Audubon welcomes Valerio back into Jaguar Jungle


Andres Fuentes

Valerie the Jaguar roaming his enclosure with Audubon Zoo attendants watching. Photo credit: Andres Fuentes

Andres Fuentes

Out of the mist of Jaguar Jungle, Audubon Zoo’s troubled big cat, Valerio, returns to his revamped and renovated habitat.

The almost four-year-old jaguar stepped foot in his enclosure for the first time in seven months, after escaping and setting off on a killing spree among the other animals at the zoo.

Valerio killed five alpacas, three foxes and an emu before being detained.

He has been kept behind the scenes since June, as the zoo’s staff stayed busy adding new woven stainless steel barriers, welded panels to the service door and rear wall of the habitat, a camera monitoring system, horticulture upgrades and new enrichment structures.

“We really remodeled, revamped quite a bit for his reintroduction,” said Joel Hamilton, vice president and general curator of Audubon Zoo.

The new additions were placed to enhance Valerio’s experience within the habitat while also making sure the carnivore does not escape again.

“(Audubon Zoo) is a safe place to go,” Hamilton said. “What happened was an extremely, extremely rare incident for zoos all over the world. It’s very unusual.”

Liz Wilson, Audubon Zoo Curator of the Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle, said there’s a calmer side to Valerio that she hopes zoo guests get to see.

“Valerio is a very easy going cat,” she said. “He’s very easy to work with. Our animal care staff spends a lot of time developing a solid relationship with him.”

Typically shy creatures, Valerio took to the new perching additions and hiding places of his habitat, a sign that he is comfortable in his remodeled habitat.

“He does utilize his exhibit,” Wilson said. “He loves new experiences, which is why he’s enjoying his new environment.”

The new safety additions to the enclosure have brought a sense of ease to zoo-lovers who have waited to finally catch a glimpse at Audubon’s only jaguar.

“We love this zoo. This is amazing,” Annez Werner, a weekly visitor to the zoo, said.

Werner exercises every Tuesday at the zoo with her daughter, Bonnie Jane, and says she sees value in Valerio’s story.

“Bonnie Jane and I talked about what happened and about wild animals, and that the jaguar was a wild animal and that’s what they do in the wild,” she said. “This is a great way to educate her on what animals do and how we fix things and that people make mistakes just like animals make mistakes.”

With a fresh start in a new enclosure, Wilson hopes Valerio will be known for something other than his deadly escape.

“We really want to have this be this new chapter of his life,” she said. “He’s an amazing ambassador for jaguars and reinforced conservation and that’s what we want people to take away from him.”