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Monkey thefts, other incidents at Dallas Zoo ‘a message to be vigilant’

CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Late last week, police arrested a 24-year-old Dallas man in connection with the disappearance of two emperor tamarin monkeys from the Dallas Zoo. The monkeys had been found safe prior to the arrest, but their disappearance came amid other recent incidents at the zoo.

Earlier investigators had found a cut in the monkey’s habitat. On Jan. 21, an endangered vulture was found dead with an unusual wound; the cause of death has not been determined. And back on Jan. 13, a clouded leopard escaped her enclosure – which zoo officials said had an intentional cut in its fencing – only to be found later that day after the zoo was closed off and neighboring communities were put on lockdown.

It’s not completely clear to what extent the incidents were related, but zoos and aquariums across the state have been taking special security measures due to what’s happened in Dallas. Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, joined Texas Standard to share some insight.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I know you’re not an official with the Dallas Zoo, so you’re not privy to what investigators might or might not know. But are zoos often targets of animal theft? How rare or common is this? 

Dan Ashe: This is extraordinary. It is unprecedented in my experience. We occasionally have, you know, animals escape their containers, and occasionally visitors get into exhibits. And so our members are usually well-prepared to deal with that. But this – where an intruder goes into an exhibit, apparently for the purpose of taking an animal or harming an animal – really is extraordinarily rare, perhaps unprecedented.

Given your position as president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, what runs through your mind when you read these stories about what’s been going on in Dallas? 

Well, mainly that, you know, Dallas Zoo is a victim here. I mean, they have been victimized by criminal trespass, and hopefully zoos and aquariums across the country are aware of what happened in Dallas and being extra vigilant.

The individual who was arrested has been charged with six counts of animal cruelty in connection with the two missing monkeys and two counts of burglary connected to the sabotaged leopard enclosure. Are these the sorts of outcomes that zoos want to see? I mean, are there other charges that are more appropriate? And how stiff are we talking, penalty-wise, from what you understand? 

Well, we’ll let law enforcement officials determine what the correct violations are to prosecute. But we are happy that they are being prosecuted, because I think that sends a message to anybody that law enforcement will take it seriously and there will be serious consequences from it. So we’re thankful to the Dallas Police Department for the way they’ve been dealing with this.

Part of what zoos and aquariums try to do is maintain as natural habitat as possible. And that often means, you know, open-top enclosures or other cages designed to keep animals safe, perhaps more than keep humans out. If you were in charge of a zoo right now, what would you be doing? Anything different? 

Well, you know, “different,” we learn all the time – and a lot of times we learn from misfortune. And this is certainly misfortune that we will learn from. And this will be an opportunity for us to learn and be better. Because, as you said, the thing that zoos and aquariums try to do is bring people as close to the animals as they can, and doing that in a way that is safe for the animal and, of course, safe for the guest.

Is there anything unusual or unique about Texas that stands out to you when it comes to this incident, or could this have happened anywhere?

It could happen anywhere. We saw last week a Eurasian eagle owl released from Central Park Zoo – somebody cut through the mesh and released the owl. And so hopefully we won’t see further copycatting. But criminals are entrepreneurial people. You know, you can have the best defenses, and we all know that in terms of our home security or IT security and things like that. It’s a message to all of our members to be vigilant and to look for every possible way to provide a safer environment for people and animals.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."