In search of the jaguar: Up close and rare

"60 Minutes" cameras capture nature's most elusive big cats in Brazil

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We were beginning to feel the same way, so we headed out again at night. Our spotters told us they could see the reflection of their lights in the eyes of a jaguar a hundred yards away. We were skeptical. We were wrong.

"That's like 80 to 85 kilos, a relatively small jaguar," Rabinowitz said, pointing out a jaguar on the riverbank only 30 feet away. "Look at her, God, she's beautiful, oh man and then she looks right at you."

"It's one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen," Simon remarked.

"This is just such an amazing sight," Rabinowitz said. "This one was a great sighting."

But the best was yet to come: a few minutes later, we happened to be there as a jaguar swam from one side of the river to the other. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot in the dark.

"This is a rare sight. I've never seen them in the water. I've never gotten them in the water before," Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz, a zoologist, scholar and scientist, was as excited as a kid at the zoo. Perhaps more excited. "That was spectacular. I've never seen that before. What luck, what unbelievable luck, just as it's swimming across!" he remarked.

"There was no fear there. There was just pure curiosity. Like, 'What are you guys bothering me about?'" he added, laughing.

Maybe we had bothered her because she disappeared. But then, it seems, she got curious again and came back.

"Look at that, it's just sitting there on the mound, yes, just sitting there. It's phenomenal," Rabinowitz pointed out.

She looked a little sleepy or confused. But there she was, the diva, perfectly lit, taking her curtain call. It was hard to imagine that this lovely starlet was really a ferocious predator who sinks her fangs into the skull of her prey, killing it instantly. We were beginning to understand why jaguars were viewed as otherworldly beings by the tribes that used to live in the jungle.

Because he is a creature of the night, his real home is said to be the underworld, which he dominates, just as he dominates the jungle. Killing a jaguar is believed by some tribes as being the equivalent to killing an ancestor, and is said to condemn the killer to eternal damnation. That myth has helped the jaguar survive.

And in the strangest way, jaguars helped Rabinowitz survive. It all began with a debilitating condition he suffered even before he knew what a jaguar was.

"When I was a young child, I couldn't speak. I had a severe, severe stutter," he told Simon. "I could talk, but I had severe blocks. My whole body would spasm. My mouth would close shut. And back then, unlike now, they thought it was completely psychological. Now we know it's more genetic. So they would put me in special classes. They would put me in what all the kids called the 'retarded classes.' And I just stopped trying. I stopped even trying to speak to the human world. What I could do - stutterers can sing without stuttering - and I couldn't sing very well. And stutterers can speak to animals. And every day, I'd come home from school and I'd go into my closet, because I loved being in the dark. And I'd speak to my green turtles or chameleons or lizards or garter snakes. If I was having a particularly bad week at school, which often happened, my father would take me to the Bronx Zoo."

And that's where his fascination, his obsession, began: in the Bronx Zoo.

"One pitiful, lone jaguar sat in the great cat house. It was big, it was powerful. And it was all alone. And I was so incredibly attracted to that one lone jaguar. I would make my father stay back and I would lean over towards the bars and I would start talking...to the...jaguar. I did talk to the jaguar," Rabinowitz remembered.

Asked if he remembered what he said, Rabinowitz told Simon, "I would say how people are stupid, how they don't understand me. Clearly, the same way they don't understand you, how they're locking you up in this cage the way I'm locked up in my own head. Those are the things I would talk about to the jaguar. I made a promise over and over again that if I ever got my voice back that somehow I would help that animal. Help that jaguar, help these animals like him."