Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

Most recently, my Knocking on Heaven's Door is the winner in the category of science fiction in the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards and in the category of fiction in the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Awards. A number of reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award for Children's Literature, the WILLA Award for Children's Literature, and the May Sarton Award for Children's Literature.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jaguar's Shadow

By Richard Mahler (Yale University Press, 2009)

Soon after I began research for my book, I discovered that the average person, including me, knows nearly nothing about jaguars. And much of what we think we know is wrong. I was surprised that friends and family members had only a vague idea of what I was talking about.
"Which model do you like?" a student, on the verge of receiving a doctorate degree from a prestigious university, inquired.

"They're vicious man-eaters," a cousin declared. "Don't ever turn your back on one because that's when they attack."

"I've seen them at the zoo," a woman at a party enthused. "What beautiful black coats they have!" At the same gathering a retired lawyer insisted that while on safari in East Africa he had watched a jaguar run down a wildebeest.

Several people were convinced the cats were a type of mountain lion: "Cougar? Panther? Jaguar? Aren't they the same thing?"

Patiently, I spelled out some facts. First, a person is much more likely to be killed by a spider, snake, or domestic dog than a jaguar. Second, fewer than 10 percent of jaguars are black. Third, jaguars are New World cats, found outside the Americas only in captivity. And finally, the jaguar is a distinct species, related only distantly to Puma concolor, the felines referred to as cougars and panthers.

When I explained that jaguars occurred historically in the American Southwest and seemed to be drifting back, I was met by skepticism. "Someone is pulling your leg," my next-door neighbor maintained. One of my work colleagues chimed in: "It’s a publicity stunt; a hoax! Tame animals are being turned loose in the mountains." Where I saw a marvel, they saw deception. The notion of a wild United States jaguar struck some folks as outlandish, even suspicious. Yet somewhere in Arizona roamed Macho B: a big, spotted felid that was as focused as a Zen master, as quiet as a fawn, and as eager to avoid cameras as a movie star in rehab.

From the start I was convinced that Panthera onca, one of several endangered among the 38 known species of wild cat, was worth saving, if only because it had as much right to exist as did humans. But how would jaguars find protection if 99 percent of the population did not know what they were? Where they lived? How they survived? What made them special? Beyond their charismatic image, these animals were essentially unseen and unknown.

Having reported for years on conservation issues, I knew people needed to care about a creature before they could be persuaded to help save it. An emotional bond or financial incentive must exist, otherwise the animal may be deemed insignificant, a competitor for resources, an obstacle to progress, a threat to survival, or a source of fresh meat.

Before I spread the word about jaguars, I had to educate myself further. I felt it was necessary to visit places where the animals were seen in order to speak with scientists who studied these cats and rural residents who lived among them. I had no intention of becoming an authority on jaguars, but I wanted to learn what bonafide experts had to say. And I still wanted to observe at least one such cat in the wild.

Accomplishing this would be tricky. Looking for wild jaguars and writing about them posed moral questions. If others followed my example, these animals might become even more endangered. I knew I could not control how my information would be distributed. At worst, my accounts might inspire unscrupulous trophy hunters to track and shoot jaguars. Poachers might use my text as a kind of road map to these strongholds. An increase in nature-based tourism might prompt the cats to withdraw deeper into the wilderness, putting themselves in various kinds of danger.

It was an audacious act to seek out such rare animals merely to satisfy my own curiosity. And wouldn't I be earning money by writing about them? Could that be considered yet another form of exploitation targeting a cat that seemed to want nothing more than to be left alone?
I reflected at length on my underlying motives. My bias was saving jaguars from extinction, an eventuality that already had befallen certain subspecies of tiger. The Cantonese tiger was as good as dead, the Sumatra tiger was critically endangered, and India's tigers were relegated to ever-shrinking islands of habitat. Overall, fewer than 3500 tigers still existed in the wild. By comparison, the jaguar as a species was in decent shape.

Simply wanting to see a big cat is insufficient to make it happen, of course. Felines are famous for their smarts and elusiveness. "Jaguars have the biggest brain-to-body mass of all the big cats," explained Belize researcher Sharon Matola. "They're extremely intelligent, which makes them independent, unpredictable, and dangerous. You'll never see a jaguar tamer in the circus. If you do, buy a ticket, because that'll be a one-time show."

Wild cats in general are challenging subjects. For some of the world's smallest, almost nothing is known. The caracal and serval, notoriously bashful African felids, are studied mostly through indirect evidence rather than direct observation. Field researchers learn about wild jaguars in much the same manner.

"Tracking the stealthy, solitary animals," concedes Eduardo Carrillo, a Costa Rican biologist who has encountered more than a dozen in jungle settings, "remains exceedingly difficult." And while there is plenty of general knowledge and considerable data about the jaguar as a species, significant details are missing. Only a few precious minutes exist on film, for example, of a wild female interacting with her cubs. This fundamental relationship—the foundation upon which the ABCs of "jaguarness" are built—remains something of a mystery. Watching a mother and cub in a zoo can provide clues but not answers, since captive animals act differently than their free-range cousins.

Other key questions hang in the air. It is unclear exactly how jaguars, often alone throughout adulthood, find and court their mates. Also, the cats' carefully regulated social structure and precise communication is not well known. Other lines of inquiry beg investigation: How do such alpha predators influence the biodiversity of a given area? Why are jaguars, as compared to most other large cats, such superb, water-loving swimmers? How do jaguars deal with competing carnivores that overlap with them in time, space, and prey? Why does each jaguar have a singular pattern of spots and rosettes, and why is this hodge-podge different on each flank? How many jaguars move between North and South America and how important is such migration in keeping gene pools healthy? If adult males head out from Mexico to far-flung places like the mountains of Arizona, how do they get across a carefully monitored border without being detected? What are they looking for—or fleeing from?

One reason to protect jaguars is simply to follow these and other intriguing lines of research. Knowledge about such highly evolved and specialized creatures may illuminate and improve our own lives. We might learn from the jaguar's finely tuned senses, for example, what is communicable through odors humans cannot smell and sounds we cannot hear. By studying the cat's remarkable night vision and optic system, perhaps we can better understand our own eyesight and the maladies that affect it. Knowing the role such a top predator plays in maintaining a balanced ecosystem may help us improve management of parks and adjacent agricultural lands. Such investigation is long and arduous, but through perseverance, training, and luck, researchers fit pieces—based on the gathering of a few facts at a time—into the jaguar puzzle, often without actually seeing the animals. Through such obsession, our picture of a wild place comes into focus.

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learn more, and read an excerpt from the first chapter, at www.thejaguarsshadow.com

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