Book Review: Jaguar

Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve (1986/2000), written by zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, is a classic in the field of wildlife conservation. It follows Dr. Rabinowitz’s journey to the jungles of Belize in the late 1970s to study the most elusive and revered cat in the Western Hemisphere: the jaguar.

Jaguar provides the only first-hand account of a scientist’s interactions with jaguars in the wild, and it chronicles them in detail. The book also beautifully weaves in Dr. Rabinowitz’s human relationships in Belize, with local loggers, Maya, and Belizean government officials, police, and citizens. It chronicles Dr. Rabinowitz’s personal journey, alongside his professional one.

As a young boy growing up in New York City, Dr. Rabinowitz suffered from a severe stutter. He basically could not speak to other people, including his own family. The only place he could express his feelings was in his closet, where he was kept company by small pets: lizards, iguanas, snakes. Although Dr. Rabinowitz could hardly speak to other people, he could, like many people who stutter, speak confidently to animals. And, joined together as creatures who were voiceless in the human world, young Alan made his pets a promise. He promised that, if he ever found his voice, he would speak on behalf of his pets, on behalf of all animals, who still did not have a voice. And he followed through on that promise in a big way.

Dr. Rabinowitz, with the help of a speech clinic at the State University of New York, eventually did find his voice, and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1981 with an M.S. in Zoology and a PhD in Wildlife Ecology. He worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society as the Executive Director of the Science and Exploration Division for nearly 30 years, and he is currently the CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the world’s wild cat species.

Through Jaguar, Dr. Rabinowitz’s first book, one may briefly inhabit the exhilarating, dangerous, sad, complex, and gritty world of wildlife conservation. Every chapter is thrilling, with tragic stories of snakebites and hilarious accounts of misadventures with Maya Indians in dense jungle. I highly recommend this book. While most of us do not spend our days saving wild cats in the jungles of Belize, this book allows us to fantasize about what we might have done in another life.

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