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Clouded leopard who escaped at Dallas Zoo is found after enclosure was cut, police say

Police said Saturday a cut similar to the one in the leopard's enclosure fence was found at the habitat for a breed of monkey. It's unclear if the two incidents are related.
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A missing clouded leopard was found safe Friday afternoon after she escaped from her Dallas Zoo enclosure hours earlier, zoo officials announced.

The clouded leopard, named Nova, “was located very near the original habitat, and teams were able to safely secure her just before 5:15 p.m.,” the zoo tweeted.

Dallas police launched a criminal investigation Friday after it was determined the fence in Nova’s enclosure was intentionally cut, police and the zoo said.

On Saturday, police said a cutting tool was used to create an opening in the fencing of the leopard’s habitat. A similar cut was also found at the habitat for a breed of monkey called a langur, police said.

All the langurs were accounted for and “did not appear to be harmed, or in any danger,” police said. They said it wasn’t clear if the two incidents were related.  

The zoo shut down for the day Friday as it dealt with the clouded leopard's escape, which it described as “a serious incident.” Officials had said the animal was not dangerous.

“We have an ongoing situation at the zoo right now with a Code Blue — that is a non-dangerous animal that is out of its habitat,” the zoo tweeted Friday morning.

Nova likely escaped through what zoo officials initially described as a tear in the mesh of the enclosure she shares with her sibling, Luna.

Zoo officials didn't think Nova would venture far because she’s tight-knit with Luna, who is still in the habitat. They were correct: She was found on zoo property.

Nova likely hid in a treetop after escaping, said Harrison Edell, executive vice president of animal care and conservation at the Dallas Zoo.

Police initially sent a SWAT team to the zoo because they were unsure about the cat's size, Mitchell said.

The zoo said Saturday that an “overly vocal” squirrel tipped staff them off to an area to search for Nova, who, at that point, was starting to emerge from her hiding spot.

She was secured and returned to her habitat about 30 minutes later, the zoo said.

Nova was evaluated by vet and animal care teams and returned to her habitat, where she perched on a high branch Saturday, according to the zoo.

Nova and Luna arrive in Dallas

Nova was born in November 2019, alongside Luna, at the Houston Zoo. On her first birthday, before the leopards went to Dallas, the Houston institution described Luna as outgoing and Nova as reserved.

"Nova is a little more cautious, keeping an eye on her surroundings," it said in a blog entry.

Both cubs were being trained to obey handlers' commands to return, the Houston Zoo said in 2020. "They have learned to voluntarily enter a crate, so that they can be safely transported if necessary," it said at the time.

Jessica Reyes, spokesperson for the Houston Zoo, said Nova and Luna were sent to the Dallas Zoo in July 2021 based on Association of Zoos & Aquariums recommendations to ensure genetically diverse populations of animals at zoos and aquariums.

Smallest of the 'big cats'

Edell said clouded leopards weigh between 20 and 25 pounds and pose no danger to people. They're among the smallest of the world's wild "big cats" (tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs and cougars).

The animals dwell in the cloud forests of Southeast Asia and are one of the most ancient cat species, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Clouded leopards are described as a vulnerable species, the institute said, adding it is estimated that less than 10,000 mature individuals remain in the wild.

Edell said Nova was likely hunting squirrels and birds Friday.

2004 gorilla escape

On March 18, 2004, a 350-pound gorilla escaped from his enclosure at the 106-acre Dallas Zoo's Wilds of Africa exhibit, injuring four before it was fatally shot by police.

Two teenage boys standing on a trail overlooking the gorilla exhibit hurled either ice or stones at Jabari, according to zoo records obtained by the Dallas Morning News in the days afterward.

The 13-year-old gorilla escaped his walled compound and went on a rampage, snatching up a toddler with his teeth and attacking three others before officers stopped him.

A tranquilizer gun used by zoo staff had jammed, according to the records, and police opened fire when Jabari was within 15 feet of officers with a pair of children's sandals in his hands, the newspaper reported, citing those records.

An injured child was treated at the scene and released. A woman thrown against a wall by the gorilla was hospitalized with arm injuries.

Rivers Herd, 3 at the time, was critically injured when he was bitten and scratched by the gorilla. His mother, Keisha Herd, 26, was hospitalized with minor injuries.

The child told his mother after the attack Jabari "tried to eat his head," his father told NBC News at the time.