Salt Water, Milk, and a Jaguar Cub

Valerie Anne Burns

© Copyright 2021 by Valerie Anne Burnes

Photo of a baby jaguar at the Memphis Zoo.

            Key Biscayne holds my fondest memories as a teenager during the carefree high school days when I had close friends, and a boyfriend. It gave me a connection I hadn’t felt during childhood, and a big part of it was being surrounded by balmy beauty.

            We lived on the Key weekends, beginning when I was five, and permanently moved across the seven-mile causeway when I was fifteen. The island was still pristine and unspoiled by overbuilding, like it is now. Today, concrete giants loom, shading the beaches with dark shadows, as if to threaten to sink the small island into the sea. Because there was an abundance of lush jungle growth and palm trees back then, it was possible to imagine how Key Biscayne was once a coconut plantation.

            The island purred with a softness that swept over me with ease as the Latin music swirled through the strong breezes. The music would rise-up through the patios of restaurants and bar decks, hitting me at the most surprising moments, and inspiring dancing bodies to sway just as the palm trees did. The smooth white sand, the large bright green palm fronds, and the sound of soft waves coming into shore had a way of soothing any restless spirit. This little island rescued me on days when I was lost in ways I didn’t know how to verbalize. The ocean temporarily washed away the alcohol scent prevalent in my household, the dread of knowing I was an inconvenience, and the lingering waves of temper and depression from a dad I loved so much, but, as much as I tried, could never help. The island was sheltered and safe, and it drew me in with its tropical gifts so freely given. 

            The gusty, warm breezes of the Key entered my bones and have never let go. I forever long for the velvety, sensuous feeling of balmy air on my skin stirring something intoxicating I can’t ever quite put my finger on, as if this feeling in the depths of me has been present for centuries; raw and sultry. And the water. Oh, the clear, temperate water that could cause a mermaid to cry tears of joy because of its various shades of green.

            One late Sunday afternoon, when the weekend beach goers had picked up the last towels and chairs from the trampled sand abandoning the beach for the day, a wild adventure ensued. My best friend Carol and I were strolling along on the plush beach sand after a swim. Carol worked at the zoo amusement center in Crandon Park, which was just steps from the beach. It’s long gone now, destroyed by an angry hurricane. 

            There was a little shack on the beach where the zookeeper lived. It looked as if he built it after a shipwreck. As a longtime islander by then, the shack was familiar and had withstood many storms before Hurricane Andrew decimated its charm. It now seems like an unreal memory as if it existed from a leftover movie set.

            Carol suggested we visit the zookeeper. He and his family greeted us warmly by saying, “Come on in girls, I’m just getting ready to feed one of the cubs.” I peered over his shoulder and to my utter astonishment, there in his daughter’s arms, was a baby jaguar. An excitement ran through me that gripped my being in a way like nothing else had. Carol and I walked over to the cub in an awestruck state. 

            The zookeeper said, “Do you want to feed him?” I could barely speak and nodded my head with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ I sat down, and the cub was put into my arms. When I felt the weight of his body and looked far into those big wondrous and haunting eyes, my breath quickened as an adrenaline surge ran through my bikini-clad body. Something began to well up in me as I found tears beginning to fall from my eyes. I felt as if I was holding the whole world in my arms, and it seemed unimaginable to me that I would ever have to let go. 

            The bottle was put into my hand and my tears dropped on the cub’s ears. This gorgeous creature began to drink the milky formula from the bottle with urgency and a grunting noise that made me giggle as my tears were flowing. I was happy, offering my nurturing spirt to this jaguar cub, and he stared into my eyes as he drank. I stared back in eyes so open and bottomless surrounded by exotic markings on his face. I was mesmerized and transported by this extraordinary animal. He was content and nearly asleep, so I took the opportunity to run my fingers along the markings on his fur, and stroked his round, soft belly filled with spots. His paws pushed on my hand. The strong paws pushed and pushed against my hands as he purred and purred with guttural purpose. 

            He was the world: representing nature, and something so perfect and holy, created by a divinely intelligent Universe. I understood that all creatures had a pure purpose in relation to the planet, but many humans don’t seem to connect in the natural world as much as they have a drive to destroy. My respect grew for the will to survive in all wildlife teaching me how connected we are to all life. The wondrous beauty of survival would carry me far as life unfolded in my own path. As I observed and cherished my new friend lying in my arms, a precise moment unfolded where I would be a devoted advocate for wildlife and the planet they inhabit.

            I knew it was Carol’s turn, but I didn’t want to let go. To be fair, but with reluctance, I relinquished the bottle to her, and she held the jaguar cub in her lap with a big smile on her face. But she didn’t dampen the cub’s ears with her tears. We were both in our bikinis, we’d been allowed to hold and feed a wild cat. A perfect island adventure.

            When the cub finally finished his feeding time and catnap with Carol, I knew we would have to leave, and I could feel a knot of sadness growing in my stomach. I think the zookeeper saw how overwhelmed I was by this beautiful experience. He suggested that his daughter, Carol, and I take the cub out on the beach by leash for a little exercise. We walked through the door with the cub lumbering behind us. 

            The afternoon had turned into magic hour as the sun was setting. Clouds were the color of an orange Creamcicle, hovering on the ocean. Calm, emerald waves rolled in. Once on the beach, the cub became very curious and alive while looking out to a boundless sea. I could feel his wild animal instinct inspiring a desire to run in the sand. The last powerful and infinitely profound thing I remember as the evening breeze began to pick up, and little goose bumps rose on my skin, was to let the leash out as far as it allowed. We ran while laughing as Carol and the zookeeper’s little girl were running after me. This exuberant, baby jaguar, a friend I’d fallen in love with, looked up at me, and then out to the sandy shore as he ran right alongside, both of us feeling almost free.


As an emerging author, Valerie Anne has a final draft of a collection of essays titled, Caution: Mermaid Crossing—Voyages of a Motherless Daughter. She’s had her own business as a wardrobe and home décor makeover specialist. Before entrepreneurship, Valerie Anne graduated from the Hollywood school of hard knocks where she worked in production and as a story editor on screenplays. She won writing scholarships to the Santa Barbara Writing Conference and The Prague Summer Writing Program. Valerie Anne was accepted for publication by HerStry with an essay from her book titled, Venice Vision, which came out September 17, 2020. And, a 2nd essay was accepted to HerStry titled, Your Bed coming out May 2021. She was also sponsored on a trip to Italy September 2019 to share her workshop, “Living and Healing Through Color” Valerie Anne lives in Santa Barbara California where she has survived breast cancer. Being near the ocean inspires Valerie Anne’s “inner mermaid,” and gives her the grace she needs to be a person and a writer.

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