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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Tiger Hunt
in Mills County

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

In South Texas, many called it “El Tigre,” Spanish for the tiger. More scientifically, the name is Panthera onca. But its best-known name is jaguar.

Jaguars have beautiful, spotted furs, move with stealth and grace and in modern times have had luxury cars and football teams named after them. They are also the largest cat found in North America, wide-ranging carnivores equipped with powerful jaws and long, fierce teeth capable of crushing the skull of a soon-to-be meal.

Not surprisingly, early Texans did not think Texas covered enough square miles to accommodate both man and jaguar.

The last time one of the big cats is known to have been killed in state was in 1947 in the Rio Grande Valley, but even four decades earlier, the animals had become scarce in the Lone Star State. The reason is that they had a bad reputation, whether deserved or not. Seeing the cats as a threat to livestock and humans alike, jaguars had a figurative target on their hides just like bear, wolves, mountain lions and venomous reptiles.

“It stirs the imagination to recall that this terrible jaguar once roamed plentifully throughout Texas,” wrote J.G. Burr in 1930 for the “Year Book on Texas Conservation of Wildlife 1929-30,” a publication of the old Game, Fish and Oyster Commission, now the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “This tropical beast, though receding before the advance of civilization, may at any time cross into Texas from Mexico, where it persists in considerable numbers.”

Whether jaguars are truly terrible is debatable, but they do grow larger than any other cat in the Western hemisphere, including the much more common mountain lion. In fact, the jaguar is the only member of the tiger family on the continent.

The Depression-era state report features a photograph of one of the big Texas tigers killed near Goldthwaite in 1903 – the last of the species ever reported in the interior of the state. The image shows two men with rifles posing with the dead jaguar outside the Mills County courthouse. Also in the photograph are two of the dogs that sniffed out the cat.

One of the men participating in the hunt was Homer Brown, who described the event in a letter to a friend. The letter had come into the possession of H.P. Attwater, a wildlife biologist from Houston who shipped the jaguar’s skull and hide to the Smithsonian. Burr got access to the letter from Attwater and excerpted it in his report.

Whether the men who took the big cat had any intention of seeking a jaguar is not explained in the letter. More likely, they were hoping to jump a much-more-common mountain lion. All Brown said by way of explanation was that an acquaintance named Henry Morris came to his place to go hunting, which they did on the night of Sept. 3, 1903.

With a boy named Johnnie Walton, the hunters had supper at Brown’s place and then “started for the mountains three miles southwest of Center City.” At dusk, their baying dogs enthusiastically took up a trail.

“We ran him about three miles and treed him in a small Spanish oak,” Brown wrote. “I shot him in the body with a Colt .45. He fell out of the tree and the hounds ran him about half a mile and bayed [cornered] him.”

The .45 round, despite its man-killing punch, must not have hit the cat in a vital area because Brown sent Morris hurrying to Center City for “[more] guns and ammunition.” Ninety minutes later, Morris returned leading a small posse of well-armed men.

“We commenced the fight with 10 hounds, but when we got him killed there were three dogs with him, and one of them wounded. He killed one dog and very nearly killed several others. He got hold of Bill Morris’ horse and bit it so bad it died from its wounds,” Brown wrote.

The standoff ended with the cat’s death about midnight.

The jaguar measured 6 feet, 6 inches from nose to the end of its short tail and weighed 140 pounds. As large as the animal looked in the photograph, that is only a modest size for a jaguar, which can reach 300 pounds or more.

Apparently not bothered that a species was coming close to extinction in Texas, in the item he included in his report, Burr seemed more interested in how the hounds fared than the demise of a magnificent animal.

“One must admire the courage of the 10 hounds that brought the animal to bay and especially the three that remained to the end of the battle and the one that gave up his life,” Burr wrote. “To be perfectly fair, we must admire the good judgment of the six [dogs] that retired to safety from an unequal combat with a beast so terribly weaponed – the greatest of North American cats.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 24, 2014 column

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