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Inside Elmwood’s New ‘Trail of the Jaguar’

The $3 million exhibit is a bigger, better home for the zoo's jaguars, including adorable new cubs.

The Elmwood Park Zoo’s jaguars have a beautiful new home — and visitors have a brand-new experience. “Trail of the Jaguar,” which cost $3 million to design and build, is now in member previews and officially opens May 5.


Kids looking at "Trail of the Jaguar" exhibit at the Elmwood Park ZooIt’s a state-of-the-art habitat for the zoo’s four jaguars: the male Zean, the female Inka, and their cubs, Diego and Luna, who were born in January. A sleek ocelot lives nearby, and there are a number of other smaller animals on display.


The theme of the exhibit is the American Southwest, a traditional — and vanishing — habitat of the jaguar (they once regularly ventured as far north as the Grand Canyon). The buildings are made to look like adobe, and the rocks, water features, and plants are desert-focused, too. The two men who designed the exhibit have worked on other major displays, including at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.


There are outdoor habitats for the big cats, and smaller indoor areas where you’ll find burrowing owls, Montezuma quail, canyon tree frogs, lizards, pack rats, and even the hallucinogenic Colorado river toad.


One of the coolest features is a small stream that cuts through the area between the jaguar and the ocelot — but under a thick piece of Plexiglas. It’s hard not to feel like your feet might be getting a little wet, though, and visitors of all ages pause a bit before stepping on it.


Zean, a male jaguar, inside "Trail of the Jaguar" at the Elmwood Park Zoo.

Zean, a male jaguar, catnapping.

There’s lots to look at, including electronic displays. But the jaguars are the star attraction. Zean lives separately from Inka and the cubs, but the areas where they move around are close together, so it’s possible to see all of them in a short time span. The cubs, who got their names through a zoo contest, are on display for limited times — like most babies, they nap.


Our kid reviewers, two second-graders, were thrilled by their proximity to the jaguars in all their haughty and majestic beauty. “The reason I like the jaguar is because it’s a jaguar,” one said.


And the exhibit is indeed a showcase for these increasingly rare animals. They’re the third-largest cat in the world, and the largest in the Americas, but have declined in number for decades. Their spectacular coats make them a target for hunters, and their habitat — now mostly in South and Central America, but occasionally as far north as the Arizona-Mexico border — is growing scarcer.


They’re an endangered species in the U.S. and Mexico and considered near threatened worldwide, with only about 15,000 animals left, according to Defenders of Wildlife. So the birth of Diego and Luna has been celebrated for more than just the cubs’ extraordinary cuteness. Elmwood is working with the Northern Jaguar Project, which oversees a jaguar sanctuary in northern Mexico, to help save the species.


Jaguars have been a beloved feature at Elmwood since the mid-1990s, when Anasazi arrived as part of the zoo’s 70th anniversary celebration. A female black jaguar, Cali, moved in in 1995. When those animals died, in 2013 and 2014, Inka and Zean were brought in — and reproduced on the first try, just in time for the group to move in to “Trail of the Jaguar.”


The exhibit is open now for zoo members, and opens to everyone May 5. Admission is $16.95 for ages 13 — 64 and $12.95 for kids ages 3 — 12 and senior citizens 65 and older. The zoo is at 116 Harding Blvd. in Norristown and is open daily from 10 am — 5 pm.


Photographs by Gwyneth K. Shaw. 




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