Dallas It started with Nova, a 25-pound clouded leopard who escaped from a suspicious opening in her fence. Then it was Pin, an endangered lappet-faced vulture found fatally and intentionally wounded in his enclosure. And finally, two emperor tamarin monkeys were stolen—and later recovered—despite heightened security measures.
It's unknown who is committing these recent acts of sabotage, or why, but the impacts—such as killing a rare species—are enormous.
"Words cannot express the frustration our team is feeling," Kari Streiber, the Dallas Zoo's vice president of communications, said in an emailed statement on February 1.
The Dallas Zoo already had a hundred cameras on its 106-acre campus that monitored the public, staff, and exhibit areas, zoo president Gregg Hudson said during a press conference. Since the incidents began, the zoo has upped its cameras' capabilities and installed portable solar tower units to keep the grounds well lit. Security and staff presence has also increased during overnight hours.
“Although our security program had worked in the past, it has become obvious that we need to make significant changes," Streiber said.
The zoo has also consulted with security experts on developing new strategies to secure its habitats, she said.
But even with the best security, if a person is motivated to harm animals, “they will find a way," says Rob Vernon, vice president of communications at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
Vernon says the criminal interference with animal habitats is no fault of the zoo’s, and that they have “followed their procedures and worked closely with law enforcement since the first incident.”
The Dallas Zoo is not unique in these recent challenges. Earlier this week, vandals broke into Zoosiana, a zoo in Broussard, Louisiana, and stole 12 squirrel monkeys, which remain missing. An investigation is underway.
Not only are such illegal activities detrimental to the animals, they can be dangerous for people, too, says Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, a Texas-based nonprofit that supports exotic wildlife owners.
“Anyone attempting to release animals of any kind from a zoo such as the Dallas Zoo are potentially putting the public in great harm of serious bodily injury or death,” Seale says. “These animals have never been in a wild environment."
On January 31, the Dallas Zoo tweeted it was "thrilled beyond belief" that its two tamarins, Bella and Finn, were found uninjured—though underweight—inside a vacant home in a nearby city. The Dallas Police Department released a photo of a man who they want to speak with in regard to the primates' initial disappearance.
Zoo officials caught Nova, the clouded leopard, on zoo grounds the same day she went missing, January 13. She is now back on exhibit.
But the January 21 loss of Pin, a 35-year-old bird who had lived at the zoo for over three decades, was particularly heartbreaking for the zoo staff. (Learn more about vultures and their role in the ecosystem.)
The zoo conducted an autopsy, which revealed the bird had been killed, Hudson said at the January 23 press conference.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are around 6,500 lappet-faced vultures left in the world. They're declining in their native African habitat due to accidental poisoning, nest predation by humans, and reduced food availability. Many vultures in Kenya, for instance, die after they ingest animals killed with pesticides.
Because of the species' rarity, the zoo—along with the Dallas police and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—launched an investigation, offering anyone with information about the bird's death a reward of $25,000.
“Any time you lose an endangered species, no matter the numbers, it is a significant loss,” says Vernon.
“All zoos will learn from what has happened in Dallas,” he adds. “They will fix what was vandalized and make changes to try and prevent these acts from happening again.”