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Jorge the jaguar from Denver Zoo

Zoo Jaguar (Panthera onca) Attack

Two victims in one day. Denver Zoo's Ashlee Pfaff and Jorge the jaguar both tragically died in February of 2007. The deaths should be used to highlight the plight of the jaguar and the hazards of close encounters with wildlife of all types so that animals are viewed in a more realistic light--in this case as a powerful predator in whose species is in grave danger.

Jorge the jaguar was brought to the United States from Belize. The jaguar (Panthera onca) was once found in both North & South America but today the jaguar is an endangered species. Jaguars are the largest cat in the Americas and an apex predatory. Predatory species such as these cats are at the top of their food chain and often create the motivation for people to conserve habitat that saves a multitude of species not just the animal.

Jaguar (Pantera onca) Attack at Denver Zoo

In the wake of the tragic death of Ashlee Pfaff, zookeeper at the Denver Zoo, the debate related to captive animals is again rearing its head. This has been an issue throughout my whole career and will remain so for years to come.

As far as animals in captivity, I believe the majority of people don't care about what they don't know, can't see, and can’t touch. Sometimes humans are afraid of what they don't know or understand. Many city dwellers certainly don't understand the connection between all living creatures...meaning that what impacts the smallest will impact the largest.

I don't see any way around animals in captivity--and so my whole career has been grounded in my relationships with captive animals and trying to improve the world they live in and get people give a damn, improve conditions, and get people to think outside of the small concrete jungle they call home.

Beyond the captive issue one trend that has been increasingly disturbing is that people still want to think animals are their friends. That is the wrong idea. Animals are beautiful, majestic, powerful beings that need respect. They are kindred spirits and fine tuned for survival. An animal person can have a good relationship with an exotic--but that doesn't mean they won't kill you or try to at some point.

People want to think that a wild cat is the same as a kitty—it isn’t. The sad death of Ashlee Pfaff by jaguar attack doesn't focus on the loss of the powerful predator--or the plight of his species and all those in the habitat he came from. People are stunned, how could it happen?

It would be a waste of her life not to get people to look at why the animal is in captivity in the first place and the bigger picture. It would be a further waste of both her and Jorge’s (the jaguar) lives if people think it is unusual for a wild animal to kill another living creature.

As the Federal investigation into Ashlee Pfaff's death begins I have to say that all the animal attacks I have witnessed have been due to human error and I am said to say that I believe this is again the case in this situation.

Human error can mean a lot of things such as failure to monitor the animal's emotional state, failure to secure or lock a gate, entering into an enclosure that was supposed to be empty but wasn't, failing to take action to mitigate a situation, even design error or equipment failure. In zoos, most accidents seem to come down to the simple fact that accidents happen.

A long time ago one of my college buddies lost her life entering into a tiger exhibit shortly after we graduated from the "Harvard of exotic animal trainers." I don't know if it was her mistake or someone else's mistake but the error was a deadly one--and happens all too frequently.

In my career I always have double and tripled checked--even when someone else said they had already done so--and it has probably saved my life more than once. Denver Zoo has adopted a new policy for two keepers to work together for safety--a back-up system that has worked well for animals trainers for a long time.

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Guerrero Ink: Freelance Animal Writer

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