New Orleans zoo returns jaguar in strengthened exhibit

Bonnie Jane Zwerner, 3, of New Orleans, watches Valerio the jaguar at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Tuesday was the first time Valerio has been out in public since July 15, when he escaped before zookeepers arrived. The 3-year-old jaguar killed nine animals before he was tranquilized and recaptured. (AP Photo/Janet McConnaughey)

NEW ORLEANS - The jaguar that escaped last summer and killed nine animals is back on display at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Valerio apparently chewed a hole in the 4-inch-wide (10-centimetre-wide) steel mesh roof above a column in the exhibit sometime before the zoo was to open July 15.

"We're assuming he probably went up to chase a possum or a raccoon or a cat or something that was walking across the top of his habitat," said Joel Hamilton, curator and vice-president at the zoo.

Now the walls and roof are of 2-inch (5-centimetre) mesh, too small for Valerio's jaw. The twisted steel is also thicker.

The zoo also installed four video cameras and an electrified wire around the roof, including around the tops of internal columns. The "hot-wire" is used on a number of exhibits, but hadn't been installed in the jaguar exhibit before Valerio's escape.

"We have added that as another level of precaution," Hamilton said.

Tuesday was the 3-year-old adolescent's first time on public view since his July escape, when he killed five alpacas, an emu and three foxes. He had been allowed into the habitat for about an hour Monday, a day the zoo is closed.

Valerio spent a while Tuesday morning exploring a new ramp, two new platforms and snarfing chunks of meat that keepers had placed on them.

"That's his new playground," Anne Zwerner of New Orleans told Bonnie Jane Zwerner, 3, and her 2-year-old brother, Ryan Kent Zwerner. Their 6-month-old brother, Carson James Zwerner, shared a double stroller with Ryan Kent.

After Valerio ate the biggest chunk from the top of the ramp, he investigated the damp wood where the food had been set out.

"What is he eating right now?" asked Bonnie Jane.

"You know, like how you can lick the plate? He was licking his plate," her mother said.

Valerio is alone in the display. The zoo's female jaguar, Ix Chel, who had given birth to five cubs, was euthanized in September because of kidney failure. The zoo is looking for another female who is genetically compatible with Valerio, Hamilton said.

In the meantime, Hamilton said, the animal doesn't mind his solitude: "Jaguars, like most large cats — other than lions — are solitary animals."

Bonnie Jane wanted to know about the small crowd of reporters, photographers and videographers who had cameras and cellphones aimed at Valerio.

"He's famous today," Zwerner said. "He's always famous. But he's extra-special famous today."

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An earlier version of this report incorrectly said the jaguar escaped by chewing through a fence instead of a roof.


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