By Jennifer Sutcliffe
Originally published — 7:45 a.m., July 14, 2007
Updated — 2:49 p.m., July 14, 2007
Summer Ertel looked the fierce black leopard straight in the eyes. She giggled.
“Rawr! Rawr!” the 6-year-old growled.
She turned to her mother, who was also just a step away from the animal.
“I can see his teeth!”
Summer pressed her face against the glass separating her from the leopard. From a distance, it appeared that she could reach out and touch it.
At the premiere of the Naples Zoo’s new Leopard Rock exhibit today, members lined up to get the first up-close encounters with the big cats.
The exhibit is unique in that the layer of glass that cages the animals runs all the way to the concrete floor.
It creates the illusion that there is no separation between you and the leopard.
“Safe danger,” the park calls it.
Nearly 600 people came for the inaugural vine-cutting at 8:30 a.m., said Tim Tetzlaff, director of conservation and communications at the Naples Zoo off Goodlette-Frank Road in Naples.
“We hoped folks would want to get up on a Saturday morning for this,” Tetzlaff said. “Looks like they do.”
In a polite and orderly fashion, the crowd eagerly approached the leopard habitat, complete with model African kopje rocks and shady black olive trees. Adults stood on tip-toe, swaying their heads around to get a better look. Children who were small enough snuck up to the front.
At first, the leopards were a bit shy.
The spotted male was the first to appear, strutting and pacing in front of flashing cameras. The black female followed, slowly but surely, and soon the two were pouncing and playing.
Their debut was a hit. An awe-struck crowd pointed and cheered on their antics.
“Look grandma, he bited!” shouted Adrian Abarca, 3, to his grandmother, Beverly Foytik.
“Lookie, lookie! He looks just like my kitty,” said his 4-year-old sister, Jaylene.
She clutched the plush toy leopard she was given by the zoo as a keepsake. Then she held it up to the glass, and one of the leopards rubbed its nose up near it.
“He thinks it’s a baby,” she said.
The leopards were particularly popular with the children – and the children were particularly popular with the leopards.
“Two adults can walk up and they’ll ignore them, but as soon as a child comes up, they’ve got their attention,” Tetzlaff said. “Something that small is an easier breakfast.”
Jaylene Abarca seemed well aware of that.
“I was scared he was going to eat me,” she said.
Even though leopards are usually nocturnal, they could hardly sleep with all the action going on today.
Nadine Ertel, who came to Naples from Cape Coral with her daughter, Summer, said they put on a good show.
“I was surprised that the leopards are so open to coming up to us,” Ertel said.
The leopards were well-groomed for human contact. Last week, the zoo gradually exposed the leopards to people, occasionally taking down the shade cloth to adjust them.
When a couple from the United Kingdom spotted one of them, they couldn’t tell the glass was there and thought the leopard was loose, zoo staff said.
In a speech before the vine cutting, Naples Zoo owner David Tetzlaff called Leopard Rock his “dream leopard exhibit.”
“I’m still pinching myself that it’s done,” David Tetzlaff said. “That’s 15 months of work. It’s one of the biggest leopard exhibits.”
The exhibit is based on the tiger lair at the Minnesota Zoo in Minneapolis, which uses the same scheme of putting human and animal on the same horizontal plane. Three layers of glass totaling just over an inch forms the safety barrier, Tim Tetzlaff said.
The zoo has two pairs of leopards that will rotate in and out of the exhibit.
A grant to the zoo from the Trust for Public Land made the $130,000 project possible.
On their way to their next exhibit, the Abarca children got a hug from a character dressed as a leopard. They insisted he give each of their stuffed toys a hug, too.
The experience had everyone purring.
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