Max, a jaguar from Belize, escaped from a cage, after a tree fell on the cage due to storm damage from Hurricane Richard, so the story goes. While temporarily free, Max encountered two dogs outside, two dogs who resided with a man named Bruce Cullerton. In an act to protect the dogs in his care from Max, Bruce died and Max killed him. Max also injured one of the dogs. According to his keeper, this was Max’s first act of violence.
The media described the incident as “U.S. citizen mauled by killer jaguar.” The U.S. Embassy in Belize blamed the Belize zoo and warned American travelers “of the potential danger.” After the announcement from the U.S. Embassy and risking loss to the tourist industry, Belizean officials went on a hunt. Guilty for murder, Max was. Killer jaguar, he was called. The penalty for murdering a human, especially an American citizen, is death. After two days of the search for Max, the Belize Forest Department officials captured him using steel-mesh cage traps baited with meat and they “put him down.” Thus the crazed, man-eating jaguar will forever sleep. According to the Daily Mail, he was only four years old.
Max’s tragic story begins as a young jaguar in captivity. According to the Daily Mail, Max was a prisoner of a tourist resort that used him as an attraction. This mysterious resort remains unidentified, as “Jaguar Tourism” is a popular and common source of revenue in much of Central and South America. Some tour companies simply entice jaguars with food so that eager Americans and Europeans can see the exotic, endangered jaguar. But other companies will hold a jaguar or more captive. To Max’s despair, he experienced the latter.
At two years old, the resort decided to “give [Max] up” after numerous tourists complained. According to Belize’s Channel 5 News, they handed him over to the Belize Forest Department, who in turn, transferred him to Richard and Carol Foster.
For two years, the Fosters kept him at their home in a cage in Belize. Early news reports mistakenly referred to Max’s living situation as an “animal rescue center.” However, the Fosters are neither rescuers nor rehabilitators. They are bleeding heart conservationists and filmmakers for National Geographic. They’ve produced numerous wildlife documentaries, including a film for the Nature series titled “Jaguars: Year of the Cat.” Richard Foster reportedly said to Belize’s Channel 7 News, “We are sad because this is a beautiful cat and you cannot blame the cat for doing this. It is what we do as human beings to these animals, so in all it is a very sad situation.” On the surface, it seems that the Fosters took Max in out of the goodness of their hearts.
But then he goes on to vilify captive cats by stating to United Press International, “There is no record ever of a wild jaguar ever attacking a human being. That’s only cats that are in captivity that have no fear of man, keepers and zoos and things, that do the wrong thing but this kind of thing can happen.” He then tells Channel 7 News:
“Many of these cats that are in captivity especially in Belize are the ones that are cattle killers and they were trapped and brought and kept in the Belize Zoo. It would be ridiculous and a very dangerous thing to do to release a jaguar into the wild. No one will never [sic] do anything like that and we certainly wouldn’t do that and this cat escaped purely because of the ferocious hurricane that came through.”
Well, at least we know that Max was never going to live free and well, even with the Fosters’ “hospitality.” Foster told Channel 7 News that he fears this tragedy will demonize jaguars and diminish their reputation as charismatic cats worthy of environmental protection. But what he may not realize is that his failure to stand up for Max and provide an alternative story to the press concerning Max, and other jaguars like him, contributed to Max’s vilification. Because of his compliance to the all-out retribution against Max, he told the world that helping endangered species and caring about traumatized captive animals is not that important when a dead American is involved. So much for being an ally.
Like with the mother bear near Yellowstone, who was euthanized for her crimes against humanity, our experts’ decision-making in addressing wild animal trauma always boils down to what conservation biologist Omar Figueroa said:
“When an animal crosses a certain line, I mean it comes a time when you have to make some hard decisions and it’s not to say that it was the cat’s fault. I think it’s wrong to start pointing fingers and say whose fault it was….It is a serious tragedy unfortunately but I believe that first and foremost human’s safety has got to be safeguarded. In all the research we do, in all our efforts we are driven first and foremost by human safety. When something comes that compromises that then we need to act in the best interest of human safety. It’s just that something had to be done to relieve fears that people might have naturally ….”
Will civilized humans ever begin to behave in the world that makes free life and space possible for wild animals, let alone indigenous humans? Will there ever be justice for the wild, or even enough space? Or will they always “cross the line”?