I was owned by half a hundred tigers in three continents, over twenty lions, a leopard, a puma and a cheetah.
The jaguar was the only big cat I haven’t cozied up to.
Until the other day, when I met Cubae, the loneliest jaguar in La Paz.
For two months now, Cubae, a 15-year old jaguar who lived with his human family all his life, had languished in the Animal Hospital of the Vesty Pakos Zoo just outside Bolivia’s de facto capital, a victim of politics.
When I visited the zoo, he gazed at me, an over-large cat in the confines of a too-small cage, with the saddest eyes I’ve ever beheld.
Then he blinked and padded regally to where I stood. He pushed his nose against the wires, wanting to be comforted.
People killed Cubae’s mom when he was a cub. Horatio, the local biologist who rescued him, did everything to place the young cat in a zoo but found no takers. Everyone’s collection consisted of adult jaguars then. They were bonded to each other, mostly from birth, with established groupings. They will kill a strange cub first chance they got.
Taking pity on the helpless baby and with no options left, Horatio hand-raised Cubae. He built a huge enclosure for the jaguar in his Yungas property near La Paz. For a decade and a half, he nurtured the orphan, playing with him everyday. His whole family took part in the jaguar’s care. Neighbors were scared but they never had an untoward “incident” with the cat, even after he grew up.
Today, Cubae is an old jaguar, with a few years left to live. Suddenly, Bolivian government authorities persecuted Horatio for raising an exotic animal sans permit. They gave him an ultimatum – give up his cat or go to prison. Last year, he was forced to surrender Cubae to the state.
Problem was, Bolivian zoos had no place for a baby jaguar then. And they have no place for an old jaguar now.
They can’t throw Cubae in with other jaguars. He requires a huge enclosure where to spend the rest of his years – half a decade at the most – in peace.
At last, an independent custody center for threatened Bolivian wildlife operating a 35-hectare protected park near Santa Cruz, the AFASI Foundation (Friends of Wildlife), committed to build an enclosure for the old jaguar.
In the meantime, Cubae has nowhere else to go and authorities allowed him to stay with his human family.
About a month after the Santa Cruz enclosure was finished, they must be making arrangements for Cubae’s transfer when another kink surfaced.
It’s complicated – needless to say, expensive, to transport a huge predator. First, you manuever him inside his moving cage, which means you sedate the animal – at the risk of killing him if you use too much drugs and getting yourself killed if you use too little.
Transporting the jaguar close to a thousand kilometers, mishaps can happen. If he survives the journey, you still have to get him used to his new environment and new carers, subjecting him to immense stress.
Old animals like Cubae are set in their ways. They loathe disruptions to their routine. Relocating destroys their peace of mind and their health. And they happen to be very good at hiding ailments. They just drop down dead and that’s it. They look magnificent, all power and ferocity. But truth is, they are most fragile.
As if that wasn’t enough, the administration changed again. With it came another reshuffle of authorities.
Out of the blue, police raided Horatio’s home and tried to arrest him. Outright, they confiscated Cubae although there was no zoo prepared to receive him.
When a public official informed them of plans in place to transfer the jaguar to AFASI’s facility in Santa Cruz, the new commander refused to listen and accused the former of being an “accomplice” to “illegaly keeping an endangered animal” because she “knew about the jaguar and didn’t do anything”.
Shortly before the confiscation, the Vesty Pakos Zoo got an unexpected call from police, a request to borrow a big cage, with no other details . Operations like these are “classified”, so the zoo was kept in the dark. Next thing they knew, Cubae was dumped on them. Never mind that they already have lots of jaguars, a handful of pumas and a lion, no space and making do with a budget that’s half of what they need.
Keepers and vets did the best they could under the circumstances. But they can only squeeze Cubae in their one available quarantine cage at the animal hospital, next to two foxes and a nervous puma.
Cubae’s human family visits him when they can although it’s always traumatic for both parties.
When it’s time for his humans to leave, the jaguar cries like a child bereft.
He doesn’t understand why he can’t be with his family anymore, why he’s being punished, condemned to live alone in a cramped cage in an alien place when he did nothing to harm or offend.
I know how big cats cry. You can’t imagine half-ton apex predators, who kill prey over three times their size with a single brain bite, are capable of making such a sound. But they do.
My favorite tigress, Dao Ruang, used to cry whenever I tried to leave her. She knows I can’t bear to go if she cries and she can extend my stay with her for hours if she does. She whimpers like a human child in pain and rubs herself against me and the bars of her cage. It’s the most heart-breaking sound I’ve ever heard. I can never forget it for as long as I live.
Having been hand-raised, Cubae obviously craves human company and knows how to solicit it.
It didn’t matter to him that I’m a complete stranger. He came over to me without hesitation. So, I sat on the floor outside his cage, talking softly, telling him how beautiful he is, asking how his day went and how I wish things will improve for him soon.
At one point, he butted his head against the bars – the usual greeting of one cat to another. Then he tested me to see if he can “ask” me to do things for him, as he must have often asked his beloved humans.
And he almost made me cry.
Deliberately, Cubae looked at me, holding me in his amber gaze to make sure he has my full attention. Then slowly, he gnawed at the side of his cage, still looking at me.
His wish was clear enough: “I hate this cage. Please let me out.”
Before, my tigress made the same request.
Initially, I interacted with DaoRuang from the rear of her enclosure. The bars there are backed with wire mesh for extra security (She’s a notorious biter). However, first time I approached her from the front, the cage door, she went berserk, desperately pawing at the padlock.
When we first met, Dao’s keepers haven’t let her out for two years. Needless to say, she expected me to be the one to free her.
If she’s human, she would have screamed at me: “Get me out of here, please!”
But I don’t have the keys. I sank to my knees before her and broke into tears.
She calmed down then and strangely, she tried to comfort me.
From that time on, our relationship changed. I visited her everyday, spending as much time I can spare with her, often up to midnight, bringing her treats and toys, trying to enrich her life because I can never set her free.
Now, I found myself saying the same things I said to my tigress to this lonely old jaguar, halfway across the planet.
“I’m so sorry, Cubae,” I whispered to him. “I’m sorry you were taken from your family. I wish I can do something for you. Please be well. Please don’t give up.”
I’d like to think he understood because he didn’t gnaw at his cage again.
Still, he stayed near me. When he curled up to sleep, he oriented his body towards me, in the manner of domestic cats. Every once in a while, he’d peek to check if I’m still there. Once assured, he’ll not be abandoned, he’ll close his eyes again.
I yearned to volunteer in the zoo to keep him company, to do everything in my power to make his confinement more bearable in the short time he has left.
But it was my last day in La Paz.
So, I promised Cubae I’ll return.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to find him in his cramped cage when I do. He should occupy that big enclosure meant for him in Santa Cruz. Better yet, the Bolivian government should be compassionate enough to return him to the family who loved him best. With them he should stay to the end of his days.