A clouded leopard who went missing from her enclosure was intentionally let loose according to police, who have opened a criminal investigation.
The medium-size wildcat, whose species is native to the foothills of the Himalayas, escaped from her enclosure some time between late Thursday night and Friday morning, prompting a zoo-wide shutdown and a massive coordinated search. During that time, zoo staff emphasized to local press — and in social media posts — that clouded leopards are not aggressive toward people and the escaped cat wasn’t a threat.
She was eventually found safe and unharmed on zoo grounds, hiding in a tree not far from her enclosure, at about 4:40 p.m. on Friday. She was secured within 35 minutes, zoo officials told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
But that’s not the end of the saga. Zoo staff say the leopard, a three-year-old named Nova, didn’t escape on her own — a person or persons breached the two-story exhibit by cutting through the mesh fence. Nova’s sister, Luna, lives in the same enclosure and did not leave the area.
Now investigators are trying to determine if the people responsible for breaching the enclosure were committing an act of vandalism or intended to take the 25-pound wildcat.
“We found a suspicious opening in the habitat wall in front of the exhibit,” a Dallas Zoo official told reporters on Friday afternoon. “It was clear that this opening was not exhibit failure and it wasn’t keeper error.”
Police are reviewing surveillance footage and looking for clues in the 106-acre zoological park, which is located about three miles south of downtown Dallas and is home to more than 2,000 animals.
“It is their (Dallas Zoo officials’) belief and it is our belief that this was an intentional act, so we have started a criminal investigation,” Sgt. Warren Mitchell of the Dallas Police Department said.
Harrison Edell, vice president of animal care and conservation at the Dallas Zoo, warned against anyone attempting to steal zoo animals.
“This is a cat of conservation concern,” Edell said. “This is not a pet — she’s a critically important member of our family at Dallas Zoo.”