Sara Morris Swetcharnik

Alfredo's Tigrillo

By Sara Morris Swetcharnik

Fifty years ago, when Alfredo was a boy, a friend of his uncle had an ocelot or tigrillo. The full-grown feline weighed about 25 pounds.

More graceful and beautiful than any house cat, she had a short tawny-yellow coat with black spots and lines in longitudinal rows, and a white belly also with black spots. After Alfredo saw her, there was nothing that he wanted more than his own ocelot. Soon half of Honduras knew that he wanted a tigrillo.

One day someone found a 12-inch spotted kitten, and brought it to Alfredo. The head and feet seemed a bit too large for the body. But then, kittens always have large heads and feet. It looked like a perfect tigrillo kitten to Alfredo.

There were lots of possum back then, so Alfredo would hunt a possum and bring it in to feed the tiny spotted cat. At first this was enough meat for a week or longer. But after a while, the tigrillo was eating a possum a day. Then it was eating two possums a day, and then three. Then Alfredo had to start buying lambs. He just couldn't keep up with the feedings, and the cat kept getting bigger and bigger. It became obvious that this thick-bodied, powerful creature was too large for a tigrillo.

Alfredo finally gave it to the Honduran air force and it remained for many years as their mascot at their base in Tegucigalpa. The jaguar had always been their symbol, but they had never had a real mascot before.

Alfredo still came to visit the jaguar. He remembers admiring the jaguar through the cage bars. The magnificent tawny yellow and black spotted creature was often sleeping The cat would stretch, yawn, and lift his black-tipped ears. Through the bars Alfredo would pet him and the cat would turn over, exposing a white belly with black spots.

However, Alfredo was afraid to go inside the cage: the jaguar was as playful as any house cat, but by now immensely more powerful. Once a week, the air force would go out and kill a calf or a cow to feed the jaguar. When they needed to discipline a young soldier, they would assign him to clean the cage.

Dressed in a fireman's suit, holding a fire hose and half scared to death, the penitent offender would enter the cage to wash it down. It was with great difficulty that the cage was cleaned, because the 300-pound jaguar thought that this was a game. Usually the force of the fireman's hose was enough to keep the jaguar away, but once a playful pounce knocked down a soldier and broke his arm.

Years later, Alfredo's wife would be given a little tigrillo. But that is another story.