To Save a Jaguar

This winter I went to Belize with 11 classmates and 5 veterinarians, where we spent a week providing care for the animals at The Belize Zoo (TBZ). A small, charming zoo integrated almost seamlessly into the tropical savanna, TBZ is probably better defined as a sanctuary- all of its animals are local species and are “rescues” in one way or another. Some are orphans, many are rescued from the pet trade, and some come in dealing with injuries from vehicular strikes or other anthropogenic activities. Our professor, Dr. George Kollias, is a wildlife veterinarian who has been partnered with the Belize Zoo for the past 5 years, serving as a consultant while he’s in Ithaca and making several trips to Belize every year, with or without students, in order to care for the animals.

Rocky is one of the many jaguars that lives at the zoo after developing a preference for hunting livestock rather than wild game. The zoo works with farmers to encourage them to trap the jaguars for relocation to the zoo, rather than shooting/killing them.

Rocky is one of the many jaguars that lives at the zoo after developing a preference for hunting livestock rather than wild game. The zoo works with farmers to encourage them to trap the jaguars for relocation to the zoo, rather than shooting/killing them.

One of the Zoo’s best animal ambassadors is Lucky Boy, a black jaguar who was rescued from the brink of death. You see, Lucky Boy lived at a resort that was not doing so well taking care of him or his cage-mate. Unfortunately, his buddy died before Lucky Boy was pulled from his exhibit in July of 2012, still hanging onto life by a thread. His canine teeth were worn down to little stubs from chewing on the bars- likely out of boredom, hunger, and frustration- and it seemed that every bone in his body could be seen through his skin.

In veterinary medicine, we are taught to synthesize the facts of a case in order to come up with a prognosis- some sort of probability for recovery in order to better communicate with clients and the general public. For Lucky Boy, most would use the term “Guarded,” meaning it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that his condition would deteriorate despite top-notch care. Add to this the fact that the zoo does not have easy access to many of the supplies we take for granted in the USA- high quality food, medical supplies, and teams of expert veterinarians to monitor his progress and adjust treatments accordingly.

Despite all of this, the Zoo decided to give Lucky Boy a chance. Dr. Kollias emailed the zoo daily, trouble-shooting, giving nutritional advice, and even sending materials such as specially formulated diets to help Lucky Boy put on weight safely.

Throughout his remarkable recovery- yes, he made a full recovery- the zoo staff also focused on his psychological health. So many animals in captivity develop what we call “stereotypical” behaviors- pacing, over-grooming, cage biting, and other indicators of boredom that we do not see in their wild counterparts. In order to minimize these behaviors, zookeepers must provide enrichment for the animals in the form of training, toys, and general habituation to humans in order to reduce stress and keep the animal’s mind active. For Lucky Boy, this meant training him to perform simple, but amazing tricks such as giving high-fives for treats.

Does your cat like catnip? For enrichment, the keepers like to provide novel smells for the animals once in a while. Here we see Junior Buddy, another of the zoo's resident jaguars, reacting to a spritz of cologne much like a domestic cat might react to a sprinkling of catnip.

Does your cat like catnip? For enrichment, the keepers like to provide novel smells for the animals once in a while. Here we see Junior Buddy, another of the zoo’s resident jaguars, reacting to a spritz of cologne much like a domestic cat might react to a sprinkling of catnip.

Lucky Boy has flourished since then, although he continues to need regular dental work to compensate for the damage he inflicted by constantly biting on his cage. About two years ago, veterinary dentists from Cornell attempted root canal procedures as a means of saving his damaged teeth. Unfortunately, as was discovered by our team during his examination, the root canals failed, and he will need to have many teeth extracted in order to reduce the risk of infection and also to keep him comfortable. The dentists in our team were able to extract one canine during a several-hour long procedure, but Lucky Boy will need to undergo more treatments in the future in order to get his mouth in tip-top condition.

Although Lucky Boy likes people, we didn't want to find out if he liked us enough to allow us to extract his teeth while he was awake...

Although Lucky Boy likes people, we didn’t want to find out if he liked us enough to allow us to extract his teeth while he was awake…

Unfortunately, many stories like Lucky Boy’s do not end so well. This is why, when you travel, it is important to pay attention to how animals are being treated at various tourist attractions, and try to support the ones that are taking good care of their animals. If you’re staying at a hotel that has sick or otherwise mistreated animals, submit a complaint to management, or better yet: research places before you go, and select resorts that don’t have animals on display. The best way to voice your opinion on a subject like this is with your wallet- by supporting conservation organizations and sanctuaries rather than businesses that are trying to make a quick buck off of their animals, you can change the way animals are treated in captivity.

For more information about Lucky Boy and TBZ, click here.

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