Babette came out of the cave-like door at the jaguar exhibit, carefully prowling around its trees and logs as she checked out the people just outside the fence.
Then a smaller version of her bounded out behind his mother to meet news cameras and visitors, as Banks made his public premiere Thursday at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
The 4-month-old baby cat peeked around palmettos before sauntering around the enclosure, the 51st jaguar born to the Northside zoo since it opened about 110 years ago. But 10-year-old Graham Hagan didn’t care about that.
Peering through sunglasses at the fence as he snapped photos with a cellphone, Graham said he was happy to be one of the first to see the new jaguar.
“I saw him on top of his mom, and it was like, ‘ Hey Mom, come play with me,’ and I’m like, that’s what a baby would do,” Graham said. “I honestly feel kind of like impressed. And I’m also kind of shocked too.”
As he watched the first crowds line the fence to see the fluffy black and yellow cat, zoo President Jeff Ettling said he hopes visitors appreciate how rare Banks is, their first new jaguar cub in a decade and part of an officially “near-threatened” animal. Their goal is that this cub and all of the animals that call the zoo home will spark curiosity and inspire future generations to become conservationists, he said.
“I personally look at the animals that are under our care here at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens as the ambassadors for their wild counterparts, to be able to spark that interest, but also let everyone know that they can have a role in the conservation of wildlife and wild places” Ettling said. “It takes all of us to make that difference.”
The cub got his name in a public “Name that Jag” contest, in partnership with the Jaguars Foundation. “Banks” alludes to the St. Johns River and also the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, TIAA Bank Field. The name garnered 2,185 votes, or 30% of the total cast. The naming contest raised $11,500, and the Jaguars Foundation matched up to $10,000 in donations, bringing the total raised to $21,494.
Banks was born April 7, after zoo biologists confirmed that 7-year-old Babette and a 14-year-old jaguar named Harry had indeed conceived the cub. As soon as he was born, he and Babette were sequestered in a den, secluded from other jaguars as they bonded.
Since jaguars are loners as adults, Babette had no one to teach her parenting skills. So she and Banks had to learn each other in privacy, monitored only by a camera, as he bonded behind the scenes with first-time mother Babette.
“We really rely upon their natural instincts to take over in both protecting and nurturing their young,” zoo animal care specialist Mike Redig said. “As Babette went through these learning steps, she was very vulnerable to stress events that could have caused her to either neglect or reject Banks. Giving her that privacy has been extremely important. It’s also given mom and cub the ability to build that really strong parental relationship.”
Redig said Banks, like his mother, has a “very fresh personality.” The cub has had three veterinarian exams and been vaccinated for everything including COVID-19, which Redig said jaguars can catch.
Jaguars are rare in the wild, an animal that once roamed from central Argentina all the way up to the southwestern United States. The population is now decimated after excessive hunting and more than half of their original territory gone, Ettling said. So having a new baby jaguar is good news.
“We have probably produced more jaguars here historically than anyone else,” Ettling said. “It means that we have got a good track record in this habitat, specifically built in 2005 to be able to help support that, and actually hold multiple animals for a period of time.”
Banks and his mother can be seen in the main display area at the Range of the Jaguar exhibit. More information is available at jacksonvillezoo.org.