If you have ever wondered what it might be like to conduct a field study of a dangerous animal in a remote part of the world, Rabinowitz's "Jaguar" offers some insights. A biologist from New York, Alan Rabinowitz worked on bats, bears and raccoons at the University of Tennessee. A chance encounter with George Schaller of the New York Zoological Society resulted in an invitation to study jaguars in Belize. Rabinowitz accepted and his life was dramatically changed.
In "Jaguar" Rabinowitz recounts the story of his two-year endeavor to unravel the secrets of the big cat. It is an intensely personal story of the rigors and triumphs of trying to accomplish a field study under almost impossible conditions.
Rabinowitz grew up on the streets of Brooklyn. A stuttering child who became a loner, he gravitated toward biology because "animals don't make fun of me or think me dumb." Despite or perhaps because of his childhood experiences, Rabinowitz became an adventurer. He admits to being a fighter who is stimulated by "a feeling of physical power at overwhelming the odds." He is a macho man who jogs jobs, lifts weights and works out even in the steamy jungles of Central America.
The book is as much a story of a young man's struggle with himself as it is about jaguar biology. The story begins with his arrival at the study site, setting up house and exploring the area. He captures his first jaguar, an assistant is killed by a deadly snake, and he strives to keep track of his study animals in the perilous snake-infested forests. He radio-collars four more jaguars, survives a plane crash, discovers a Mayan temple, and has two love affairs, one with an old sweetheart from Tennessee and the other with a local Creole girl.
Though all five of his collared jaguar eventually die or are killed by poachers, Rabinowitz persists with his efforts to establish a reserve and eventually achieves his goal.
The book is punctuated with searing scenes of emotional despair, triumph and tragedy. When a jaguar named Ah Puch breaks his canine teeth on the bars of a trap, Rabinowitz questions his mission. A month later Ah Puch is found dying of malnutrition and infection and Rabinowitz rushes to the scene. He cradles the dying animal on his lap, then carries it back to camp. "Standing, I lifted Ah Puch and put him over my shoulder. I felt his hot fetid breath against my face. What I was doing was crazy, but I had lost all sense of what was sane and what was not. I started back along the trail, tears streaming from my face. All the months of loneliness, anguish, and frustration were rising to the surface."
Rabinowitz is at his best when he describes the hardships and emotional ups and downs of field work. He is less convincing when he talks of his efforts to understand the Maya Indians. At one stage he takes off into the ruins of neighboring Guatemala with his girlfriend Maggie to try and immerse himself in Mayan culture. He learns more about Mayan history but, in the final analysis, he understands the Maya less than the jaguar. To the reader it seems that it is his own volatile combative personality that holds him worlds apart from the fatalistic "unemotional" Maya.
Not all biological field work is filled with as much excitement and drama as Rabinowitz's jaguar study, but having experienced the isolation and hardships of several field camps myself, I can empathize with Rabinowitz and I admire his honesty. In this immensely readable book he truly captures the sense of paranoia and discovery that makes the work both arduous and exhilarating. I look forward to seeing the movie.