Valerio the jaguar acted like nothing ever happened.
He paced the dirt inside his enclosure at Audubon Zoo on Tuesday morning, padding his 160-pound frame around umbrella grass, banana plants and ginger.
He sniffed out the meat that his handlers had tucked in the corners of his newly renovated home. Then he hopped up on a stone perch, slid down on his belly and ogled a small crowd that had gathered beneath a moss-draped oak to greet his return to the public stage.
Valerio was finally back, and no one needed reminding about why the zoo had shuttered the Jaguar Jungle exhibit last July and kept one of its star attractions in the shadows.
Least of all Bonnie Jane Zwerner, who is 3.
“ ’Cuz he ate all the llama llamas,” she explained.
Technically it was five alpacas, three foxes and an emu, not all of whom were eaten.
But the carnage that Valerio unleashed on a Saturday morning in July, after biting his way through steel wire mesh, left zoo officials grappling with the loss of nine of their animals and debating just how to fortify the enclosure to keep Valerio in.
The Audubon Zoo's managing director, Kyle Burks, offered new details Tuesday about how an escaped jaguar, Valerio, was discovered and recaptur…
Pound for pound, jaguars have the strongest bite force of any big cats in the world, and zoo officials said Tuesday that Valerio, who turns 4 next month, made quick work of the mesh after climbing a column in the Jaguar Jungle.
There were no signs that the steel mesh was manufactured improperly, nor that Valerio steadily wore down the steel mesh before it gave way and he broke free.
Instead, it appears that Valerio simply bit down and snapped the mesh in one massive bite, said the zoo's vice president and general curator, Joel Hamilton.
What followed was a bloody rampage that lasted an untold amount of time before a zoo employee shot Valerio with a tranquilizer dart.
“It was a very unfortunate and rare incident,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “He was just doing what jaguars do.”
There was never any thought to euthanizing Valerio, he said.
Indeed, Liz Wilson, the curator of the Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle exhibits, said the zoo's caretakers saw no need to try to modify Valerio's behavior after the brutal maulings. Little about his everyday activities changed, she said, except for being away from the public.
Wilson said she suspects Valerio spotted a squirrel or some other small animal before clamping down hard, tearing through the mesh and squeezing through the gap he created.
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“He’s actually a very calm cat,” Wilson said as she watched Valerio explore his newly outfitted home, “but he loves new experiences.”
Those new experiences include an exhibit outfitted with thick wooden ramps and perches, newly planted shrubbery and a fully operational waterfall.
Most critically, they also include thicker steel barriers. The gaps between the steel, now 2 inches wide, are half the width of the previous mesh.
Hamilton said the zoo had determined that the enclosure Valerio gnawed through had met the minimum standards of the zoo’s accrediting body, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but that the new enclosure now exceeds those standards.
A spokesman with the accrediting agency did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday on whether it will develop more stringent minimum standards for jaguar fencing due to Valerio's ability to defeat it.
Valerio, the jaguar that escaped from his enclosure at the Audubon Zoo in July and killed several other zoo animals, will soon return to an aw…
In the meantime, Wilson said Tuesday she was glad to see Valerio looking comfortable on his first day back before adoring fans.
“This is a new chapter for Valerio and Audubon, to move jaguar conservation forward,” she said. “It’s a very meaningful day. I’m just so happy for him, so excited to see him in his new exhibit.”
The zoo has added two foxes and four alpacas to the grounds, replacing most of the dead animals since Valerio ran wild and fulfilled his role as an “apex predator.”
Nearby, four of those new alpacas huddled by a metal fence and chewed on lengths of straw.
They were blissfully unaware.