A 3-year-old male jaguar named Valerio escaped from the roof of its Audubon Zoo enclosure early Saturday morning in New Orleans and made its way through other zoo exhibits, killing six animals and injuring three. No people were injured.
An emu named Elmo, a red fox named Maggie Mae and four alpacas named Noel, Micia, Alexandria and Lil Melody died.
“He’s a young male jaguar. He was doing what jaguars do,” said Joel Hamilton, the zoo’s general curator.
The zoo was closed Saturday to allow employees to investigate the incident and to mourn the dead animals, which are "their family,” said Ron Forman, head of the Audubon Nature Institute, the private nonprofit that runs the zoo.
The zoo was offering grief counseling to its staff, officials said at a Saturday afternoon news conference, where they also thanked the public for the “thousands” of messages of support they’d received by that time.
The jaguar’s habitat, called Jaguar Jungle, will remain closed Sunday, though the rest of the zoo will be open.
The Jaguar Jungle opened in 1998 with a Mayan theme, including altars and temples and rainforest-like mist. The jaguar habitat was part of that original exhibit. A $3.23 million expansion opened earlier this year, complete with a Bat House and the Alpaca Yard, for the herd of alpacas that roamed in their own section.
The Jaguar Jungle concept was driven by the vision of the donor who helped to finance the exhibit, archaeologist and anthropologist Doris Zemurray Stone, who served on Audubon’s board, as have her daughter, Stephanie Stone Feoli, and son-in-law, Ludovico Feoli.
An escaped jaguar has shined a light in a typically dark area of the Audubon Zoo: The Jaguar Jungle.
During Valerio’s escape, the zoo’s other jaguar, a 21-year-old female named Ix Chel, remained safely inside her separate indoor habitat.
The two cats are on the opposite ends of the jaguar lifespan, which ranges around 15 years in the wild and longer in captivity. Valerio is still a relative youth: He was born in San Diego in March 2015 and has been at Audubon since October.
On Saturday, he demonstrated the powerful jaws and agility that jaguars are known for. Within a short time, he devastated the zoo’s population of alpacas, which look like mini-llamas. Only one alpaca, a female named Daisy, survives.
The zoo also had only a small number of the flightless birds called emus, perhaps as few as three, so Saturday’s events left that population hard hit as well.
It seems that the jaguar did not kill the creatures out of hunger. “There was no consumption,” Hamilton said.
The zoo’s medical staff spent the day treating Daisy and two other injured animals, red foxes named Copper and Rusty. “They’re getting 24-7 care and we hope for their speedy recovery,” said Kyle Burks, the zoo’s vice president and managing director.
A zoo employee discovered Valerio’s escape about 7:20 a.m. Saturday and followed security protocols, locking himself in a building and launching an alert. Teams found Valerio, shot him with a tranquilizer dart and brought him back to his enclosure about an hour after the discovery of his escape.
The zoo’s initial investigation showed that Valerio got out through his habitat’s roof, though the investigation is incomplete, zoo officials said, noting that no animals would be housed in that enclosure until the investigation and repairs are complete.
On a typical Saturday with nice weather, several thousand visitors move through the zoo. Zoo officials emphasized that, were this event to have happened during visiting hours, protocols would have ensured their safety.
“We perform drills annually and have protocols for this exact situation, to ensure that emergencies of this kind are resolved as safely and quickly as possible,” zoo officials said in a release.
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