mountain lion. Warner's daughter, Kelly Kimbro, and wrangler Aaron Prudler completed the team that scoured the rock-strewn slopes of the Peloncillos, which march along the poorly marked New Mexico-Arizona state line before dissolving into Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. Over nearly four hours and twice as many miles, the mules struggled to keep up with the pack as it pursued what was assumed to be a large "tom" lion.
"I rode out on top of the rim and below me were some large bluffs," Warner later told an interviewer. "I could hear the welcome sound of the hounds about a half-mile below me, and I could see what I thought was a lion." Then came an unfamiliar snarl. The noise was definitely feline, but sounded neither like a mountain lion nor a bobcat, both common in the area.
"I got Snowy River within 50 yards," Warner wrote in his book about the incident, Eyes of Fire. Dismounting, "I walked around some thick trees and brush. Looking out, I said aloud to myself, 'God almighty, that's a jaguar!'"
Although he knew the borderlands as well as anyone, this was Warner's first encounter with what he labeled "the most beautiful creature I had ever seen." Standing in full sun was an animal long presumed to be locally extinct. Its presence hadn't been confirmed in the United States in nearly a decade, and not in New Mexico for much longer. It wasn't supposed to be here — indeed, the Rorschach pattern dappling its buff coat seemed camouflage better suited to tropical forest than desert scrub — yet there a jaguar stood.
Warner raced back to his mule, yanked a point-and-shoot camera from a saddlehorn pouch, and began snapping pictures. The angry cat eyed its pursuers warily, eager for a chance to escape. When an opening occurred it sprinted a half-mile down canyon before holing up in a cluster of boulders. Cornered by the hounds a few minutes later, the jaguar — a mature male — lashed out. Warner, eager to fully document the occasion with his camera, was too close. He jerked away in the moment the jaguar charged.
"Maple and Cheyenne met him head-on as I jumped backward," the hunting guide recalled. "[These dogs] saved me from having my lap full of clawing, biting jaguar. I saw him go around the ledge and jump out of sight. Later, I saw the cat heading south at a long trot."
Within half an hour the animal may have slunk into Mexico through the few strands of barbed wire that marked the international border. Tracks were found in the Peloncillos over the next eight months, though the cat itself was not seen again north of the frontier. It already had made history. For only the third time since the 1930s, a free-ranging jaguar's presence had been confirmed in New Mexico.
The hound called Maple nursed a broken leg, and two other dogs had suffered minor claw wounds. For his losses, the rancher had 17 photos, the first known pictures ever taken of a live wild jaguar in the United States. As the lion hunters headed home, a still-marveling Warner "silently gave thanks, then wondered how long it would be before [a jaguar] returned" to the American Southwest. (In an amazing stroke of luck, the rancher photographed a fourth New Mexico jaguar 10 years later in the Animas Mountains, south of Lordsburg.)
Several days after the 1996 sighting, the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper published a color photo of the Peloncillo jaguar on the front of an inside section. The article outlined what had happened, enlivened by the rancher's pithy quotes and phenomenal picture. The image was of a cornered and slightly crouched jaguar, eyes wide and ears taut. Clad in a gold coat splashed with ebony, the exotic creature looked out of place among pion pines and prickly pear cacti.
Upon seeing the story, my first thoughts were no doubt like those of many readers: "What are jaguars doing in New Mexico? Don't they live in the tropics? Did this one escape from a zoo or private reserve?"
Such questions betrayed my ignorance of jaguar basics. I did not know, for starters, that these are the New World's largest felids (a word derived from Felidae, the classification biologists use for members of the cat family). Up to twice the size of its distant cousin, the leaner and more streamlined mountain lion, a jaguar is noted for its large head, stocky frame, short legs, vise-grip jaws and oversize paws. One zoologist has said the animal is built like a cross between a Sherman tank and a fire hydrant. But its multihued, short-hair coat is a work of art that recalls the abstract designs of fur coats adorning leopards, tigers and cheetahs.
Toward the end of the New Mexican article I was surprised to read that this big cat somehow had persisted — albeit in small numbers — in the southwestern United States for tens of thousands of years, adapting itself successfully to hunt scarce prey in a parched landscape. I continued my research, checking scattered references on my bookshelf and computer.
An encyclopedia advised that jaguars seldom wear the all-black coats generally assigned to them by Hollywood. Only an estimated six percent have "dark phase" pelts, caused by a protein-related gene mutation that affects the cat's hair color. The coats of such jaguars still have the rosettes and spots characteristic of their species, but the jigsaw shapes can only be seen at certain angles of light. I learned why use of the term black panther is misguided. According to biologists, no such cat exists. The term panther as applied in the United States and Canada is a common epithet for mountain lion — Puma concolor — which is not believed to occur in a melanistic phase. The much smaller bobcat does occasionally occur in a black form, and in poor light it can be confused with bigger cats.
I wondered how such hefty, idiosyncratically marked animals could live in even the most remote deserts of a nation of more than 300 million people without being noticed. Perhaps these were straying animals, like birds blown off course during seasonal migrations. I wanted to trade places with the man in the chaps, spurs and Stetson. As a practical matter, I knew that Warner Glenn deserved this honor, and over time he gained my admiration. But early on, my single-minded interest in seeing a jaguar in the wild for myself was anything but practical.
I took no comfort in knowing that many hunters, particularly those who tracked mountain lions professionally, would not have spared the startled predator's life. Ranch-country animosity toward large carnivores is real, and Warner kept his discovery a secret initially for this very reason. The rancher disclosed later that he received calls from angry neighbors who were upset that he had not simply shot the exotic visitor and kept his mouth closed. Some Southwest cattlemen worried that even a single free-ranging jaguar, presumably always hungry for fresh meat, posed a threat to their livestock, particularly calves.
"Shoot, shovel and shut up." So goes the admonition among westerners about how to handle unwanted wildlife protected by the government. But Warner refused to go along. "How could I kill something so gorgeous?" he asked rhetorically. This attitude melted my initial skepticism. Here was a big-game hunter with not only a conscience but a deep appreciation for nature's serendipitous miracles. He believed that large, well-managed ranches, along with designated protected areas, might offer the best long-term hope for the survival of such a species. Unfortunately, not everyone felt this way. The jaguar Warner photographed was eventually killed — 30 miles south of the border — by one of Mexico's federales, the country's rural police officers. (I should note that Glenn no longer allows newspapers and Internet sites to reproduce his jaguar photos, insisting that the flack, threats and "calls from nuts are not worth it.")