Animal Tales

Pat the Cat's Legacy Lives On

Jaguar

Pat was a favorite among keepers and visitors during his nine years in Milwaukee.

Pat the jaguar was one of the most popular animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo. He was born in the wild in Belize but was nearly killed by farmers after he started attacking livestock. The Belize Zoo took him in and eventually sent him to Milwaukee, where he lived for nine years before his death in August at the estimated age of 19. Now, several Milwaukee County Zoo staffers are looking for more ways to partner with and help The Belize Zoo. Katie Kuhn, area supervisor of big cats, tells how it all came about.

By now, everyone knows the story of Pat the Great Cat, a jaguar with a problem who turned into a superstar in Milwaukee. Pat was given a second chance by the staff of The Belize Zoo. They patched him up and eventually gave him a new lease on life in Milwaukee. He was a gem to his mate, Stella, and fathered two sets of cubs. He was a model citizen in Milwaukee, touching the hearts of everyone he met.

Zoos do not usually house wild-born animals anymore, so having Pat was a unique experience. It inspired us to find ways to make a direct impact on the place Pat came from. How could we give back to the people who gave Pat a second chance? We felt gratitude for what they did for him and a strong connection to the country of Belize after educating the folks here in Milwaukee about Pat’s homeland. We also wanted to help the jaguars that still call Belize home.

So in January 2015, thanks to some very good friends of Pat the Cat, zookeeper Amanda Ista and I made the trek to Belize to see how we could get involved. We met the staff of The Belize Zoo and some board members of The Belize Zoo and Neotropical Conservancy (a nonprofit dedicated to The Belize Zoo and conservation research in Belize). We spent time with the zookeepers who take care of the jaguars and even some who took care of Pat. We shared stories, ideas and experiences. We even assisted in some medical procedures. We visited Runaway Creek Wildlife Refuge and hiked through the many terrains of Belize. We saw jaguar prints, heard howler monkeys, walked right past a juvenile fer-de-lance (a very venomous snake), and saw tapir tracks and poop! We visited the coast and learned about reef ecology and how the reefs affect Belize. We even visited the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich to learn about the history of Belize, which deepened our understanding of this beautiful country. But most importantly, we talked with the staff at the zoo and asked how we could help. We came up with A LOT of ideas, but then we had to decide what was possible and what took priority.

Jaguar

The Belize Zoo features jaguars, tapirs and other animals native to the country.

We came home and met with Zoo senior staff to share our experience and start the discussion. Eventually we decided to conduct workshops for the staff of The Belize Zoo and get our staff involved in conservation projects in Belize. In January 2016, seven zoo professionals headed to Belize to teach a basic zookeeper workshop for the animal staff. We had a team with a diverse background – Katie Kuhn, area supervisor of big cats; Danielle Faucett, area supervisor of Winter Quarters; Robert Korman, veterinary technician; Amanda Ista, big cat zookeeper; Beth Rich, deputy Zoo director of animal management and health; Matt Rich, retired zookeeper and fountain of knowledge; and Amy Schilz, animal manager of the African Rift Valley at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. This was the first part of “Pat the Cat Gives Back.”

The employees of The Belize Zoo have similar responsibilities to the keepers here in Milwaukee. They take care of a lot of animals, educate the public, do animal demos and encounters, and conduct tours. But they also wear a lot of other hats throughout the year, such as firefighter, maintenance worker and vet tech. They are a small zoo with a small staff, and everyone has to pitch in. They are the only zoo in their country, so educational or professional-development opportunities are limited. This workshop was designed to give them an overview of basic zookeeper skills. We covered animal husbandry, safety, a veterinary overview and some hands-on topics such as training, enrichment, communication and teamwork. We spent six days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. teaching, working, problem-solving and talking with the staff. It was an exhausting week for everyone!

Belize Zoo

Staff from the Milwaukee County Zoo traveled to Belize to help keepers there.

We quickly learned how much they got out of it and that they wanted more. While we were there, they asked us about a few training challenges that we could help them work through. I am happy to report that each challenge was overcome. They even took what they learned and applied it to other animals and situations after we left. They were enthralled with the topics Bob Korman covered in the vet section. We had never seen them more engaged than when standing around a microscope looking for parasites! We did surveys for instructors and students at the end of the course to see what we could do better. The resounding answer from the students was they wanted us to stay longer and go into more details on some topics, particularly hands-on training and veterinary practices. It was an amazing week filled with keepers from very different situations coming together to learn from each other.

We also want to participate in conservation initiatives in Belize. The Milwaukee County Zoo does not have its own research department, but we have a lot of willing and able bodies. Currently we are talking to different organizations to see what might be the best fit. We are looking to combine the workshops and the conservation under one umbrella project in Belize, hopefully for years to come.

This all started because one jaguar touched the hearts of every person who came to know him. Pat the Great Cat became a stellar ambassador for his species. Children in Belize and America read about him in his book, and Zoo visitors learn about him from our volunteers and keepers. Even after his death, he is inspiring conservation, education and professional-development initiatives among those who cared for him in Belize and Milwaukee. His legacy will live on for many years.

By Katie Kuhn

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Alive magazine.