A pregnant jaguar is not often taken in for a Cesarean section – and with good reason. But in this case, vets knew that they had to step in, because the female had previously killed two of her cubs. What the vets didn’t know, though, was that saving this baby’s life would demand all their expertise and perseverance.
The mother, Xena, was one of a dying species. Estimates suggest that there are just 15,000 of these beautiful big cats left in the world, mostly living in South America. Xena’s act of infanticide on her cubs – which were blind and vulnerable as newborns, like all jaguar babies – came as a shock to her keepers.
In fact, though, it is relatively commonplace for big cat mothers to kill their young. In the wild, a mother might dispose of her offspring simply because she wishes to mate again, or if she knows that there won’t be sufficient food to feed a whole litter. Animal rights activists claim that keeping animals in captivity can cause stressors that prompt infanticide, too.
Since Xena had already killed two cubs, the zoo staff sought expert guidance as soon as they realized that she was carrying another baby. The last of the litter was clearly in danger of also losing its life. Hence, Madrid’s El Bosque Veterinary Hospital answered the call.
It was subsequently decided that Xena would be given a C-section. This is, however, a rare and potentially dangerous method of delivery for a big cat, posing risks to the mother. But the 12-strong team set to operate included Dr. Patricia Garrido and Antonio Rodriguez, experts determined to bring the cub into the world unscathed.
Xena was transported to the nearby veterinary hospital and prepared for her operation, which was to be filmed by one of the team. The jaguar’s underside was shaved to allow the vets to make a clean entry to her uterus, and she was given a general anesthetic via injection.
An ultrasound scan revealed that the cub was very much alive and kicking inside its mom. So, with Xena laid out on the operating table, the C-section began in earnest. Yet while the first part of the operation went well, then the cub was pulled out – and everything changed.
The horrified vets discovered that the male cub was not breathing. So whatever they did in the next few minutes would determine whether this little guy would survive or die like his siblings. The team immediately sprang into action.
The vets fetched a pump, which was designed to force air into the animal’s lungs. And while one vet used this, another started CPR on the baby’s tiny body to try to induce a heartbeat. However, it appeared that their efforts were not working.
“Come on, little one,” the vets told the cub as they frantically administered more CPR – and then, courageously, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Indeed, Dr. Patricia Garrido placed her mouth over the cub’s and desperately tried to get his circulatory system up and running.
The clock was ticking. Dr. Garrido kept on with mouth-to-mouth, while her colleagues tried to detect a heartbeat, hoping desperately that the little big cat would come through. Then, after almost ten minutes, they finally identified a pulse.
Against all the odds, Xena’s male cub was alive. However, vital steps still needed to be taken if his continued survival was to be secured. Vets therefore dried the cub, gave him the necessary injections and placed him in an incubator to keep him warm. He was given a name, too: Ali.
The hard work of the 12-strong team had paid off, and Antonio Rodriguez was over the moon. “Ali could have died in eight minutes if it was not for the efforts of the team,” Rodriguez told the Daily Mirror. “I do not have words to explain the emotion.”
“I’m really happy with my team’s work, and we got a great reward,” Rodriguez added. “Many of the workers are mothers themselves, and they have a special sensibility to newborns.” What’s more, Ali’s traumatic birth was just the beginning of his close relationship with humans.
In fact, Ali was now going to be hand-reared in a different zoo away from his mother, since she was still thought to pose a threat to his life. After vets nursed him back to health, then, Ali was fed from a bottle and regularly handled by humans – the ones who could keep hold of him, at least.
Thankfully, meanwhile, Xena was returned to her zoo home following surgery and did not appear to experience any long-term ill effects. And at the same time, the search for a suitable substitute jaguar mother for Ali began. This hunt turned out to be unsuccessful, too – although that didn’t mean Ali would be without parents forever.
A human Spanish couple – Tahone and Olavo – offered to adopt Ali, take him away from the zoo and raise him at their home outside Madrid. At just under six months old, Ali was too small to live independently without a jaguar mother, so this seemed to be the perfect temporary solution.
In their outdoor pool, Ali’s adoptive parents taught him how to swim – which jaguars are naturally adept at – and encouraged his playfulness with toys and cuddles. Then, after two months of chasing the fanged furball around their villa, the couple said goodbye to Ali, and he was taken to a new home to live alongside other big cats.
Now a handsome and powerful predator approaching adulthood – which could see him grow to weigh 250 pounds and measure 6 feet in length – Ali is a remarkable jaguar. His miraculous survival after birth, and the fact that he was spared from being killed by his own mother, demonstrate how intervention by humans can drastically improve the lives of some animals.
As for the vets responsible for saving Ali’s life, it’s clear that doing so has had a profound effect on them as well. “The experience of seeing an animal start living and breathing after our help is really amazing,” Rodriguez told the Daily Mirror. “It is indescribable.”