The Sad Story of Juma the Jaguar, the Brazilian Harambe

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RIP, Juma.Photo: Jair Araujo/AFP/Getty Images

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have taken an untold toll on the people of Brazil. Beyond those who died while working on projects related to the Games, there are the longtime Rio residents forcibly displaced to make room for Olympic infrastructure, the victims of an increasingly deadly police force and surging gang violence, and the droves suffering from reductions in social services.

And yet, the most widely noted tragedy, at least in the U.S., in the lead-up to the Games was the death of Juma, a captive jaguar killed after participating in an Olympic torch event in Manaus. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the outrage that swept the nation when Harambe the gorilla was killed two months ago. We’re numb to human suffering, but kill an innocent jaguar and 250,000 people will sign a petition calling for justice.

It’s easy to be angry about what happened to Juma. Her death wasn’t the result of a tragic accident. She was killed after being used for an Olympic photo op at the military-run zoo where she lived. Despite what some outlets have reported, Juma wasn’t the Olympic mascot. She was a representation of Ginga, a cartoon jaguar serving as the Brazilian team’s mascot. Half yellow and half green, Ginga is a toothy big cat whose face is emblazoned on souvenir shirts all across Rio.

Juma looks calm enough in the photos taken that day, lying on the ground with two chains attached to her neck. A few feet away, a Brazilian doctor holds out the Olympic torch.

While Juma behaved normally during the photo shoot, she later became agitated and escaped her handlers inside the zoo. Even after getting hit with four tranquilizers, Juma was still awake. When she “approached” a soldier, she was shot, according to the army.

After the incident, the Olympic organizing committee in Rio said it was a mistake to display the torch, “a symbol of peace and unity,” alongside a “chained wild animal.”

“This image goes against our beliefs and our values,” a statement said. It was also a mistake because it was illegal, according to Reuters. But the biggest reason Juma’s exploitation was a mistake is because, according to one animal-behavior scientist who spoke to the BBC, exposure to the flame and the photo session could be why she freaked out later in the day.

It’s neither healthy nor advisable to subject an animal to such a situation, with lots of noise and people,” he said. “Often, jaguars already are stressed by being kept in captivity, that’s only compounded when they’re exposed to hubbub.”

The killing of Juma got a lot of attention in the U.S. PETA weighed in. The mainstream media was all over it. And a quarter-million Americans signed a petition calling for “an official investigation by the Brazilian army.”

The great irony of this whole mess is that the reason Juma was trotted out for that photo op is because the jaguar is the Team Brazil mascot. And the reason the jaguar is the Team Brazil mascot is because the country’s Olympic committee wanted to “highlight the efforts of conservation NGOs working to protect this animal.”

So a decision made with good intentions was poorly executed and resulted in a disaster. If you’re looking for a microcosm of these Olympics, this is it.