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 awaiting public.
Zoo officials are hopeful that Valerio will be back on public display within the next couple of weeks as crews finish work on a strengthened jaguar enclosure, according to Audubon Nature Institute spokeswoman Lauren Messina Conrad.
“It’s a construction job,” she said, and there have been some delays, which is why officials haven't yet provided a timetable for Valerio's return.
It’s been more than four months since the 3-year-old male jaguar made international news after he bit through a steel cable barrier on his enclosure and went on a killing spree, fatally mauling all six of the zoo’s alpacas and also killing three foxes and an emu before two tranquilizer darts subdued him.
Since the escape, Valerio has remained at the zoo but out of public view, as workers continue to repair and reinforce his enclosure at the “Jaguar Jungle."
His behind-the-scenes space is a bit smaller than the enclosure from which he escaped, but he’s still getting all the normal enrichment and exercise he would have gotten in his normal enclosure, zoo officials said.
He’ll be the only jaguar in the exhibit when he returns. The 21-year-old female jaguar that shared the enclosure with Valerio died in September of kidney failure.
Work on fixing the enclosure began soon after Valerio’s killing spree ended, and the overhaul of the exhibit space remains the only thing holding up his public return, Conrad said.
His absence from public view has had nothing to do with Valerio's behavior, and the jungle cat hasn’t been kept hidden as any sort of punishment or rehabilitative effort.
“He was doing what jaguars do,” zoo general curator Joe Hamilton said at the time of his escape.
A zoo worker noticed Valerio was out of his cage July 14 before the zoo opened, and even after he was caught officials decided to keep the zoo closed that entire day — a normally busy Saturday.
An inspection afterward showed that Valerio escaped by biting through the woven steel cable at the top of his enclosure, then squeezing through the 8-by-10 inch hole he made.
After the incident, Rob Vernon, a spokesman with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — an accrediting body overseeing North American zoos — said that Audubon was taking the proper steps in reporting the incident to the association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In cases of animal escapes, the standard protocol is “to receive a report from the zoo regarding what happened, and the steps they took to address the situation with the habitat," according to Vernon.
"The commission will review that report and determine if the steps taken were satisfactory,” he added.
Audubon officials said the repaired enclosure will far exceed any regulatory requirements, which are laid out in a 128-page manual from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
That manual suggests, “If possible, institutions are recommended to completely enclose the top of any jaguar enclosure.”
It notes that jaguars have the strongest bite force of any big cat in the world, with the ability to damage or break through chain link or other mesh.
“Updates to the jaguar habitat are of the utmost priority to Audubon Zoo. Leadership and staff are taking the necessary time and steps to ensure that the improvements are to the highest standards,” Hamilton said last week.
The zoo recently accepted a donation of four non-breeding male alpacas, according to Conrad, and it plans to add some females soon.
The zoo has new foxes as well.
Valerio arrived at Audubon in October 2017 from the San Diego Zoo, where he was born in March 2015.
Zookeepers in San Diego had asked the public to name the then-cub, and "Valerio" — derived from the Latin verb “valere,” meaning “to be strong” — was chosen over six other names.
Audubon Zoo officials welcomed him with a social-media post in February.
“Meet Valerio, our male jaguar! He is incredibly smart and loves learning new training behaviors,” the post read. “His care staff describe his personality as a ‘big lovable goofball!’ ”