Wild Cats of Arizona

Here’s a quick followup to our discussion of the wild cats of Sumatra caught on camera by the World Wildlife Foundation. Recently there have been sightings of rare wild cats in Arizona!

• Marc Lacey, In southern Arizona, rare sightings of ocelots and jaguars send shivers, New York Times, 4 December 2011.

Guide describes roaring, powerful jaguar, Arizona Daily Star, 23 November 2011.

For example, consider Donnie Fenn, who specializes in hunting and killing mountain lions (also known as cougars or pumas). He was taking his 10-year-old daughter out on her first hunt when his pack of hounds took off and cornered something in a tree. He then saw with the telephoto lens of his camera that it wasn’t a mountain lion—it was a jaguar, which is about twice as big!

“It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Fenn, who leads hunters to mountain lions with his dogs. “To be honest with you—I got to see it in real life, my daughter got to see it, but I hope never to encounter it again.

“I was nervous, scared, everything. It was just the aggressiveness—the power it had, the snarling. It wasn’t a snarl like a lion. It was a roar. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Fenn was thrilled as well as scared. He had never expected to see such a large, endangered cat so early in his life, at age 32, he said. A lifelong hunter and Benson resident, he runs the mountain lion guide service as a sideline while working full time in an excavating business. He described his one-hour encounter with the jaguar as “a dream come true.”

He came away respectful of its power, speed and size.

“All my dogs took a pretty good beating. They had puncture wounds. … I got to see it in real life, and I’m glad, but I hope to never encounter it again,” he repeated.

He crept up close and took photos and a video of the jaguar:

He also notified state wildlife officials, who were later able to find hair samples left behind by the animal and a tree trunk that showed signs of being climbed by a large clawed animal. They believe he saw an adult male jaguar that weighed about 90 kilograms.

The jaguar, Panthera onca, is the third-largest cat in the world, only outranked by the lion and tiger. It’s the only surviving New World member of the genus Panthera. For example, there was once an American lion, but that went extinct 10,000 years ago, along with a lot of other large mammals, after people showed up. DNA evidence shows that the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard share a common ancestor, and that this whole gang is between 6 and 10 million years old. (The so-called ‘mountain lion’, Puma concolor, is not in this group.)

Jaguars have mostly been killed off in the United States, but they survive from Mexico to Central and South America all the way down to Paraguay and northern Argentina. They are listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN, or International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The Arizona Fish and Game Department has also announced two reliable sightings of ocelots this year!

The ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, is a much smaller fellow, about the size of a domestic cat. Ocelots live in many parts of South and Central America and Mexico, and they’re listed as being of ‘least concern’ by the IUCN. Once their range extended up into the chaparral thickets of the Gulf Coast of south and eastern Texas, as well as part of Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas. But by now they are very hard to find in the United States. They seem to eke out an existence only in several small areas of dense thicket in South Texas… and, we now know, Arizona!

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