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Dallas Zoo Closes Friday After Failing to Spot Leopard

After a wild day out, Nova, clouded leopard and hide-and-seek state champion, was discovered near her enclosure. Dallas police are investigating the breach.
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Dallas police Sgt. Warren MItchell explains the investigation into how Nova, a female clouded leopard, escaped her enclosure as Dallas Zoo president Gregg Hudson looks on. Screengrab

Last Updated, 1/14, 3:30 p.m. This story was first published at 11:15 a.m. 1/13.

The Dallas Zoo reopened Saturday as scheduled after locating a female clouded leopard that had been missing from her enclosure for most of Friday.

The Zoo announced Friday morning that it had issued a Code Blue, which indicates that an animal is loose but is not dangerous. Around 10:30 a.m., the Zoo said that the clouded leopard “was not in its habitat” when the team arrived that morning. Shortly after 5:30, the Zoo said that Nova had been located.

“We are thrilled to report we located clouded leopard Nova on-grounds at the Zoo this afternoon at approximately 4:40 p.m.,” the Zoo announced. “She was located very near the original habitat, and teams were able to safely secure her just before 5:15 p.m. Initial indications are she is not injured. She is being evaluated by our veterinary staff right now.”

At 4 p.m. Friday, Dallas Zoo officials and the Dallas police held a press conference to provide an update. At that point, Nova was still missing, but the investigation and search had turned up something troubling.

Zoo president Gregg Hudson said that zookeepers noticed a “suspicious” opening in the enclosure as they checked on Nova and her sister, Luna that morning.

“It was clear that this opening was not a habitat failure, it was not an exhibit failure, and it wasn’t keeper error,” he said.

“It is our belief that this was an intentional act,” Dallas police Sgt. Warren Mitchell said, adding that the department had begun a criminal investigation.

Clouded leopards can weigh up to 50 pounds, but Nova weighed in at roughly 25 pounds. At a press conference Friday morning, Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo’s executive vice president of animal care and conservation, wouldn’t disclose the last time zoo staff saw the female clouded leopard named Nova but did say that she was likely “real nervous” and hiding from people.

“While all species of cats are classified as one family, the Felidae, genetic research has shown the clouded leopard to be most closely related to the large cat species,” the Smithsonian’s National Zoo said. “Clouded leopards are not a ‘type’ of leopard as their name implies. They are a separate species of wild cat, as are snow leopards and leopards.”

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Nova inside her enclosure at the Dallas Zoo. Dallas Zoo

The Smithsonian also said that while the animal’s chief prey in the wild are gibbons, macaques, slow loris, small deer, and wild boars, their stature as a small predator doesn’t mean they are incapable of more.

“Although a relatively small predator, a clouded leopard can take down sizeable prey because of its strong legs, large canines and extreme gape (ability to open mouth to about 100 degrees),” the Smithsonian said. They also like to hunt from trees, and are primarily nocturnal.

Edell said Friday morning that Nova could be attracted to the smaller local wildlife also present on the Zoo grounds, like squirrels and other small prey, and that zookeepers discussed the best way to “reward” her for coming out and closer to them. He said that clouded leopards are considered small cats, in contrast with large cats like panthers, tigers, and the like.

“They are absolutely not a danger to humans at all,” he said. At the Zoo’s Friday afternoon press conference, he reiterated that Nova is bigger than a housecat, but sized similarly to a lynx and that household pets weren’t at any more risk than they were from some of the area’s natural predators like coyotes and bobcats.

Edell said the Zoo staff was frustrated with the news that someone may have intentionally let the cat out.

“This is intensely frustrating,” he said. “This is a cat of conservation concern that is not a pet. She is a critically important member of our family at Dallas Zoo. She means a lot to us.”

Edell said Friday afternoon that since clouded leopards are nocturnal and very attached to their home base, the plan had been to set up camera traps and watch for her. They felt confident in that plan also because her sister was still there, and they are “attached at the hip.”

By Saturday morning, Nova was back in the public eye, and according to Zoo veterinarians, no worse for the wear after Friday’s outing.

“After what was a very long and emotional day yesterday, we were thrilled to see so many smiling faces today and answer questions about our girl Nova.,” the Zoo said in a statement.

There were also more details Saturday about how zoo staff were finally able to locate the animal. Staff apparently found her about 100 yards from her habitat, and were tipped off by an exceptionally tattletale squirrel.

“She was starting to emerge from a hunkered-down hiding spot, and staff say a rogue squirrel that was being overly vocal tipped them off to an area to focus their search,” the Zoo said.

Dallas police said Saturday that zoo personnel had also discovered a similar cut in the fencing at the habitat that is home to the zoo’s langur monkeys.

“All the Langurs were still inside their habitat and did not appear to be harmed, or in any danger,” police said. It is not known if the two cuts were made at the same time.

It’s rare for animals to escape their enclosures at the zoo, but it has happened before. In 2004, a 300-pound male western lowland gorilla named Jabari escaped and attacked three before being shot and killed by Dallas police. In 2010, a gorilla named Tufani escaped after an employee failed to lock her enclosure. The zoo was closed due to snow that day, and Tufani was sedated and brought back to her habitat.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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