Staff members at the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society are mourning the loss of the Zoo’s 20-year-old patriarch jaguar, Muchacho. The cat was humanely euthanized on July 10, 2014, after veterinary staff found that he was suffering from incurable spinal problems. Zookeepers first noticed something was wrong on July 8, when they observed his back legs were paralyzed. Vet staff brought in a neurological specialist for a full assessment, when it was determined that his condition was swiftly deteriorating, and would not improve with medical treatment.
“It is a sad, but appropriate course of action to humanely euthanize Muchacho under these circumstances, given the hopelessly terminal nature of his condition,” explained Jan Steele, general curator for the Zoo. “It was clear that he was in pain, and at that point it becomes a quality-of-life concern. It was not an option for us to allow him to continue to suffer.”
Zoo staff members had the opportunity to bid farewell to the beloved, elderly feline the night before his final procedure. Vet staff tried to keep him as comfortable as possible through the night. A necropsy will be performed to learn more about the jaguar’s condition and to possibly provide clues into how long the animal had been sick.
A part of the Zoo’s big cat population since 1997, the 100-pound Muchacho came to West Palm Beach from South America, where he was originally wild, sold into the exotic pet trade as a cub. He spent the first years of his life being kept in Lima, Peru, where he was eventually discovered starving and near death, trapped in an abandoned, locked house.
He was confiscated by the Peruvian government and found to be in poor health. Because of his health, he was unable to be returned to the wild, and the Zoo stepped in to save him with the assistance of the late United States Ambassador Henry Kimelman. Muchacho has suffered from poor dental health caused by malnutrition stemming from that period, and in recent years he had been receiving regular medications for arthritis.
Despite a shaky beginning, Muchacho flourished and became one of the most beloved animals at the Zoo. He enjoyed shredding large cardboard boxes, and sleeping in the sun. He consistently participated in Jaguar Talks, which educate guests about jaguars and the Zoo’s conservation efforts on behalf of the endangered species.
The Zoo celebrated a landmark birthday for the jaguar when he turned 20 years old in January. Muchacho has sired five cubs at the Zoo, including his youngest offspring Maya, a four-year-old female who now resides at the Los Angeles Zoo as part of the Jaguar Species Survival Plan (SSP) as recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He is responsible for more than 20% of all the jaguars residing in AZA-accredited U.S. zoos today. He also became a great-grandfather in 2013.
Jaguars are most commonly found in Central and South America. They are typically solitary animals, but Muchacho and his mate Nabalam resided peacefully together in the Zoo’s jaguar habitat, located in the Harriett & George D. Cornell Tropics of the Americas section of the Zoo. Muchacho was a very familiar presence, consistently participating in Jaguar Talks, which educate Zoo guests about the plight of this endangered species.
“This time is heartbreaking for all of us, but we are glad the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society has given Muchacho a wonderful life,” Steele said. “Zookeepers and veterinary staff provided him with the best care possible for the last seventeen years.”
“Although we will never be able to replace Muchacho in our hearts, we do plan to welcome a male jaguar in the future months as part of a breeding program to help ensure the survival of this endangered species,” Steele continued. “For now, we will continue to focus our attention on Nabalam and Muchacho’s remaining daughter, Izel.”
Sarah Colman, a lead zookeeper, worked closely with Muchacho for the past year. She shared her sentiments in the following statement, shared with the Board of Directors, staff and Zoo members:
“Muchacho personified all the things I have always loved about cats, both large and small. He possessed stunning beauty, awesome power, keen intelligence, majestic presence, a fierce, independent spirit and an indomitable will. I have never met a cat with a face or eyes as expressive as Muchacho’s. It was captivating to look into his eyes and see an inquisitive, intelligent someone looking back at me. His face always visibly lit up when he was presented with challenging enrichment or new behaviors to learn. Whenever I trained the other jaguars, no matter where he was, Muchacho would come running to watch. He would watch the entire session and do the same behaviors they did, as if to show that he could do it better, faster, with more flair. He knew he was the ‘smartest kid in class,’ and he wasn't afraid to show off.
His vitality was such a joy to experience. My heart is broken at the thought of not seeing him when I come into the jaguar house each day, but I find comfort in the thought that he lives on in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren living in other institutions around the country.
From humble and uncertain beginnings, Muchacho helped create a legacy that will live on for generations of jaguars, and that gives me hope for this magnificent species.”