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Jaguar: Year of the Cat

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, surpassed only by the lion and tiger. These felines once roamed throughout the southwestern United States, throughout Central America, and down into Brazil and Argentina. But today, their numbers cut by the animal-skin trade and much of their habitat lost to farmland, jaguars exist only in protected areas and fragments of their former range.

In fact, the jaguar is almost impossible to spot in the wild. A silent hunter by day or by night, the jaguar sports a patterned coat that gives it near-perfect camouflage against the dapple of the forest, and unlike other large cats, it does not roar. This presents a big problem for wildlife cinematographers: how do you film an animal you can't see? The answer can be found in the NATURE program JAGUAR: YEAR OF THE CAT.

In 1993, as they prepared to make the film, JAGUAR's producers were faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. "It's very rare to see jaguars in the wild," says Barry Clark, the show's executive producer. "[Jaguar researcher] Alan Rabinowitz has spent many years studying jaguars in the wild and has seen only one. No one could do a program on wild jaguars, because no one could get the footage."

So the filmmakers compromised: instead of trying to locate this elusive animal, they placed a zoo-owned jaguar in an outdoor setting that mimicked the cat's natural habitat. The jaguar you see on the show is from the Belize Zoo, near the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, the world's only protected area for jaguars.

Clark's crew created a series of more than 100 "sets" which, although constructed, were nevertheless totally natural. Just outside the Cockscomb Basin Preserve, the crew enclosed parts of the forest and installed lights, rain machines, and dolly tracks to make natural soundstages. Before they began filming, they brought in the jaguar to get it accustomed to the environment.

"The jaguar would live in the set for a period of time, sometimes weeks before the crew would film on the set," describes Clark. "That way, the jaguar would get used to the set and the crew would set the dolly tracks to what the animal's habits were." The jaguar quickly established a daily routine, which helped make the filming easier. The crew strove to keep the environment as real as possible, even creating a simulated rainy season, during which the jaguar waited out the storm inside a fabricated cave.

Skeptics might argue that this manipulation means JAGUAR: YEAR OF THE CAT is not a real nature film, but Clark maintains that the viewer sees only natural behaviors, not manufactured ones. Even though the circumstances are somewhat modified, everything we see the jaguar doing in the NATURE program is real.

And furthermore, Clark points out, in a film made this way, producers have the ability to spare the lives of other animals involved in the making of the show. During the NATURE show, the jaguar catches a turtle and carries it off to eat it, using his powerful jaws to rip through the turtle's tough shell. But in reality, after the jaguar had fished the turtle out of the river, it was quickly taken from him, released back into the water, and replaced with a dead turtle bought at a local market.

Clark is happy to be in control of the amount of violence during a shoot. "We don't need to kill any animals to get the scene," he says. That's good news for animal lovers -- and for wildlife cinematographers who want to lessen the amount of bloodshed commonly seen in nature films.
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