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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Jaguar Mauling


The tragic event of a 140-pound jaguar mauling and killing a zookeeper in Denver reminds us about the inherent dangers of close contact with wild animals, no matter what their prior behavior. Animals act by instinct, and even with domestication, can be provoked by interactions with humans.

Once again, I would like to turn to the wisdom of Luanne Freer, M.D., who has written a chapter on wild animal attacks in the forthcoming 5th edition of the textbook Wilderness Medicine. As Dr. Freer notes, adult cats (including large cats, such as jaguars) have 30 permanent teeth, arranged in rows of 16 upper and 14 lower teeth. The upper teeth overlap the lower, resulting in an overbite. This helps the animal lock its teeth into prey and exert twisting and tearing forces.

Big cats typically attack from behind, biting the neck and occiput (lower portion of the skull) of their prey and attempting to maneuver their canine teeth between the victim’s neck vertebrae and into the spinal cord. In a report of fatalities from jaguar attack, 77% of victims were bitten on the nape of the neck and half of the bites were made to the base of the skull. The goal of rapidly paralyzing its prey is also accomplished by a violent shake of the cat’s head, which breaks the victim’s neck. In a fifth of cases, the killing bite was to the head, with at least one canine tooth piercing the skull or ear canal. Big cats also claw their prey, producing deep parallel slash wounds. If the abdomen or chest is involved, the injuries can be very severe, including exposure of and injury to internal organs. Several victims have died from bleeding without evidence of strangulation or cervical spine injury. As we are all aware, because wild animals are kept as pets or in zoos, injuries by big cats can occur anywhere.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the victim of this unfortunate happening.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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