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Animal magnetism
The jaguar, the last great cat of the Americas, no longer roams the Southwest United States and its habitat is threatened in Central America. From his new home at the Milwaukee County Zoo, the wild-born Pat is a symbol to protect jaguars in the wild, drawing together children, adults, businesses and governments.

Photos by Mike Nepper/Milwaukee County Zoo

March 2013

When 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.

The 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 Zoo.

In Patís 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."

"Kids love 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 people friends."

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 read?í

"Kids need 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."

Kennedy praises 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."

The children 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.

"I really respect Pat. I feel like he has such perseverance," she says. "Maybe this isnít too much of a stretch given all he went through."

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."

Belizean Literacy Project

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 there.

In this 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.

Computers, and 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.

About 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 and at the Milwaukee County Zoo. More information is available at

Pasquarello is 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 their classrooms.

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."

"This 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."

Thummalapally 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 overnight.

From classroom 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.

As the 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 fast."

While 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 Wisconsin.

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.

Pat as Ambassador

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.

With broken 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.

"After Pat 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.

"The 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."

"If 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 wild."

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 America.

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.

"Itís a 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 standpoint." M

About 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 and at the Milwaukee County Zoo. More information is available at


This story ran in the March 2013 issue of: