The jungles of Central America once teemed with ferocious beasts; jaguars, jaguarundis, ocelots, tigrillos, margays and black panthers all roamed the forests. These days, not so much. Unfortunately, two photos of farmers posing with a dead jaguar that recently went viral are all too indicative of the challenges jungle cats face today. Their most brutal enemy is human ignorance.
The cats unlucky enough to wander out of the jungle and encounter humans are often attacked, and some wind up gravely injured. Those that are taken to animal rehab centers force the rescuers to make tough decisions. Should a wildcat ever be released back into the wild? In fact, wildlife biologists and other animal rescue professionals are divided over that question.
Stepping into the Jaguar Rescue Center on the Caribbean’s Playa Chiquita is a little bit like stepping into the jungle itself. Toucans snap their enormous beaks in the bushes, monkeys scamper up unsuspecting visitors’ legs and sloths dangle from treetops. Each animal seems beloved by the center’s staff and volunteers, but Encar Cartia and Sandro Alviani, the married couple who co-founded the center, are adamant that the stays are temporary.
“The first thing we ask ourselves when an animal comes to us is how can we save its life,” Cartia said. “After that, the goal is always to release them.”
Of the three cats that have come through the rescue center, Cartia and Alviani’s staff has successfully released one, a margay, back into the wild. The cat came to the center as a tiny baby, and the staff nursed it until it was old enough to eat meat. They began taking the cat on jungle walks for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, teaching it to hunt. First, they had it play with dead mice. Then they introduced live mice. Eventually, the margay went for the mouse’s neck every time. Soon after, it was ready.
But according to Dr. Martha Cordero, the head veterinarian at The Pumas Rescue Center in Cañas, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, raising a cat from infancy can have its problems.
“At some point young cats are going to associate people with food and security,” she said. “To be a candidate for release a cat needs to lose its interest in people after some time.”
While dependence on humans is a factor, Cordero is more concerned about captivity-born illness that could affect the cat population in the wild. To prevent this Pumas gives each animal a blood test before release, but not every problem with release can be accounted for.
“If you unknowingly release a cat into another one’s territory they could fight, or even kill each other,” Cordero said. “There really are no published studies that show that liberating felines works.”
These studies cost money, money that tiny nonprofit rescue centers don’t have. The research Cordero wants would require each released cat to wear a $4,000 monitoring collar back into the wild. The collar would tell researchers if the animal survives and for how long.
Despite the lack of research, The Pumas Rescue Center has been re-releasing jungle cats into the wild since the 1960s, mostly ocelots. Cordero says the benefits of liberation are worth the risks.
“Some of these cats come here as strong, capable adults. They represent extremely important gene banks,” she said. “We want these cats out in the wild producing more cats.”
So, how does a strong, capable, adult jungle cat wind up in a rescue center? It is almost always a result of human-inflicted injury, injuries like that of the Jaguar Rescue Center’s most recent cat, an ocelot. He was caught by a farmer in a chicken pen.
The farmer clubbed the ocelot with a machete in the back and head. Its injuries were so severe that the Jaguar Center was unable to fill its first objective. The ocelot died while they were trying to treat its wounds.
Rescue centers across Costa Rica have similar stories of feline/farmer conflicts.
“Historically, there have always been problems between jungle cats and farmers,” said Daniel Corrales head of a farmer-jaguar project with Panthera, an organization dedicated to saving jungle cats. “Unless they are living in a national park or a protected area, the animals can come into conflict with humans.”
That was exactly the case in the photograph of the dead jaguar with two farmers, according to The Liberia Association of Animal Protection. It was the second jaguar the men had killed for attacking their cows, the association reported.
These days, farming territory often stretches deep into the jungle, encroaching on the big cats’ territory. Some species of jungle cats will travel 40 square miles of terrain, and like Cartia says, “where can you find an area of that size that doesn’t have a man with a chicken somewhere?”
Though cats that have never been in captivity can also wind up on a farm, rehabilitated cats are conditioned not to fear humans and present more of a problem, says Ronit Amit, head of the people and animals department with the environmental organization Guanacaste Fellowship. With no research to support rehabilitation’s success, Amit says, the fear is that the behavior of a once-captive cat could harm the wild population.
“You don’t know what a rehabilitated cat is going to do in these situations,” she said. “Their behavior could threaten the conservation of the entire species. It’s sad, but the only solution in these cases is euthanasia.”
Cartia knows as well as anyone that breaking a cat of its love of humans is no easy task. It’s this final obstacle that’s keeping the rescue center’s second margay in its glass cage on the center’s far end. Despite several release attempts, the margay always winds up in someone’s yard or chicken coop.
The center will keep the margay until they can find a better solution, but Cartia still hopes that one day it can return to the wild, if only for a short time.
“The philosophy we have hear at this center is that a year in the jungle is better than 20 in a cage,” she said.