The killing of the jaguar Macho B on March 2, 2009, by the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) should cause everyone to reflect upon how we relate to the natural world and the other life forms with which we share the Earth.
Macho B—quite possibly the last jaguar to inhabit the American Southwest—was captured, anesthetized, radio-collared and eventually put to death, supposedly so we could gain the knowledge needed to better understand the habits of borderland jaguars. In reality, little could have been learned from this one aged animal, and for years, AZGFD ignored the concerns expressed by many of us that the ethical considerations and risks far outweighed the benefits in exploiting and desecrating this magnificent animal for unnecessary research. In truth, what passes for our "best science" commonly lacks an ethical foundation and is often inappropriate and counterproductive. In the case of Macho B, it cost him his life.
To paraphrase the title of the classic book by the late Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr.: Macho B died for your sins.
Blame it on the Judeo-Christian tradition of dominion, or blame the self-righteous shortsightedness of Western science, but the fact is that our society shows a callous disregard for the animal world. We wrongly hold the view that animals exist only for our use and enjoyment. We consider them to be "property" or resources to be managed and harvested. And in doing so, we diminish not only them, but ourselves as well. The time has come for us to mature and to adopt a different outlook toward our fellow nonhuman beings. A good model to use as a starting point might be one that goes back to time immemorial—that of Native America.
In the Native American world view, animals—like humans—are products of a divine creation and thus are considered family. They are often referred to as being the "Animal People." They differ from us only in outward appearance. They have individual personalities, are intelligent and knowledgeable, and have the ability to reason; they enjoy a wide range of emotions and feelings. They also possess a "spiritual dimension," having souls and the promise of an afterlife. Most importantly, they are equal to humans in terms of their right to pursue life and purpose, independent of the needs and desires of humankind. Long before Western science came to discover the field of ecology, Native Americans understood that the web of life and death consisted of a network of reciprocal relationships bound together by the one element that Macho B never truly received from the people who studied him: respect.
Macho B died in the name of science. A great gulf exists between how Western science and tribal people handle knowledge. Western science forces secrets from nature, whereas Native Americans have always accepted secrets from the rest of creation. Western science answers to no higher power. It sees no limit to its quest for knowledge and arrogantly believes that it is entitled to know the most intimate details of everything. In contrast, Native people accepted the unknown and unexplained with reverence. They also knew that some things could not, and should not, be explained. In the tribal world, some things are better left a mystery. It is those mysteries that keep Native people humble and respectful to powers greater than themselves.
For more than 13 years and through more than 50 photographs, Macho B willingly chose—on his own terms—to teach us, to share his secrets, to give us all a glimpse into his private life. He did so in a manner that maintained his freedom and dignity. But for AZGFD and a handful of others, the knowledge that Macho B shared was not enough. For them and the value system they represent, it is never enough.
It's interesting that in the days following the death of Macho B, many of the people who were directly involved in the killing of this animal wrote eloquently of their personal feelings toward him and of their own sense of great loss. Often, these testimonials seemed to cross the scientific threshold into a realm that I doubt they truly understood. I can only wonder: In the mind's eye of these individuals, is the spiritual jaguar wearing a radio collar?
Steve Pavlik teaches Native American studies and Native science at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash. He holds a master's degree in American Indian studies from the UA and is a former member of the Jaguar Conservation Team. For more, visit blogs.nwic.edu/pavlik.