To taxidermist Marc Plunkett, the liquid streaming from Macho B's left hip "looked like a volcano of pus coming out."
Plunkett was describing what he saw when he skinned the dead jaguar's body so the hide could be preserved for future displays. To his eye, the fluids pouring through a three-quarter-inch-sized hole in the hip were clear signs of an infection — an infection that until now had not been publicly reported by any agency involved in the death or investigation of Macho B's death.
Plunkett and two outside wildlife medical specialists agreed that such an infection could have been a key to understanding what caused this country's last known wild jaguar to slow down and ultimately stop moving a week after the Arizona Game and Fish Department captured, radio-collared and released him on Feb. 18 south of Arivaca. The animal, age 15 or 16, was recaptured and euthanized March 2 after Phoenix Zoo veterinarians determined he had incurable kidney failure.
But Plunkett and other experts disagree as to whether the hole and the eruption of fluid were caused by a natural infection or by the dart that pierced the jaguar's left rump — a few inches below that hip — with an anesthetic after Game and Fish technicians found the animal in a snare trap.
The story of the hip infection — which is now being investigated by federal officials conducting a criminal probe of Macho B's capture and death — underscores the uncertainties created by an Arizona Game and Fish decision made to do a less-than-complete necropsy after the big cat was killed..
Game and Fish officials made that decision to preserve the jaguar's hide for educational, scientific or religious display, the department said at the time. But the cosmetic necropsy essentially ruled out in-depth analysis that outside veterinarians said could have helped explain his slowdown.
Citing the ongoing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's investigation, Arizona Game and Fish officials would not say where Macho B's remains are or whether a full-scale necropsy was done or could still be done.
"The federal investigation is expected to include final necropsy results that will provide factual information on the health of Macho B at the time of death and will be useful in answering many of the questions you've asked. It's best to wait for the final necropsy," Game and Fish said. "They kept grilling me"
Plunkett, 46, runs Wildlife Creations Taxidermy in Camp Verde, a bit more than an hour's drive north of Phoenix along Interstate 17. He said that when Game and Fish first contacted him to do the skinning of Macho B, the plan was to mount it, life-size, for some kind of public display in the future.
"They know my reputation — they knew if they brought it to me, I could at least preserve the skin and get it taken care of," Plunkett said.
In a recent interview, he said that when he removed the skin and looked at the carcass, he saw what he believed was a very serious infection on the animal's left rear hip — "where the ball joint would be." The infected area lay a few inches above the left rump where the animal was darted, he said.
Later in the spring after the animal's hide had been shipped to a Texas company for tanning and returned to Plunkett, he was visited by a Fish and Wildlife Service law-enforcement investigator who asked about the infection and whether it was linked to the capture.
"They kept grilling me to see if that was the wound from the Game and Fish dart," Plunkett said.
" 'No,' I said. The cat is really old. It had an infection in his back hip. That cat was seriously in trouble. But it was a natural infection. It wasn't human- caused," he said. "He's just an old cat. If my dog had this same condition, I'd tell them to put it down."
He said the hide and the carcass showed a mark where it was darted, but it was several inches from the hip and the spot where the infection was located.
Frank Solis, Fish and Wildlife's special agent in charge of the jaguar investigation, said that he is taking Plunkett's story as true, but he wouldn't comment further. "The dart goes pretty deep"
But the possibility that the wound came from the darting of Macho B should not be dismissed, say veterinary pathologist Sharon Dial of the University of Arizona and veterinarian David Jessup of the California Fish and Game Department, who have been critical of Game and Fish's handling of the Macho B case.
While a dart leaves a very small mark in the animal's skin, it can cause an abscess or a necrosis, said Dial of UA's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. And sometimes an infection can start in one place and migrate up or down.
"The dart goes pretty deep. What you see at the surface may not be representative of the entire lesion," said Dial. "If the wound was as extensive as the gentleman said, that may have had more to do with the debilitation, his inability to walk appropriately. It may have kept him from getting water and led to him being dehydrated. It may have made him septic — having a bacterial infection. It means that the kidneys may not function well."
When you dart an animal with a tranquilizer, you create a puncture wound, Jessup said. In the process, you push in a bit of skin and hair and bacteria. When the dart injects forcefully, it damages tissue — it is a perfect medium for bacteria to grow and multiply, he said.
For that reason, Jessup and Dial said the Game and Fish trappers who handled Macho B after the capture should have given him an antibiotic at the spot the cat was darted, to forestall a bacterial infection. They said giving an antibiotic is a common practice after the capture of a large mammal — "especially if you will dart and release the animal into the wild, with no after-care," Dial said.
The Wildlife Conservation Society's 2005 Jaguar Health Program Manual recommends that captured jaguars be given the antibiotic penicillin — especially if a jaguar has a significant trauma from the darting — or has a fractured tooth, which Macho B had. The manual also recommended a topical antibiotic, typically a spray or salve — at the dart site or at any other active skin lesions.
But in his Feb. 20 account of Macho B's capture, Game and Fish wildlife technician Thorry Smith wrote that he sprayed antibiotics — and iodine — primarily on small cuts and abrasions on the cat's left rear leg and to his swollen left forepaw, which was caught in the snare. Smith's account said nothing about antibiotics placed on the dart wound.
In Florida, state government wildlife veterinarian Mark Cunningham said he routinely applies an antibiotic to captured and immobilized Florida panthers.
But Cunningham said he generally would not expect that the darting of an animal in one spot would spread an infection some distance away. "I haven't had a lot of cases with abscesses at dart wounds," he said, noting he is unable to speak to the facts in the Macho B case. Certainty is lacking
Dial and Jessup said they, too, have no way of knowing for sure how much if at all the darting affected Macho B because of the lack of a complete necropsy.
A Phoenix Zoo necropsy report, dated March 2, said the cat's central nervous system and spinal remains were not analyzed due to Game and Fish's desire for the cosmetic necropsy. Analyzing the central nervous system could have shown whether neurological problems contributed to the jaguar's errant behavior, Dial said. And the spinal remains could have provided clues as to whether the darting caused the infection to spread to the hip, said Jennifer Johnson, a veterinarian at the UA diagnostic lab.
The necropsy report did say that "severe subcutaneous emphysema" was present in the cat's left rear leg from the hip down to the hock and found signs that the muscles were atrophying in both hind legs. The emphysema — which indicates air in the body tissue — often indicates that the tissue contains gas-producing bacterial infections, Dial said. But when the Phoenix Zoo sent tissues from Macho B to the vet lab to analyze, it didn't send any from the left rear leg, hip or rump, Johnson and Dial said.
"The bottom line is because a complete necropsy was not done, there is no possibility of finding out what happened," Dial said.
On StarNet: See past stories, slide shows and videos on Macho B at azstarnet.com/ special/jaguar