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At Audubon Zoo: People return, but reminders of deadly escape linger

At Audubon Zoo: People return, but reminders of deadly escape linger

Midday Sunday at Audubon Zoo, parked cars spilled from the asphalt parking lots into the surrounding grass. People slathered on sunscreen, pushed strollers and toted bathing suits. It was like any other weekend summer day at the zoo, except for dark reminders of the previous day.

Just over 24 hours prior, 3-year-old Valerio the jaguar escaped his enclosure and mauled nine animals. Six animals were dead by the time zoo staff regained control of the jaguar Saturday morning. Two more animals, an alpaca and a fox, eventually died from their injuries, leaving a single fox as the lone survivor of Valerio’s hunt. 

Despite a concerted attempt to resume normal operation, the zoo could not shake the news of the attack. Throughout the zoo, parents could be heard lecturing children on the circle of life. Audubon staffers fielded questions about Valerio. And much of the Jaguar Jungle exhibit was empty.

At the entrance, Sean Brown asked the ticket seller if he’d get a chance to see a jaguar today. The seller responded with a polished announcement that the exhibit was closed for the time being as the staff grappled with yesterday’s incident. Brown is from Jamaica and, despite being in his 30s, this was his first time at a zoo. He had bought a ticket for yesterday, but the zoo closed the facility following the attack.

“I suppose this doesn’t happen often, but he’s just an animal,” Brown said, his eyes surveying a map of the sprawling zoo. “He didn’t know they were his colleagues.” 

Many, including Audubon staffers, shared Brown’s sentiments about Valerio’s lethal attack, which left five alpacas, two foxes and one emu dead. 

In a news conference Saturday (July 14), Joe Hamilton, vice president and general curator at the zoo, called Valerio “a normal jaguar” just “doing what jaguars do.”

Still, there was no shaking the reality of previously filled enclosures missing some or all of their typical inhabitants. The alpaca paddock, positioned only yards from the jaguar exhibit, was empty. A sign identifying the species had been removed.  The zoo acquired the alpacas in March from farms in Mobile, Alabama, and south Mississippi. All five of them were killed during Valerio’s escape. A white sign was zip-tied to the jaguar enclosure, explaining that the exhibit was “under repair” due to “the recent incident.”

A sign was zip-tied to the jaguar enclosure, announcing that the exhibit was under repair following “the recent incident.” 

Jessica Netterville and Jessica Danby are friends and Audubon Society members, who often make the trek across Lake Ponchartrtain to bring their young boys to the zoo. They booked their Sunday trip long before news of the escape broke, but the recent event put their longstanding weekend tradition into question.

“It definitely opened up the question of whether or not we should even have zoos and if we feed the zoo industry by bringing our kids here,” said Danby.

The two mothers also expressed concern about zoo employees who worked with the killed animals or had to clean up the aftermath of the attack. These workers signed up to be caretakers and their day included so much gore, they said. 

Audubon officials announced that the zoo would bring in grief counselors to meet with impacted staffers.

Sunday afternoon crowds continued to roll in despite the day’s sweltering temperatures and high humidity. Just outside the ticket booths, a crowd of children and parents gathered near the gift shop. Two kids knelt over a stuffed alpaca toy and a handwritten letter left by a young girl named Lily.

The letter read: “To all the animals killed or injured in the jaguar accident, especially the guanacos (“alpacas”): Your hearts will always be in our memories, even if not many people noticed you over the capyberas and gators and turtles. It hurts my heart to say goodbye to you.”