The San Antonio Zoo has been planning to add a catwalk feature to the jaguar exhibit for about four years now, and recently the zoo announced that the new Pantera Walk would be completed in just a few months in conjunction with a new exhibit.

The Pantera Walk will expand the jaguars’ territory by 120 percent, said Jesse Vargas, vice president of capital projects at the zoo, giving them a more varied enclosure while giving zoo patrons a new and different exhibit.

The catwalk will be completely enclosed by mesh small enough to ensure that, as the jaguars pass through other exhibits on their 175-foot walk, they won’t be able to make a meal out of the colorful inhabitants of the aviary exhibit, Vargas said.

A new Pantera Walk will soon open at the San Antonio Zoo, effectively enlarging the jaguars’ territory by 120 percent.
A rendering shows the new Pantera Walk that will soon open at the San Antonio Zoo. It will effectively enlarge the jaguars’ territory by 120 percent. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Zoo

The Pantera Walk is the main feature of a larger new exhibit that the zoo is calling Neotropica, a reference to the new world, specifically the tropical Western Hemisphere lands that were explored by Spanish travelers hundreds of years ago.

The motive behind it all is to bring the public’s attention to the areas of the world where the zoo is involved in conservation. Dante Fenolio, vice president of the zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research, said the exhibit was modeled after a South American rainforest village in a nod to the extensive conservation work that the San Antonio Zoo has been involved with along the Amazon in Peru.

Vargas has worked on construction projects with animals all over the world, including at Atlantis Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and at the San Francisco Zoo, but he said the Neotropica project is easily one of his favorites. Even though the catwalk has been in the plans for years, Vargas, who began working at the zoo only in January, has helped expand and design elements for the exhibit.

“We build these things for the sake of the animals that we have under our care, but I hope that we’re in the process of making San Antonio and Texas proud with our efforts,” Vargas said.

Buildings in Neotropica will have high thatch roofs similar to the homes in villages along the Amazon River, and ancient Mayan and Aztec glyphs will be used to lend an authentic feel and to honor the history of the first humans who interacted with these animals of the rainforest.

“The one narrative that’s always been consistent to this day is that there’s always been a reverence and respect for these animals,” Vargas said. “And we wanted to be able to showcase that in a tangible way.”

Vargas said no animals are being added to the zoo or moved around with this exhibit, but nearby animals such as the anacondas fit in with the Neotropica theme of life in a rainforest.

Fenolio said he has been working with the people in Peru for 35 years now and has been able to help develop meaningful and productive ideas for providing the indigenous communities there a steady source of income so the villagers don’t feel the need to cut down more rainforest for survival.

Fenolio said misguided conservation attempts in the past have involved signing contracts with the indigenous communities, but that approach has not worked well.

“Throwing a contract at them and saying, ‘Never cut trees down,’ that’s not a fair argument because we’re superimposing a notion of what a contract is onto a society that’s never used contracts,” Fenolio said. “It’s why hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into rainforest conservation in the tropics and we have very little to show for it.”

Fenolio said what has been more successful is giving them work, specifically carving small animals from balsa wood, a tree that is plentiful in the rainforest, which the zoo then buys from them and sells at the San Antonio Zoo gift shop.

To help fund his conservation efforts, Fenolio developed Project Selva, a program that trains young Peruvian artists in an ancient Japanese art form that involves inking a fish and making an imprint of the fish on paper. The Amazon River boasts roughly 2,500 species of fish, a wealth of biodiversity that also feeds the populations who live along the river, Fenolio said. Nothing is wasted in this project because, after the process, the fish are immediately washed and prepared for dinner as usual.

The resulting artwork has been a successful way of raising money online, where buyers from all over the world can donate money and receive a fish print in return.

More than just conservation, Project Selva provides jobs to women in an area of the world where professional work for women is hard to find, Fenolio said.

To be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, institutions in North America must commit a certain percentage of revenue to conservation, but Fenolio said the San Antonio Zoo far exceeds the required amount.

The many long-term, in-depth projects that Fenolio has participated in during his eight years at the zoo sound more like projects one would expect from a research department of a major university. 

Just a few of his projects besides his work in Peru have included working with endangered blind salamanders, studying marine life affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the protection of wildcats in Mexico.

Fenolio receives a salary from the zoo, and he has a team of six working for him, but not all of his work is funded by the zoo. Fenolio said a big part of his job is grant writing, and in the past eight years he and his team have raised more than $14 million for conservation and research through grants.

Fenolio said he was skeptical at first about working for a zoo because of the many moral and ethical concerns surrounding captive animals, but he said he has been persuaded since starting at the zoo that it is an important way to teach a bigger audience the importance of preserving these species and funding the work of conservation. 

“When people give money to the Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund, that’s for reasons of ethics and morals and beliefs,” Fenolio said. “This is an entirely different system, this is people wanting to be entertained, and then part of that money is routed to national and international conservation efforts.”

Over 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums around the world annually, and Fenolio said no other conservation group can rival that reach, which gives zoos and aquariums an increasingly important role in education and fundraising for conservation.

“People living in an inner-city environment, they don’t have the opportunity to go and see giraffes and elephants or orcas off the coast of California,” Fenolio said. “For a lot of people the only exposure they will have to wildlife is in a zoo or an aquarium, and if you don’t see it and connect with it you won’t care about it.”

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.