El Jefe, burning bright

This is the sort of thing that I read and then think: I need to get on the next plane to Tucson. See, there are a lot of grand American narratives in flux these days, and we’re constantly finding new places in our collective subconscious for ideas like “freedom,” “the environment,” “animals,” “power.” The story of America’s only known jaguar is where these threads converge.

El Jefe, an adult male jaguar who roams the Santa Rita mountain range in Arizona, may help block construction of Donald Trump’s proposed “Wall.” Because of El Jefe’s ties to a larger population in Mexico, building a physical barrier would guarantee jaguar extinction in the U.S. The Center for Biological Diversity has argued that climate change will inevitably force Central American and South American jaguar populations north, meaning that the conservation of the Santa Rita habitat — and its migratory ingress — is a critical environmental matter.

At the moment, Section 102 of the Real ID Act grants the Homeland Security Secretary the ability to waive environmental laws when building a border barrier. The Center’s attorneys are working on a case that would prove the unconstitutionality of placing such broad discretionary powers in the hands of an unelected official (like, say, John Kelly).

There are a lot of framing devices in play when we talk about the “Wall.” Knee-jerk xenophobia is pretty popular among the mentally unhinged. But the whole thing is a real distraction from actual long-term concerns for people and animals who live on Earth. I happen to think that jaguar cubs living in Mexico are much more important to our planetary evolution than the whims of a lunatic autocrat and his deranged base.

And those cubs? They don’t know that we’re up here debating the merits of a “Wall.” They can’t protest. What they’ll do instead, if we ignore the implications of our past and present, is fade into the imaginations of old, doddering men and women who faintly remember a time when animals roamed mountain ranges. A “jaguar” will be as silly as a jackalope to future generations.

That doesn’t have to happen, though.

The story of El Jefe doesn’t need to be a tearjerker. And he certainly shouldn’t be turned into a political placeholder — a football for various groups to use in advancing their own agenda or tearing down another’s. But the story of El Jefe might tell us a lot more about who we are than we think.

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