The time we rescued a jaguar cub in Belize

If you are interested in Fuzzybutts, you are probably interested in cats. Does your interest in cats include large kitties such as jaguars? How about a beautiful jaguar cub?  Since they are as adorable as any domesticated kitten (though less perturbed by a sneaky cucumber placed behind them while they eat), here is a story about the day we rescued a jaguar cub in the jungles of Belize.


In 2014, my wife Sarah and daughter Juliette and I moved to Belize to help at Hillside Clinic. Hillside is a primary care clinic in the jungles of southern Belize that serves people from the area, especially people from the many nearby Mayan villages. To move to our new home, some friends and I drove down through Mexico in our minivan with a cargo trailer behind us full of a generator for the clinic and tools and household items for our new life in Belize.


We had the year to volunteer at the clinic while I applied to medical school. While living in Belize we often hosted friends and family, and almost always brought them to the nearby Belize Spice Farm. It is run by a wonderful couple, the Matthews, who grow an impressive array of spices including pepper, vanilla, coriander, nutmeg, and cinnamon. You will never smell a more lively or vibrant array of delightful odors than you find in their spice drying room. A few moments in that room helps one to understand why the spice trade was a cornerstone of the world economy for centuries. The Matthews are lovely and kind people who have done a lot to support their community and are highly respected in the nearby villages.


In February some close friends came to visit. The family includes two young boys, and when Dr. Matthew met them he told us he wanted to go together to visit a nearby village where he heard that there was a captured jaguar cub. He wanted the boys to get to see the cub, but I was probably as excited as the boys to meet the little cat. 


We left the Spice Farm and drove around one of the nearby villages to ask the whereabouts of the jaguar cub. On the way, we discussed the likelihood that the cub would die unless we were able to negotiate to bring it to the Belize Zoo for care. The Belize Zoo is a wonderful conservation organization and zoo that helps protect vulnerable species throughout Belize. Thankfully Dr. Matthew is held in such high regard in that area.  Otherwise we may not have been invited to see the cub because the circumstances surrounding its capture were likely illegal. If it weren’t for his reputation, I don’t think we would have been admitted to see the cub. 


What a beautiful creature! It’s eyes were as deep and lively as the brooding sea on a New England shoreline. It’s oversized paws made it ungainly and adorable. The perfect array of intricate spots made it seem more like a plush doll than an infant apex predator.  


Unfortunately, it was being kept in a chicken coop, and our concern that it would not last long without professional care seemed valid. It looked lethargic and limp, even if it mustered some indignance at Dr. Matthew’s entry into the coop.


We visited with the baby jaguar for a while, and returned to the Spice Farm. Dr. Matthew sprang into action and called various friends who were involved at The Belize Zoo. He was finally able to speak with a principal at the zoo who said that they were capable of taking the cub, and that if we brought him the following day, they would be ready to receive us. This was on Saturday.


Our friends who were visiting were departing the upcoming Monday, and we were going to drop them off at the airport and then drive up to spend a week with some dear friends in Mexico. Since we were already driving north to go right by the Zoo, we were elected to deliver the little jaguar. 


But first, Dr. Matthew had to negotiate the jaguar cub’s release. Unfortunately, the trade in jaguar body parts endures.  In some parts of Belize the protection they are afforded by law as a highly endangered species does not translate into care for individual jaguars. Some of this is understandable. As people seek to feed their families with the crops and cattle they grow, the needs of the jaguars can seem to run up against the needs of the people. As a societal problem, it can be thorny and challenging. However, on an individual basis it’s pretty simple. There was a precious and endangered jaguar cub that needed to be rescued and cared for, and thankfully the people that had captured it agreed with Dr. Matthew that it needed to be cared for at the zoo.


That evening they gave the cub to the Matthews and they had a wooden crate built to keep it safe and contained for the nearly 4 hour drive to the Belize Zoo. We could barely sleep that night as we thought about what it would be like to transport this wild animal in our minivan.  How incredible that my friend who was visiting with his family, with whom I spent my entire childhood on the same street in NH, how incredible that he and I were having such a strange adventure together.


We arrived early in the morning at the Spice Farm and began the challenge of fitting four adults among whom two were pregnant, 3 children, luggage for all of us, and a large wooden cage with a jaguar cub into a minivan that was originally built to ferry kids to soccer practice. We removed a seat and strapped much of our belongings to the roof. After a lot of rearranging, the little cub was safely stowed in the cabin with all of us tiptoeing around and unsure whether he would take the drive calmly or anxiously.


Our kitty at home, Swizzle, likes to projectile vomit on car rides. He preferes to do this in the direction of the most difficult to clean section of the car. The dashboard or the shifting mechanism are both worthy targets. The vomiting sessions are bookended by pitiful, doleful howling. We imagined that this wild beast might travel similarly, but thankfully the little jaguar cub slept most of the journey.


We already felt like we were having one of the most unique experiences of our lives, but the drive became even more weird. In the distance we saw a tornado out in the direction of Placencia. We later found out that this was a very large waterspout. This is not a normal occurrence. Next, as we drove along we passed a man lying immobile on the side of the road, possibly dead. We turned around to investigate, but I was very concerned because in some remote stretches of road in Belize there have been occurrences of bandits and carjacking. As we slowly approached, we found that the man was rolling around. My friend and I moved him out of the fire ants and held him while his seizure resolved. He became postictal and we waited there several minutes until a bus loaded with local people stopped and everyone came out to see. There were women chanting in high voices against the evil demon that they believed had afflicted the man. It was truly surreal to have a man’s head in my hands while he recovered from a seizure while woman chanted to rebuke evil spirits, with a jaguar cub in my minivan, having just seen a tornado. It truly felt like perhaps the whole thing was actually a dream. Eventually some people drove by who were from the man’s village and confirmed that he had seizures. They knew where he lived and we carried him to their pickup truck so that they could transport him by makeshift ambulance to the local clinic. 


A full grown Margay in Belize.

A full grown Margay in Belize.

With the road adventures behind us and the windy and mountainous Hummingbird Highway ahead of us, what we didn’t know was that the Belize Zoo was dubious that we were bringing them a jaguar cub. There is a much smaller wild cat called a Margay which is regularly mistaken for an immature jaguar. Side by side, there is no mistaking, but often the Belize Zoo had been told that someone had found an abandoned jaguar cub and brought instead an adult Margay. The Margays are released back in the wild. Unfortunately, immature jaguars can not survive on their own and must be cared for in captivity for the rest of their lives.


We arrived at the Belize Zoo and went to the ticket counter. How strange it was for us to say “we are the people with the jaguar cub.”  It seemed like this was treated with a surprisingly casual attitude, but we didn’t know how often a Margay would be delivered with this introduction. Tony Garel, a biologist at the zoo, came out to see. He peered into the shadowy interior of the minivan and the wooden crate, and did a small double take. “You really do have a jaguar cub!” he said in surprise. It had been the first cub at the zoo in about a decade since Junior Buddy was born there and to date the only cub ever brought to the zoo from outside.


We gently carried the cub into the zoo, took pictures with him, and departed grateful to have been a part of a happier ending than might have befallen the little jaguar. We were also amazed at the strangest day any of us could have imagined.


The jaguar was named Hero, and he has served as a Jaguar Ambassador to encourage people in Belize toward conservation and protection of wildlife. We had opportunity to visit him as he grew and saw how lovingly he was cared for by Gliselle Marin, a wonderful biologist at the Belize Zoo, as well as the whole devoted team. As he grew larger and more feisty, he was transferred to an enclosed habitat nearby.


You can read more about Hero by visiting the Belize Zoo website and Facebook page: