UPDATE, 2/1/2023: A tip led police to an empty home in Lancaster, Texas, about 15 miles from the zoo. The missing tamarins were found inside a closet and were unharmed, per CNN. They were returned to the zoo and examined by veterinarians.
Police still want to speak to an unidentified man (see story below) who was seen on zoo grounds, but they haven’t said what the man was doing or how he may be connected to the thefts. The abduction of the tamarins follows two other incidents of breached enclosures at the zoo, and the theft of 12 squirrel monkeys from Zoosiana in Broussard, Louisiana, this weekend.
Original story, 1/31/2023:
Dallas police released a photo of a “person of interest” they’d like to speak to after a pair of emperor tamarin monkeys went missing from their enclosure in the Dallas Zoo, the latest of three incidents in which animal habitats at the zoo were breached by human hands.
The first incident happened on Jan. 13 when zookeepers noticed a three-year-old clouded leopard named Nova was missing from her enclosure. They found a breach in the mesh netting that serves as one of enclosure barriers, and said it was a clean, intentional cut with a blade, not from the animals.
After a frantic search — and multiple appeals to the public informing people the leopard was not dangerous and should not be shot — zookeepers found Nova hiding in a tree on the zoo grounds, not far from her enclosure. Nova’s sister, Luna, lives in the same enclosure and remained there.
That same day, staff at the zoo also found another breach, this time at the langur exhibit. Langurs are old-world, leaf-eating monkeys native to Asia. None of the monkeys were missing, but the discovery strengthened the suspicion that someone had tried to steal Nova and at least one monkey, but were not successful.
Now it appears that same person or a copycat has been successful in another habitat. On Jan. 30, zookeepers found a breach in a habitat that hold’s the zoo’s emperor tamarin monkeys. Two of the monkeys were missing.
Tamarins are tiny arboreal new world monkeys that have become popular pets due to “influencers” popularizing them on sites like Youtube and celebrities purchasing them.
There are an estimated 15,000 monkeys living as pets in the US, and some species fetch up to $7,500 as infants, when they’re violently “pulled” from their mothers when they’re just days old and sold. Most are temporary pets, lasting up to two years before docile, adorable infants become destructive, resentful juveniles and the “owners” decide to cut their losses. Buying monkeys as pets and subsequently abandoning them has become so common that sanctuary spots are at a premium, with a handful of sanctuaries taking thousands of monkeys annually.
Some people buy new babies every year or two, shipping the “old” ones off to sanctuaries — or simply dumping them in the woods where they don’t know how to fend for themselves — and repeating the process of infantalizing newly-purchased monkeys. Macaques, capuchins, marmosets and tamarins are the most popular monkeys kept as pets.
Despite the appeal to some people, humans cannot meet the social or environmental needs of monkeys, who naturally live in troops with complex social hierarchies and relationships.
“Monkeys are not surrogate children, and they’re not little people,” the Humane Society’s Debbie Leahy told the New York Post in a 2013 story.
“Pulling” monkeys from their mothers traumatizes infants and the mothers, and there is a wealth of data from primate maternal deprivation studies — going all the way back to the cruel experiments of psychologist Harry Harlow — documenting the psychological damage done to the animals when they’re removed from their mothers and troops.
“If you try to keep them as pets you’re creating a mentally disturbed animal in 99.9 percent of the cases,” Kevin Wright, director of conservation, science and sanctuary at Phoenix Zoo told National Geographic. “The animal will never be able to fit in any other home. Never learn how to get along with other monkeys. And, more often than not, will end up with a lot of behavioral traits that are self-destructive.”
Tamarins, which are often called “pocket monkeys” by people who keep them as pets, can fetch up to $5,000 apiece, generally less than larger primates like capuchins or macaques. Demand for macaques has skyrocketed since the pandemic, as laboratories test various drugs on the old world monkeys, and prices for infants have risen as well.
Despite officials at Dallas Zoo installing additional cameras and increasingly patrols on the grounds at night, an intruder or intruders were able to evade detection and successfully remove the animals some time between Sunday night and Monday morning.
Police have released an image of a man who was seen strolling through the zoo and have asked for the public’s help identifying him so detectives can speak with him. Police did not say why they believe the man, who is pictured wearing a hooded jacket and eating Doritos, would have information on the missing animals or what his role might be.