General — 29 October 2010 — by Stacey Kelly
Among the many tragic sequences of events set into motion by the destructive force of Hurricane Richard was the escape of Max, a tamed Jaguar, from the enclosure that was his home during the storm when a mango tree landed on top of it. The escape ultimately led to a fatal encounter between the cat and his owner’s neighbor/associate, Bruce Cullerton.
Cullerton, 47, an American-Belizean residing at Mile 28 ½, Western Highway, was viciously attacked and mauled to death by a tamed mature male jaguar weighing about 130 lbs.
The incident occurred on Monday night, October 25, 2010; Cullerton was over at the home of his neighbours, Richard and Carol Foster (videographers and owners of Max), using their Wi-Fi internet the night of his death.
According to Richard Foster, formerly a British national, Cullerton had been alerted by them that Max was on the loose due to the damage wrought by the hurricane, which caused an opening in his cage through which he escaped.
“The cat got out of the cage during the hurricane [Hurricane Richard on Sunday night, October 24, 2010] due to a huge mango tree that fell on the enclosure of the cat and the cat panicked and got out through a small hole,” said Foster.
The Fosters and Cullerton were good friends for about 17 years, and they explained that this incident has been utterly devastating for them, because not only did they have to deal with the fact that their cat killed their close friend, but they also had to put the cat to sleep.
Foster told us that Cullerton had decided to go home on Monday night after using the internet, even though they, the Fosters, had advised him against it due to the unpredictability of Max; Foster explained that he had gone out to try to lure Max back into the cage that same night after Cullerton had gone home, and that he had seen Max staring at Cullerton’s dogs through the fence.
“I heard Bruce’s dogs barking around 10:00 that night, and I figured the cat had been around there, so I went to check,” said Foster.
Foster called out to Max and tried unsuccessfully to lure Max back to the cage where he had been, leaving a bait to recapture his cat.
It is suspected that maybe Max had been trying to attack Cullerton’s dog, prompting Cullerton to come out of his home to try to protect his dog; this suspicion is reinforced by the fact that the dog has been seen suffering from a puncture wound on its left ear.
Cullerton was found on Tuesday morning, October 26, 2010, by another friend who had gone to do a routine checkup on him, as Cullerton is said to have been very sickly and had been scheduled to go to America for treatment.
There were visible signs of bite marks on Cullerton’s neck and head; his body was found under a shed on his residence, a few feet away from his injured dog.
The Fosters, who are award-winning videographers who have produced internationally acclaimed documentaries on wildlife such as jaguars, explained that they had received Max only a year ago and had been working diligently to train him and ensure his health, since his health had been poor prior to their adoption.
Max was to have been their feature jaguar in a National Geographic Explorer documentary they were getting ready to produce, but due to the unfolding of events, he had to be put to sleep after being caught.
“It was very sad, but I understand the necessity to have the cat put down,” said Foster.
To successfully capture Max, Omar Figueroa, a conservationist/biologist, had been called upon to render assistance, as jaguars are his area of expertise; Figueroa is currently with the University of Florida as a PhD candidate, working on his PhD dissertation.
“I received a call from the Forest Department informing me of what had happened. They requested my assistance in coming out and capturing the cat,” said Figueroa.
The capture of Max was accomplished on Tuesday, October 27, 2010, around 9:30 p.m.
Assisting in the capture effort were members of the Forest Department and the Belize Zoo. To aid in the capture the Zoo personnel had brought in a live sheep, which was used as a bait to lure Max close to where Figueroa had set up his technically elaborate and effective trap system.
“I went out and spoke with the Fosters [who had been involved in the capture]; I learnt a bit more about the behavior of this cat from them; I started to scout the general area —a general radius of about 300-400 meters and I started seeing signs of a cat because cats usually leave signs as they scratch on the ground, they scratch on trees, they usually do this to mark territory.
“I scouted the area to see how this cat was moving and because this cat was not a wild cat it would have difficulty venturing too far out in the wild; regular cats that have an established home range would kill this cat within a matter of minutes,” said Figueroa.
Figueroa then, after blocking off all but two of Max’s trails which were believed to have been his route back to his known area of captivity, set up traps that included a VHF trap radio; this type of equipment sends out a rapid 90 beeps once the animal has been successfully trapped.
Figueroa has, over the course of his career, captured over 40 jaguars and pumas here in Belize, and explained that the country of Belize, primarily that same area, is populated by about 600-800 Jaguars, possibly even more.
Figueroa was brought in only to capture Max and, after the capture, chemically immobilized it and left the eradication to the veterinarian, who had also been at the scene. Figueroa explained that Richard Foster had helped in the identification of the Jaguar before the veterinarian put him to sleep.
Max had been identified by a scar under his chin, dental work and his unique coat pattern.
“The vet was on sight and they put the cat to sleep that night; you have to be driven first by human safety and you can’t take any chances; human safety is first and foremost; it can’t be second to anything,” said Figueroa.
According to Figueroa the Fosters had been on sight and had not opposed the process in any way. “They were very professional and they accepted that this had to happen,” said Foster.
“Jaguars in the wild avoid human contact. They never confront humans; there has never been an attack of a wild jaguar on humans. When you start dealing with captured cats you start dealing with cats that have lost their fear of humans; I know that a dog was also attacked, and it is possible that the gentleman [Cullerton] was trying to protect his dog; it could be a possibility that the cat was going for its food, the dog,” Figueroa said.
The Fosters in their reiteration of their complete shock explained, “Bruce was a very good friend of ours. This is completely devastating; it is the worst thing that could have happened”.
An international report of this story by CNN online, entitled “Killer jaguar on the loose in Belize, U.S. Embassy warns,” stated the following: “An escaped jaguar is on the loose in Belize and has killed someone, the U.S. Embassy in the nation said in a warning to American citizens.
“The animal escaped when Hurricane Richard tore through the area Sunday. The U.S. Embassy issued the message to travelers and residents Tuesday ‘to alert Americans that there has been an incident near the Belize Zoo involving a jaguar fatally attacking a person.’” Readers of the story could have mistakenly concluded that the incident took place at the Zoo.
There seems to be an inconsistency in responses to incidents involving the killing of humans by animals, since two pit bulls which viciously attacked and killed Edmund Spain, 65, were not put to death.
The incident was the subject of our headline story of the Wednesday, June 16, 2010, issue entitled, “2 pit bulls kill Edmund Spain, 65,” and the report of this incident had only reached Amandala due to Spain’s relatives, two weeks after it had happened.
To date those two vicious pit bulls that had escaped out of their yard and into Spain’s in the Hattieville area, mauling the elderly man and causing his subsequent death, have still not been eradicated despite Spain’s family’s discontent over it.