Recent scares at Dallas zoo where tamarin monkeys were stolen has keepers worried
By Ed Lavandera and Theresa Waldrop, CNN
The entire nation seemed captivated by the suspected theft of two emperor tamarin monkeys from the Dallas Zoo last week.
But no one was more worried about Bella and Finn than zoo staff members, who were already on edge after a string of other disturbing incidents there.
There was the suspicious death of a vulture, enclosures were cut open, and a clouded leopard went missing after enclosures were tampered with. Things also went missing from the otter enclosure.
“We care about these animals deeply, and so their safety is our number one priority,” said Lisa Van Slett, the zoo’s mammal curator.
Even though the leopard was found, the two monkeys recovered, and a man has been arrested and charged, “every day we’re kind of wondering: Is something else gonna happen, and what’s next and where’s it going to be?” Van Slett said.
Dallas police last week arrested Davion Irvin, 24, in connection with the suspected theft of the tamarin monkeys and the release of the clouded leopard. He faces six counts of animal cruelty and two counts of burglary to a building.
Police declined to speak about specifics of the investigation, including a possible motive.
The suspicious events began last month, when keepers discovered a cut four feet high in the wire mesh where the langur monkeys live, Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president of animal care and welfare, told CNN.
“We also noticed that some of the climbing structure inside the habitat was broken and had literally collapsed, which made us think that an animal larger than a langur had been in here,” Edell said. Fortunately, none of those monkeys got out.
Around the same time and just two exhibits away, the clouded leopard’s habitat was cut open, and a female leopard named Nova walked right out, setting off what the zoo calls a “code blue.”
That brought out a Dallas police SWAT team.
“Yeah, the SWAT team heard the word “leopard,” and they thought ‘leopard’ leopard,” Edell said.
The cat, though, is just 25 pounds, bigger than a house cat, but smaller than a mountain lion.
The SWAT team used its high-tech drones to search for the leopard, but it was a very low-tech squirrel who spotted Nova just some 30 yards away from the cat’s habitat.
One of the curators said, “Why is that squirrel so pissed off?” Edell recalled. The squirrel had spotted the leopard, curled up in a cabinet in an unused habitat, peering out, and the alarmed squirrel was “barking” a danger alert, he said.
Then, a lappet-faced vulture named Pin was found dead. Dallas police said the rare bird had been wounded. And then the rare emperor tamarin monkeys went missing.
Edell called the incidents profoundly disturbing and a gut punch and said what zookeepers have witnessed in the past month has left them shaken as some wonder if animal trafficking played a role.
“A lot of us in animal care at the zoo have gone to some really dark places in our minds in the last month,” Edell said.
Staff members had plenty of reasons to worry.
“Globally the illegal pet trade is again driving many animals toward extinction,” Daniel Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, told CNN.
And while many think of the problem existing in far-off countries, it’s a problem right here in the United States, Ashe and Edell said.
“Thousands and thousands of freshwater turtles and Eastern Box turtles and things like that” are being shipped from the United States to overseas, Ashe said.
And then there’s the problem of social media influencers and shows like “Tiger King” that make it seem desirable to own an exotic animal, Edell said.
“I’m going to sound so old when I say this,” Edell said. “It doesn’t help that social media influencers think that it’s cool to have this thing in your house.”
For Ashe, the Dallas Zoo incidents are an opportunity to educate the public on the downsides and dangers of taking an animal out of its safe habitat.
“I do think this is an opportunity to let people know that animals need to be left alone in their homes,” Ashe said, “whether that home is nature, or whether that home is Dallas Zoo or Central Park Zoo, they need to be left in peace in their homes where they’re safe and comfortable.
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