Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner talks about his 2-year investigation into the 2009 capture of what was then the United States only known wild jaguar. In his series of reports entitled “Macho B: Last Roar of the Jaguar” Wagner reveals the truth behind the trapping, and subsequent death, of the jaguar known as Macho B.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons.
Ted Simons: In 2009, the nation's only known wild Jaguar was captured in southern Arizona and subsequently killed. Facts surrounding the incident are the focus of "Macho B: The Last Roar of the Jaguar," a series running this week in the "Arizona Republic" and online at azcentral.com. The series is the result of a two-year investigation by reporter Dennis Wagner who joins us now to talk about this story. Dennis, it's good to have you here. This really is an amazing story. You don't have to be an animal lover to latch on to Macho B. Who was Macho B?
Dennis Wagner: So Macho B was a Jaguar that is believed to have been born in northern Mexico in Sonora. There's a population, a breeding population in Sonora about 130 miles south of the border, where there may be somewhere between 80-130 they think living down there. And it's kind after tropical animal, but it will cross through desert and go into forests, and occasionally Jaguars in the last 50 or 100 years, male jaguars specifically would travel across the border into Arizona and go into the sky islands, go into the high country in Arizona, and do their hunting and whatever, and this was one of them. And they were the subject of a lot of research and conservation interest.
Ted Simons: And as far as jaguars are concerned, again, these really only lions and tigers are larger? Correct?
Dennis Wagner: Correct. Lions and tigers are larger. This is the only big cat in the western hemisphere that roars, it's an extremely powerful animal. It's got shorter legs and its stocky, it's like the linebacker of big cats. It's tough. And it will kill its prey by literally crushing their heads with its jaws, using its canine teeth to penetrate.
Ted Simons: A remarkable animal. The photos online at azcentral.com, you look at this thing and go, this is a majestic beast. How did he die?
Dennis Wagner: Well, that's the $50 million question in this case. There was two things going down by the border. This is all three years ago. To some extent this isn't a story after single cat that died, it's the story of government misconduct, of cover-ups, greed, a whole lot of other things. I wouldn't spend this much time and energy covering just a cat that died. But in this case, there was two studies going on along the border at the same time. One was a camera study to see how many Jaguars there are, where they travel, what their travel corridors are, what their habitat is. They were trying to learn what kind of conservation measures would be needed. The second study was a lion and bear carnivore study where they were studying cross border travels of lion and bears, and part of the reason for that study was sort of as a surrogate for jaguars. Because there's so few Jaguars travelling in Arizona they thought, well lions might travel in the same general pathway and have similar behaviors, so we'll see if we can kind of figure out what they're doing also. And the same person, Emil McCain, a biologist under contract with the game and fish department, was doing both studies at the time.
Ted Simons: And so they tried, and this is where things get complicated. Did they try to trap this animal; did they try to trap this animal surreptitiously? Did they not trap? How did this happen? How did this animal get snared and why did the animal subsequently die?
Ted Simons: Well, what the records show, and I'm talking about thousands of pages of criminal investigative files from the fish and wildlife service, the federal agency and thousands more pages of investigative records from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. What those records show is that in the end what happened was there was a snare set in a border area where McCain knew that Macho B traveled, and had traveled in the past, and there was evidence he was in the area at the time in February of 2009. And that he had shared that information with federal biologist and with state biologists. What makes the thing so problematic was, it wasn't just a camera set there, there were snares set there, and they didn't just set a snare for lions and bears, which is what they initially claimed. They set a snare there and put the feces from a female Jaguar that had been in Estrus at the snare site, which becomes an attractant. So clearly there was a purposeful intent to capture that cat rather than an inadvertent snaring.
Ted Simons: And they were not supposed to have that intent. Correct? That was not OK'd or approved?
Dennis Wagner: That was not formally authorized, OK'd, or approved. Depending on how you read the records, the email exchanges between Emil McCain and many other people, you can certainly make an argument that there were people encouraging him to go forward, and in fact that's what Emil McCain says happened. He says he was set up by the Game and Fish Department.
Ted Simons: And the reason you didn't want to snare this animal, it was a 16 some-odd year old, and the trauma would certainly kill it, which it kind of did, didn't it?
Dennis Wagner: Well, yeah. Here's -- You have to put in some historical context. There's a lot of battles going on over how to conserve and whether a Jaguar that's this rare in the United States even deserves to be conserved. And in this case they had been planning to try to capture this cat for several years, and it had even been thwarted because of publicity against it by environmentalists who said it's a really bad idea. And so this kind of all seems to have transpired and welled up sub rosa when the opportunity arose.
Ted Simons: So the cat is snared, obviously traumatized, they had to euthanize -- How much, how long did --
Dennis Wagner: What happens is, Macho B steps in the snare, and it's a cold winter morning. And suffers hypothermia because the cat is there for quite some time before the biologists arrive. They set a trap and they come and check it each morning. Nobody knows when it stepped in the snare. By the time they got there -- They got there, it had broken off a canine tooth, it had left pieces of its claws in a tree trunk, its bodily fluids were found on the tree and in the ground in the area and it was completely exhausted. So then they used a dart gun to sedate it, and after it was out they put a bag over its head, put it in hobbles, took scat, did all kinds of sampling, and things like that. And then six hours later it gets up and wobbles away. And 12 days later -- They have a GPS collar on it, and that's the whole purpose. Just in fairness, the idea of collaring a Jaguar, therefore understanding where it travels, what its behavior is, I think most conservationists; most biologists say that's a good plan. There are two problems here. One of them is, this Jaguar was almost by every account was too old to be a candidate, and the second is - many of the researchers say you shouldn't be snaring a Jaguar, especially an old Jaguar, because they're so frantic, so wild, they'll go crazy in a snare. You can catch them, tree them with a dog and euthanize them, and they go through way less trauma. But this one lasted 12 days. The GPS system was showing it wasn't moving, so they went in, they treat it with dogs, they shot it from a helicopter with a dart gun, brought it to the Phoenix zoo, and decided it had kidney failure and they put it to sleep.
Ted Simons: My goodness. And really, that's just half of the story. The other half, we don't have nearly as much time to talk about this, is the incredible amount of cover-up, differing stories we've got. Everyone wants to be part of a conservation effort, but when it goes wrong, everyone starts running in different directions.
Dennis Wagner: Exactly. It goes from congratulations, everybody, slapping each other on the bag saying we got a collar on a Jaguar, to uh-oh. This sucker is going downhill fast. I had nothing to do with it. And that's kind of what the emails all show.
Ted Simons: So who wound up being held responsible? Was there anything in the way of prosecution? It sounds like some of the people responsible for this, who are being accused of lying and covering up, they're still involved with Jaguar conservation.
Dennis Wagner: Well, a few things happened. First of all, the initial cover-up was actually exposed by a woman who was a volunteer with McCain in setting the snares. And she felt so guilty about what happened, she went public with the use of the Jaguar scat on the snare. And that completely blew out of the water the story that this was an accidental catch. She ended up getting prosecuted, as did Emil McCain. She took a plea deal whereby the charges were dismissed in return for her saying, yes, I was involved in the illegal take of a Jaguar. McCain pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to probation with five years of not doing any big cat work in the United States. And nobody else in the government agency, five people were referred for prosecution, but no charges were filed. And in some cases the U.S. attorney's office decided that they had been disciplined or their agencies had asked they not be prosecuted so they didn't file charges.
Ted Simons: Last question here. A two-year investigation and anyone who reads this will see you really had to dig and do a lot of work on this. What do we take from this story?
Dennis Wagner: Well, that's difficult, but I think it's about doing the right thing. I think that starts with transparency. You have people in any walk of life, any governmental enterprise, who they may have jealousies, they may have -- There may be trying to build up their reputations, gain prestige, they may be trying to advance their careers. And you have to deal with all those situations the same way. In this case there was a lack of transparency, there was a lack of public communication. There were people doing things behind each other's backs, they were betraying one another, and then there was the cover-up. And now, now the University of Arizona got the contract to do the study of jaguars on the border, and two of the individuals that were involved in the saga of Macho B are part of that contract team.
Ted Simons: All right. Remarkable work. Thank you so much for joining us. Great work on this, and we do appreciate you joining us.
Dennis Wagner: Thanks for having me here, appreciate it.
Ted Simons: You bet.
Dennis Wagner:Reporter, The Arizona Republic;