SPOT ON

Ocelot festival, run emphasizes endangered cat

By RYAN HENRY

Staff Writer

Running through Gladys Porter Zoo can get a little wild.

Runners on Sunday dressed up as spotted wild cats, gorillas, flamingos and various zoo critters as they joined the annual Ocelot Run to raise money and awareness for the endangered cat.

Among the approximately 900 runners, some even wore shirts claiming to be “ocelots in a human costume.”

The run served as a fundraiser for the Friends of the Laguna Atascosa and its ocelot conservation efforts.

The boisterous crowd illustrated just how popular the run has become in Brownsville, and organizers say the race could easily sell more registrations but limits runners for safety based on the relatively narrow pathways inside the zoo, parking limitations and other factors.

Months prior to the race, registration to the annual event sells out within hours.

“It’s taken a life of its own,” said Javier Vasquez, of 2 Run Crew Race Productions. “Registration opened at midnight and by noon we had sold out. Registration is almost as big an event as the race itself, with people setting alarms or staying up until midnight. It’s an incredible phenomenon.”

The Brownsville zoo hosted the run, which started at the zoo and coursed through Dean Porter Park , Linear Park and neighboring streets before charting two loops through the interior of the zoo and finishing at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Ocelot Conservation Festival.

“The zoo lends itself so well to the festival and run,” said Tom DeMaar, senior veterinarian for Gladys Porter Zoo and a board member of the Friends of Laguna Atascosa.

Staged not far from the finish line, the conservation festival featured information booths, screen printing of t-shirts, face-painting and two ocelots brought in for the festival from The Texas Zoo—Clyde and Laguna.

“You can obviously tell the (runners and visitors) are impacted by seeing an ocelot in person,” said Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. “Ninety-nine percent of the folks have never seen an ocelot alive before. Then they come here and get to see one up close and personal and that translates into them going away, loving ocelots and wanting to conserve them.”

Ocelot sightings in the wild are rare, and officials with U.S. Fish & Wildlife estimate fewer than 80 of the cats remain in the United States.

Sightings are so rare that even Blihovde just recently saw his first ocelot in the wild.

“One time in five years,” he said. “I’ve been here five years, and I’ve seen one that was just crossing the road.”

Blihovde sent out texts exclaiming the encounter.

“Four months later, I’m still excited about it.”

The ocelots were also a big hit Saturday at the Longhorn Cattle Company, a barbecue restaurant in San Benito, when the Friends of the Laguna Atascosa staged a meet-and-greet for more than a thousand people as part of the weekend’s ocelot awareness and education campaign.

The Saturday event was created after the zoo run and festival were shifted to Sunday to avoid a conflict with Charro Days Fiesta and the annual Charro Days 5K run. Charro Days is always scheduled on the last weekend in February, while the Ocelot Conservation Festival plans for the first weekend in March.

This year, for the first time, those two weekends conflicted.

“We had to move everything (the run and zoo festival) to Sunday at the last minute, which is not proving to be a bad thing,” DeMaar said. “I think it’ll be interesting to say whether we continue to do this on a Sunday or go back to a Saturday. From what I’m seeing so far, the Sunday thing is pretty good.”