Prosswimmer, a public information officer, said authorities had transported the unnamed individual — who did not sustain life-threatening injuries — to the hospital after receiving a call around 4:30 p.m.
What led to this unusual event was a too-close encounter with Harry, the zoo’s 12-year-old jaguar, the Florida Times-Union reported.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. However, Kelly Rouillard, the zoo’s marketing director, told the local news outlets that the man had climbed over the waist-high safety barrier that separates visitors from the animals — then made “a foolish decision” to put his hand through the fence and taunt the wild cat.
“It appears from witness accounts that he was looking to interact with the jaguar closer than he should have,” Rouillard said to the Florida Times-Union. “That’s not a wise or prudent decision. So when you do that, there are certainly potential consequences. It is fortunate that he did not sustain more injuries.”
According to WJXT News4Jax, witnesses said the incident turned gory when the jaguar clawed the man — leaving behind a trail of blood for employees to clean up while he had his armed bandaged.
Rouillard told the Florida Times-Union that the zoo will not take any actions against the jaguar and would also not press charges against the man, who they do not believe was acting out of “malicious intent.”
The jaguar “was acting as part of his normal behavior for a wild animal,” she told the outlet. “We expect that type of behavior from wild animals and nothing will happen to him.”
Harry, who was born at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2009, was involved in another violent event earlier this year — but not one involving a human.
In February, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens announced in a news release, Harry “tragically killed” 21-year-old Zenta — a female jaguar who was also the zoo’s oldest at the time — in a holding complex after he was brought in to be examined.
Despite these two bloody episodes, Roberto Salom, Mesoamerica and Costa Rica director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, said they do not necessarily point toward the jaguar having aggressive tendencies.
“He may have been under some type of stress that made him react that way,” he said. “It seems like the person invaded the space of the animal, and it could be that the animal got surprised by this. He was just scared and reacted quickly to what he perceived as a threat.”
Jaguars — the largest cat in the Americas — have the most powerful bite of all the wild cats in respect to their size and can hunt some 80 different species, Salom said. Yet, much like humans, they also display different personalities and moods.
“Just like people, they have their good days and their bad days,” he said. “Maybe in this case it was a particularly bad day for this jaguar.”
Their behavior also varies depending on their habitat’s conditions.
In the wild, Salom said, jaguars are secretive, solitary and tend to escape from confrontations. However, when they are in captivity, and taking flight is not an option, their first instinct is to defend themselves.
“Even if it is a small animal, it can still react aggressively if they feel threatened,” Salom said. “People have to keep their distance whenever they are near wild animals, not make loud noises, not feed them because in some cases they are already stressed.”
Since 1990, incidents with captive felines have resulted in the deaths of over 130 big cats and 25 humans, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — a global animal rights organization. Over 280 people have also suffered injuries.
In the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, however, this may have been the first from an animal ancient cultures looked up as a deity.
“This would be the first time I’ve heard of it,” Prosswimmer said. “It could have been a lot worse.”