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The Dallas Zoo saga serves as a reminder to remain vigilant, national accreditor says

The entrance to the Dallas Zoo in Dallas is pictured on June 3, 2008. Two monkeys were taken from the Dallas Zoo on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, the latest in a string of odd incidents at the facility.
Steve Helber
The entrance to the Dallas Zoo in Dallas is pictured on June 3, 2008. Two monkeys were taken from the Dallas Zoo on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, the latest in a string of odd incidents at the facility.

Weeks of strange happenings at the Dallas Zoo ended on a good note this week — at least for now. Two emperor tamarin monkeys believed to have been taken from the Texas zoo were recovered by police unharmed.

"We are pleased that video from our surveillance cameras – which we shared with DPD – seems to have been critical in generating a tip that led to the recovery of the tamarins," the Dallas Zoo said.

The monkeys' disappearance was the culmination of a series of suspicious events at the zoo in recent weeks.

In January, Pin, an endangered male lappet-faced vulture, was found deadwith a suspicious wound in his enclosure. Before that, Nova, a 25-pound clouded leopard, went missing for hours after her mesh enclosure was tampered with, the zoo reported. The leopard was later found and returned. At the same time, investigators discovered the enclosure for the zoo's langur monkeys was cut, but none of the animals escaped.

Police are saying these events are likely related. After the recovery of the two emperor tamarin monkeys, the zoo announced it's increasing the reward for information on the person, or persons, responsible for these incidents to $25,000.

Though zoos are normally highly protected and well-designed, these recent events serve as an important reminder "that we all have to be vigilant in protecting animals in zoos, in national parks, in nature," Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, told NPR. It shows that these problems can happen even at a place as well-designed and well-managed as the Dallas Zoo, he said.

Recent events at the zoo reflect a bit of a microcosm of what conservationists see happening with wildlife poaching, trafficking and the persecution of animals (like in the case of the death of the lappet-faced vulture), Ashe said.

The Department of Homeland Security reportsthat illicit wildlife trafficking is estimated to be between a $7.8 billion and $10 billion annually.

These very serious issues "are some of the major causes that are driving many of these animal populations toward extinction," Ashe said. "We know how difficult it is to protect national parks and the animals within national parks and protected areas from trafficking and persecution."

Past records of the Dallas Zoo

Three-week-old giraffe named Kendi, reaches up with his tongue to touch his mother, Katie's neck in the giraffe exhibit at the Dallas Zoo on May 26, 2020.
Tony Gutierrez / AP
Three-week-old giraffe named Kendi, reaches up with his tongue to touch his mother, Katie's neck in the giraffe exhibit at the Dallas Zoo on May 26, 2020.

What's happened at the Dallas Zoo, and the repeated issues there, is tragic and unusual, Ashe said.

"We sometimes have animals escape from their exhibits. It's not common, but it does happen," he said. "I've never experienced an instance where someone has broken into an exhibit to steal the animal. Dallas has been working their way through a pretty tragic and unprecedented situation."

Those closely monitoring the events in Dallas have questioned the zoo's security measures.

The facility has not been in trouble in the recent past with federal authorities, however.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report from 2014 reviewed by NPR reflected one non-critical compliance issue that year. This report said a keeper error allowed a female lion to escape her enclosure in August of that year. "This animal was contained within a hallway however sedation was required to move her back into her primary enclosure," the report said.

The USDA's last inspection in the facility appears to be Oct. 26, 2021, and no issues were reported then, according to the agency's database.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is responsible for the accreditation of zoos and aquariums, put out a statement this week in support of the facility. The Dallas Zoo is accredited through March 2023 and the AZA said that accreditation is not in jeopardy.

"Dallas Zoo and its animals are victims of acts, presumably intended to take animals for personal reasons, or worse, to be trafficked. AZA and its entire member community stand squarely with Dallas Zoo and condemn these acts of violence against the Zoo, its animals, and the entire Dallas community," a statement attributed to Ashe says. "We are anxious for the perpetrator or perpetrators to be apprehended and stopped, and we applaud and support the work of law enforcement professionals who are leading these investigations."

This moment is an opportunity to learn, Ashe says

Other AZA members haven't reported any kind of similar incidents to what's been going at the Dallas Zoo, Ashe aid.

"They are well-prepared by nature and as ACA accredited members, safety of the facility and the animals that live there are a priority, and we're hoping that what we've seen at Dallas is an isolated event," he said.

He did note that a non-AZA accredited facility in Louisiana has experienced the loss of 12 squirrel monkeys last month. The facility, Zoosiana, said an individual targeted that enclosure and the facilities of other primates there.

The Dallas Zoo is likely to put together a report on what's happened so far and what went wrong for the AZA's accreditation commission, he said. "There'll be an opportunity to review what happened. What were the vulnerabilities that led to this?"

This is important for the zoo and the AZA's membership to learn what can be done to prevent this from happening in the future, he said.

"It'll definitely be an opportunity for us to revisit security and see if there are some additional things that that we can do to even better protect the animals that live in our member facilities," he said.

Many questions remain unanswered with the Dallas Zoo's saga. In the meantime, the facility is celebrating the return of Bella and Finn — the emperor tamarin monkeys.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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