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Zoo buffs marvel at ocelot

Group hopes cat visit will boost conservation efforts

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Posted: Saturday, March 8, 2014 9:23 pm

Sean Hutzler is a self-described zoo enthusiast.

The hat he wore was all at once Jack Hanna and Texas cowboy, which is a perfect fit for the San Antonio resident.

He and a group of medical school friends were in Brownsville Saturday to go to the Gladys Porter Zoo and were pleasantly surprised to learn the zoo was host for the 15th annual Ocelot Conservation Day. Along with a handful of other special activities, the event features the display of a real-live ocelot, a small predatory cat that is endangered in South Texas.

During the question-and-answer session, Hutzler asked a couple questions about the animals, easily sticking out from queries from children.

“I just like zoos,” he said after the presentation, noting that he had heard good things about the Gladys Porter Zoo.

Hutzler, Bre Schiffer, Conner McDaniels and Whitney Rome made the trip down from Harlingen to the zoo on a whim, they said, and the visit was the first for all of them.

Coming on a day when an ocelot would be on display was something special, he said, though he said he had seen others — though they were always behind a barrier..

“It’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

And while it was a treat for zoo visitors in South Texas to see the ocelots from Cincinnati, the animal handlers that appear onstage with the ocelot said their visit to the Lower Rio Grande Valley was special as well.

Wendy Rice and Alicia Sampson said one of the best parts about visiting Brownsville was getting to tour the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is the natural habitat of the cats they work with almost every day.

“It’s pretty cool for us,” said Rice, who was visiting the area for the first time.

Sampson has visited each of the last seven years and has been working with the zoo’s ambassador cats for more than a decade and the awareness work is paying off, said Marion Mason with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Word is getting out,” she said. “More people are aware that (the ocelots) are here.”

She noted the state’s release of “Save the Ocelot” license plates and other conservation efforts as signs that the zoo’s outreach efforts are having an effect on how people view the human role in protecting the South Texas ecosystem.

And Hutzler said that’s the best way to inspire change, noting that what zoos accomplish sets the foundation for better conservation efforts in the future.

Without zoos, he said, neither him nor his friends would ever see the animals that are endangered and need help. Getting to witness the animals helps to inspire people to think about their role in protecting the environment.

“When you see them, you care about them,” he said.

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