By Jamie Landers, Aria Jones and Isabella Volmert
A missing clouded leopard was found safe at the Dallas Zoo late Friday afternoon, hours after its disappearance led the zoo to close.
Nova, the 4-year-old leopard, was reported missing from an enclosure authorities believe was intentionally cut open.
“Initial indications are she is not injured,” zoo spokeswoman Kari Streiber said. “She is being evaluated by our veterinary staff right now.”
Streiber said Nova was located on zoo grounds approximately 4:40 p.m., and was safely secured about 35 minutes later. Further updates on her status will be available Saturday, she said.
‘Not a habitat failure’
Dallas Zoo President Gregg Hudson said staff found a “suspicious opening” in the enclosure Nova shares with her sister, Luna, in the morning. Nova was no longer in the habitat.
“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.
Sgt. Warren Mitchell, a Dallas police spokesman, confirmed police have opened a criminal investigation into the leopard’s disappearance.
“It is our belief that this was an intentional act,” Mitchell said.
The zoo issued a “code blue” — an alert when non-dangerous animals aren’t in their enclosures — when employees discovered Nova was missing.
The zoo stressed that the “very much nocturnal” cat, who weighs about 25 pounds, was not a danger to people. She also was not “a greater risk for pets” than other animals native to urban North Texas, the zoo said.
“This is intensely frustrating,” said Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal care and conservation. “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 the staff checks enclosures multiple times a day, starting with a head count of every animal “first thing in the morning.”
He also said that the animals are very attached to a “home territory” or a space they know — and for Nova, that was the space immediately adjacent to her habitat. She and her sister are “attached at the hip,” he said.
The zoo plans to open the Wilds of Africa, a section on the south side of the zoo, for normal weekend operations Saturday. It was unclear whether the rest of the zoo would be open.
Looking to the trees
Edell said during a morning news conference that zoo staff were “spending a lot of time with binoculars” looking for Nova in nearby trees.
“More likely than not … she’s going to climb a tree, stay out of our way, hunt some squirrels and birds and hope not to be noticed,” he said.
Dallas police provided infrared drones to assist in the search, and Irving police were also helping with drone equipment. Dallas SWAT was deployed as a precaution, police said.
“When we initially responded to the location for a reportedly missing clouded leopard, we first dispatched our SWAT officers out here, not clearly understanding what a clouded leopard was,” Mitchell said. “We were thinking, perhaps a big cat.”
When Dallas police learned what type of animal they were dealing with, the SWAT officers were released and patrol resources were added to the investigation.
In the neighborhood
Andrine Kolby and Will Barron, both 21, were planning to go to the zoo Friday, but said on the way there, as they were looking to buy tickets, they found out it was closed.
”It’s not dangerous, so I’m sure they’ll find it and it’ll be OK. We’ll have to go another day,” Kolby said, adding while she wasn’t expecting all of the animals to be outside due to the cold, she was still excited to go.
With an abrupt change of plans, Barron said they were planning to go downtown and improvise.
In the east Oak Cliff neighborhood beside the zoo, dogs, big and small, were in their yards and several house cats could be seen roaming outside.
Maria Lopez was out Friday afternoon tending to several chickens and a turkey in her backyard. While a few of the smaller chickens made their way through the fence lined with chicken wire, Lopez said she wasn’t very worried about the leopard getting to her fowl. The birds, she said, don’t leave their enclosure often.
From Houston to Dallas
The Dallas Zoo had never housed clouded leopards before September 2021, when Nova and Luna made their public debut after a move from the Houston Zoo.
Clouded leopards — named for the large, cloudlike spots that cover their bodies — stand only a couple feet tall and are a few feet long, Sara Bjerklie, an assistant zoological manager at the zoo, previously told The Dallas Morning News.
Bjerklie said they’re still as fierce as bigger predators, with canine teeth that can grow to more than 2 inches long, and the largest canine-to-skull ratio of all cats.
Of the two leopards, Bjerklie described Nova as more “standoffish.”
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.