a jaguar named Pat arrived at the Milwaukee County Zoo in March 2008
with a troubled past and uncertain future, no one could have guessed
this last great cat of the Americas would become an international
ambassador for the plight of jaguars in the wild, a catalyst for
literacy efforts and an important figure in the species survival of
jaguars in captivity ó though there was hope all of these things
could be realized.
heartbreaking and inspiring story of how Pat came to Milwaukee from
his native Belize in Central America has been documented in a book,
"Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguarís Journey," published by
Milwaukeeís SHARP Literacy Inc. in 2011. The book is a unique
collaboration among schoolchildren in Milwaukee and Belize, who were
presented with the challenge of telling Patís story for him.
The result was
an avalanche of material ≠≠≠ó facts, quotes, poems, drawings ó
all researched and compiled by students at 16 Milwaukee schools and
six schools in Belize.
As the jaguarís
habitat is lost to development, they often prey on cattle and
domesticated animals for food. In Patís case, this led to his
capture. Officials determined he couldnít be put back into the wild
and he entered the Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation Program at the Belize
story, the children saw themselves. "Pat made a choice that he
didnít know was wrong and suffered the consequences of that
choice," says Mequonís Nancy Kennedy, who, along with husband
John, was involved in bringing Pat to the Milwaukee County Zoo.
"Teachers told me the kids were identifying with Pat in a way
they hadnít even expected."
animals," retired educator Susan Castle says simply. "They
love the idea they can save something and that something can be fixed
and made better. The children made a connection between Pat and his
The book project
was a call to action for Nancy Kennedy, who was alarmed by a statistic
that only 12 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in Milwaukee Public
Schools scored at proficient or above in reading and math. "Iím
thinking, ĎItís 15 minutes away from my house and they canít
to read. I donít care if they are reading on a digital book or a
paper book, if children cannot be excited about reading, we are all
lost," Kennedy says. "If we donít challenge them early
with exciting and, in this case, real-life stories, we stand a chance
of losing them. Thatís a chance that none of us can take."
the MPS children and "amazing teachers," whose work defied
the statistics. "They grabbed onto this story and ran with it,
these same children who statistically are not reading," she says.
"When they were challenged, they wrote for publication."
were aided in their efforts by Glendale artist Francisco Mora, who
provided the watercolor drawings for the book, and by Pewaukee writer
and educator Bethany OíDay, who gave the childrenís work a voice
in the form of Pat the Cat. "From the minute that I heard this
story, I was so inspired by it," OíDay says. "The story
just touched my heart.
respect Pat. I feel like he has such perseverance," she says.
"Maybe this isnít too much of a stretch given all he went
Mora, too, felt
an immediate connection to the story. A native of Mexico City, he knew
the jaguar as a revered creature in ancient Mayan culture. "I had
traveled many times to the southeast part of Mexico to the area of the
Mayas," Mora says. "I was familiar with the jungle, the
sounds, the colors and the smells, so when Nancy started to talk about
the Belize reserve where Pat was kept, I could imagine without trouble
the pages of the book."
In Belize, the
book was released with much fanfare during an event hosted by United
States Ambassador to Belize Vinai Thummalapally and his wife, Barbara.
She and Kim Simplis-Barrow, wife of the prime minister of Belize, are
taking an active role in promoting literacy efforts in the schools
English-speaking country roughly the size of Massachusetts, literacy
rates have dropped dramatically, from 89 percent in 1990 to 76 percent
today. The cause is multifaceted, but an influx of immigrant families
from Mexico, where Spanish is the native language, and inadequate
teacher training (only 42 percent of the teachers in Belize are
trained to teach), are contributing factors.
even books, are often unlikely to be found in Belizean classrooms.
Student demeanor is very formal, with students rarely showing emotion
or smiling. But when the young authors received their very own
"Pat the Cat" books, the childrenís excitement was
undeniable. Dylan, a student at Eden Primary School, was smiling from
ear to ear when he found his passages in the book. "Miss Nancy, Iím
smiling on the outside, but Iím screaming on the inside," he
told Kennedy, who was in Belize for the book launch.
"It was one
of the most emotionally charged experiences of my whole life to watch
these kids get their copies of the book," says Thomas Pasquarello,
a professor at The State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland.
the Book: "Pat the (Great) Cat: A Jaguarís Journey"
is a textbook written side by side in English and Spanish for
children by children in Milwaukee and Patís native Belize. The
book is available online at Amazon.com and at the Milwaukee
County Zoo. More information is available at patthegreatcat.com.
co-director of the Summer Institute for Environmental Studies and
Culture, sponsored by SUNY Cortland, The Belize Foundation for
Conservation and the Belize Ministry of Education. "Pat the
Cat" was the focus of last yearís institute as teachers from
the United States, Belize and the Peace Corps began developing a
curriculum from the textbook for teachers in Belize to integrate into
In December, the
Belize Ministry of Education chose "Pat the Cat" as a
supplemental textbook for all schools in Belize. Itís a source of
national pride, motivating teachers and students alike. "Itís
Belizean at its heart," Thummalapally says. "Itís a book
all about their country, their animals, their flora and fauna. Itís
not Jack and Jill in America or somewhere else."
is not just one more thing to teach," stresses Peace Corps
volunteer Miguelina Cuevas-Post, a retired teacher and principal from
New York. "The last thing you want as a teacher is for someone to
put something else on your desk to teach." Instead, teachers are
learning how to integrate lessons in science, social studies,
geography, art and guided reading into their classrooms. "The
thing that is most rewarding is that the teachers are embracing
it," Cuevas-Post says. "They want their hands on the book.
Itís like a precious commodity."
has been instrumental in coordinating teacher training with the Peace
Corps volunteers, hosting two-day workshops for teachers in Belmopan,
even opening up the ambassadorís residence for teachers to stay
management skills to new ways of teaching reading with word walls,
songs and games, the workshops are introducing research-based teaching
to Belize. "Itís like a whole range of educational tools we are
giving to them," Thummalapally says. "If I could leave here
even having taught a number of teachers the importance of reading to
kids each day, I will have accomplished my goal with the
project," she says.
curriculum continues to evolve (thereís also work being done in the
United States to develop a formal curriculum that meets educational
standards in various states ó coordinated by Castle, Pasquarelloís
sister, a retired Pennsylvania educator), Thummalapallyís next
mission was to get the books into the hands of Belizean students.
Thanks, in part, to donations from The Sunrise Rotary of Rotary
International in Belize, 10,000 books from SHARP Literacy arrived in
Belize courtesy of Delta Airlines. Thummalapally and others spent five
days unloading 4,000 pounds books each day, and loading them into
trucks to transport them to Belize City. Her next challenge is to
deliver the books to schools across the country. But without storage
containers, the books will quickly be ruined in the tropical climate.
"Most of these schools donít even have bookshelves in
classrooms," she says. "Books get destroyed really
work continues in Belize, interest in "Pat the Cat" has
taken root organically in Thummalapallyís home state of Colorado as
well as in Pennsylvannia, New York, Florida, Kansas and here in
In Sister Amalís
class at Salam School in Milwaukee, "Pat the Cat" inspired
fourth- and fifth-graders to write a series of three stories they plan
to publish as free books for kindergartners and first-graders.
"All the stories we know about him are after he was captured. We
thought letís do something about his childhood," Amal says.
They are also establishing a pen pal program with Belizean students.
Before Pat came
to the Milwaukee County Zoo, he spent time at the Belize Zoo, where
Zoo Director Sharon Matola, Education Director Celso Poot and others
have been caring for problem jaguars since 2002. "These cats
would otherwise be killed shot or trapped by bait and poisoned,"
Poot says. "We basically rescued them and brought them into the
zoo as a conservation tool."
Belize also has
since 1980 a jaguar reserve set aside specifically for continued
existence of jaguars and its zoo is a tourist attraction and education
center for visitors and Belizean schoolchildren.
canine teeth injured during his capture and the revelation of a
previously broken leg, Pat couldnít be released to the wild, but he
responded well to the problem jaguar program and human interaction.
made his way to his new home in Milwaukee, we started a joint
collaboration project with the Milwaukee Zoo and the Belize Zoo to
highlight the plight of jaguars, especially the problems jaguars in
Belize face," Poot says.
decision to protect top predators is never an easy thing to do,"
says Pasquarello. "You can see that in the book. When humans and
predators come into conflict, usually itís the predators that end up
on the short end of the stick."
you can protect cats in the wild you are protecting the habitat of
hundreds and thousands and even millions of species," says Bruce
Beehler, deputy director of the Milwaukee County Zoo. "Having an
ambassador like Pat the Cat helps get the story out and serves as a
conduit for people to get involved to help these animals in the
As one of the
only wild-born jaguars in captivity, Pat is playing another important
role in the survival of the species. On Nov. 13, 2012, two male cubs
were born to Pat and his mate, Stella. This will strengthen the
genetic diversity of the approximately 118 jaguars in zoos in North
The cubs are
another educational tool to promote conservation awareness and connect
children in Belize and Milwaukee as zoo officials are sponsoring a
naming contest for the cubs.
tremendous opportunity for these cubs to get children interested in
nature," Pasquarello says. "Through their children students
will want to learn about Pat and Stella. Itís a tremendously
important story from an environmental and conservation