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BIG CAT'S FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL : NOW-RARE JAGUAR HAS COLORFUL PAST.

Byline: Dan Bagott Special to the Daily News

Bolting from his bedroll at the roar's echo, James ``Grizzly'' Adams made out the figure of a big cat in the moonlight.

Although groggy, he comprehended all too clearly that he was peering at a pair of jaguars and their two cubs, although these might have been the first jaguars he had ever laid eyes on. Straining, the mountain man could discern on the male ``a coat covered with dark round spots of great richness and beauty.''

The mid-19th century scene was just north of the San Fernando Valley, along what is now the Golden State Freeway (I-5), in the vicinity of the present-day reservoir, Pyramid Lake. Here the legendary Adams was to spend weeks chasing the sleek, exotic felines.

Based on his run-in with the cats while tracking his usual quarry of bears, Adams would have snorted at the modern idea that these spotted cats need be protected by the government, as was the recent case in Arizona. He found them more than able to take care of themselves. In fact, the jaguars wound up making a monkey out of Grizzly.

Adams might have changed his views, however, had he known that the jaguar - at a length of 6 to 8 feet and a weight of up to 300 pounds the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere - would become such an extremely rare species.

It once ranged from Argentina into the Grand Canyon and roamed from the desert grasslands and lower mountains of Southern California to Louisiana.

Now the shy, solitary, nocturnal animal that preys on deer and has been known to scoop fish from rivers is scarce and endangered even in Central and South America. The last California sighting is thought to have been made on Mount San Jacinto, above Palm Springs, in 1929; the cat went the way of the dodo in several other states, too. In Texas, the last jaguar was seen in the 1940s, and in New Mexico in 1937.

Just last week, a federal judge in Phoenix ordered that the country's few remaining jaguars, which reside in Southern Arizona, be placed on the federal list of endangered species within 120 days.

All the uproar over the jaguar is a far cry from the days of Grizzly Adams, who earned his living and fame by live-trapping and exhibiting grizzlies and a few black bears, training them with an almost supernatural rapport as pets and pack animals. He worked around 1860 with master showman P.T. Barnum, showing his bruins like a lion tamer in the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. He astonished San Franciscans by strolling their city streets with his favorite grizzlies, Ben Franklin and Lady Washington, padding after him like huge, docile dogs.

In the rugged northwest corner of Los Angeles County around 1840, Adams was tracking bears with his sometime hunting partner, Ben Franklin, when he glimpsed a large, unidentifiable cat, as recounted by biographer Robert M. McClung in ``The True Adventures of Grizzly Adams.''

Bigger than any cougar, it was, by Adams' reckoning, and closer in size and form to a lion or tiger. He found the animal's den - a cave in a rock ledge - and became determined to capture it alive. On a subsequent night, he was awakened by the caterwaul that jolted him from the arms of Morpheus and first revealed to him the moonlit family of jaguars.

At the end of six futile weeks of trying to lure one of the wily jaguars into the kind of built-on-the-spot box trap that he used capture bears, he came upon the female and cubs again one day. In a fit of frustration, he loosed a rifle shot at her.

Like sprinters at the crack of a starter's pistol, Ben Franklin and Rambler, Adams' faithful dog, bounded to the attack. The jaguar countered ferociously with teeth and claws and managed to escape with her cubs.

Less than a century later, the story - like the jaguar itself - would become a distant memory in the annals of California history.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: (color) The last California sighting of a jaguar is thought to have taken place in 1929. A judge ordered that it be placed on the endangered-species list.

Associated Press
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 3, 1997
Words:707
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