A morning with jaguars

Unlike the last time I visited our local zoo, today the jaguars (black morph, both of them), were awake and moving about. When I got there, one was watching from a perch above, the end of her tail twitching; the other paced back and forth, roaring in the quieter-than-lions yet distinctly roar-like way that jaguars do. Yawns gave flashes of teeth, of long pink cat tongues.

The pacing jaguar seemed more uneasy, less inclined to move about, the closer I got. I backed off for a while, watching from a distance. When I got too close again, she retreated out of view. So I went off for a while, visiting other animals (and learning that mating Galapagos tortoises have remarkable endurance). When I returned (after a brief intermission for a keeper to clean their enclosure), the jaguars kept moving about, but less energetically than before. The day was already growing warm.

Jaguars jump the way we walk: easily, because jumping is sometimes simply the best way to flow from one point to the next, nothing worth remarking on. Those long tongues are put to regular use grooming, as cats of all sizes tend to do, and territorial though jaguars are, these two, sisters, seemed begrudgingly willing to groom one another, from time to time.

They really do have lovely teeth. Their ears flick in irritation from time to time, their legs and tails twitch, when they are wanting stillness but not yet settled into it. They are quite good at stillness, most of the time, good at it even, in a way that’s hard to explain, when in motion. Sometimes stillness is a thing that happens beneath the skin, rather than on the surface.

Once, one of the jaguars lifted her head and looked toward the pond neither of them had much interest in swimming in today. I saw, long moments after she had, the human family heading our way, three adults, one child. The jaguar tracked them with head and eyes as they moved past the exhibit and walked on. It was the same way both jaguars had been tracking the brave birds who kept entering and leaving their enclosure, the way they no doubt tracked me, when I wasn’t looking: with an awareness not energetic enough to be genuine interest, though I suspect in another time and place it could easily turn into interest, were the opportunity to present itself.

I wandered off again, drank some water against the growing heat, visited a tiger whose sacked-out sleep made the jaguars look positively industrious. I almost headed home, but couldn’t resist one more jaguar visit. They were moving less now, but were still awake, still aware, still twitching the occasional paw or ear or tail. I stood there, watching them, wondering about the undefined something I always feel like I’m trying to understand, when I linger to observe any animal.

The jaguars watched me in turn. Or rather, they didn’t watch me, not the way humans are used to thinking of it. They remained highly aware of me without ever looking directly at me. There’s an element, as I understand it, of dominance play going on here: I know that among housecats direct staring can feel like a challenge, and I’ve been assuming this is so among larger cats as well, though I haven’t confirmed it.

Yet as much as I know that one doesn’t want a jaguar directly staring directly at one and doesn’t want to stare directly back (with the fence between us, it would merely be rude; without it, it would be the start of a game I’m not prepared to play), I realized this was one of the things I was instinctively looking for, without fully understanding it: that meeting of eyes, that sense of “I see you and you see me,” that being-to-being connection that isn’t friendship but is a sort of acknowledgement.

There are animals that are close enough to us, through evolution or domestication or some other mysterious random convergence of traits, that they can indeed give us that acknowledgement, and give it in terms that as humans we can even understand.

Jaguars, to my still-limited understanding, aren’t among them. I was there. I was noted. I was part of their awareness, and I was as real as awareness required, but no more real, I think, than that.

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