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Conservation

Jaguar escapes at New Orleans zoo and kills four alpacas, an emu and a fox

No humans were hurt but questions are raised about the dangers of caging ‘apex’ predators

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 5:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 7:30pm

A jaguar at a New Orleans zoo slipped out of its enclosure and went on a rampage sometime on Saturday night, killing four alpacas, an emu and a fox trapped in their own habitats before zoo officials managed to sedate it.

The big cat was first reported missing at 7:20am, before the Audubon Zoo opened, officials said in a press release.

By 8:15 it had been spotted, tranquillised and returned to its enclosure by veterinary surgeons.

Three other injured animals were being cared for.

No humans were injured, although the circumstances of the escape sparked a worrisome thought at what might have been: The “jaguar jungle” is also home to a children’s play area.

In a news conference on Saturday, zoo officials insisted the facility was safe for the general public, even though they would not say how the predator managed to escape and either kill or injure every alpaca on zoo property.

The jaguar, a 3-year-old named Valerio, did not appear to be eating the animals it went after but rather was engaged in a territorial display, said Kyle Burks, the zoo’s vice-president and managing director.

He was doing what jaguars do.
Zoo curator

The animals it pounced on were unable to escape their own enclosures.

The zoo was closed on Saturday as officials tried to discover how the feline escaped, and grief counsellors were brought in for traumatised staff. The zoo planned to reopen at 10am Sunday.

But the incident was certain to raise questions about the dangers of caging apex, or top, predators that have evolved to hunt and kill, and will quickly pounce on prey animals – or humans – if safeguards break down.

In the spring of 2017, a British zookeeper was mauled after being trapped in the Hamerton Park Zoo’s tiger enclosure with at least one of the big cats.

Horrified witnesses said they could see zookeepers sprinting to the edge of the tiger enclosure, throwing pieces of meat as an unsuccessful distraction.

In 2016, zookeeper Stacey Konwiser, 38, was killed while preparing the “night house” at the Palm Beach Zoo.

The house is where the animals are cleaned and fed, then boarded overnight.

Also that year, at Beijing Safari World, a woman was injured and her mother killed after the younger woman got out of their car and was dragged off by a tiger.

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Such breakdowns, experts have told The Washington Post, do not happen only at shoddy zoos with slapdash animal-care practices.

“These accidents happen, you know, on some kind of a recurring basis around the world,” said Doug Cress, CEO of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“And it’s because you’re dealing with animals that, at their genetic core, are built differently than we might like them to be. They are designed to be wild animals,” he said.

Joel Hamilton, the Audubon Zoo’s vice-president and animal curator, echoed that sentiment when asked whether there was something particularly aggressive about Valerio.

“He’s a young male jaguar,” Hamilton said. “ He was doing what jaguars do. Certainly his behaviour wasn’t out of the ordinary for that kind of an animal.”

The zoo, originated from a bird habitat built in 1916, is a “58-acre jewel ranking among the nation’s best zoos,” according to the Audubon Nature Institute, which oversees the zoo and other properties. The zoo is in Uptown New Orleans between Audubon Park and the Mississippi River.

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Ron Forman, the zoo’s president and chief executive officer, said Saturday’s series of attacks was the worst in the zoo’s history but told the public the Audubon Zoo was still safe.

“The zoo, it’s been here for 100 years,” Forman said. In that time period, we’ve had over 100 million visitors to the zoo. We’ve never had an incident like that before. So I think statistically there’s nothing to worry about the safety of coming to the zoo. “