'One gut punch after another': The case of the missing Dallas Zoo animals
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'One gut punch after another': The case of the missing Dallas Zoo animals
The entrance to the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, Feb. 2, 2023. The Dallas police said on Friday that they had arrested a 24-year-old man in connection with the theft of two emperor tamarin monkeys from the Dallas Zoo. (Emil Lippe/The New York Times)

by J. David Goodman

DALLAS, TX.- The first missing animal at the Dallas Zoo, taken or allowed to escape through a hole cut in the heavy metal mesh of her enclosure, was Nova, a 25-pound clouded leopard.

As part of the search, a SWAT team descended on the closed zoo. Police drones flew overhead. Officers looking for the leopard found another, similar cut to an enclosure that held the langur monkeys, though none of the monkeys were gone.

Within hours on that day in mid-January, Nova was found inside the zoo, in a back area not far from her enclosure, and was returned to her sister, Luna. Zoo officials breathed a sigh of relief. Detectives began trying to figure out who might have been trying to raid the 135-year-old zoo for its cache of valuable, fragile fauna.

But the following week, Pin, an endangered, lappet-faced vulture, turned up dead, apparently felled by an injury that police have described only as “a wound.” Federal agents joined the case.

The brazenness of the incursions and the rare animals involved brought international attention and a range of whodunit theories. Could it have been a disgruntled zookeeper? International exotic animal traffickers? Who was the mysterious man seen on a zoo security camera as he ate Doritos? At the zoo, security increased. The Dallas Police Department installed two of its own camera towers to keep watch. All seemed secure.

Then, on Monday, two emperor tamarin monkeys, Finn and Bella, were gone, taken or escaped through a hole cut in the mesh. The pair, each weighing about a pound, would be found a day later, cold and hungry, in the closet of a boarded-up home next to a church about 15 miles south of the zoo in the city of Lancaster.

On Friday, police said they had arrested Davion Irvin, 24. He is accused of stealing the tamarin monkeys and of cutting into the enclosures for the clouded leopards and the langur monkeys. Police said they had received a tip the day before that Irvin was in the Dallas World Aquarium, about 3 miles north of the zoo, checking out the animal enclosures.

Irvin, who officials said had no connection to the zoo other than as a visitor, was charged with animal cruelty and burglary. The police said more charges could be added.

The death of the endangered vulture could bring federal charges. A police spokesperson, Kristin Lowman, said the vulture’s death was still being investigated. A lawyer for Irvin, who was being held at the Dallas County jail, could not immediately be reached.

The arrest punctuated the weekslong saga at the zoo, resolving one mystery while adding others, such as the intention behind trying to take so many animals in such close succession.

“It’s been one gut punch after another,” said Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal care and conservation. “From a standpoint of trying not to lose faith in humanity, if these incidents were all the same person, how is that possible?” He said that the thought had occurred to zoo officials that someone on the inside could have been involved.

At a news conference later Friday, Lowman said the police investigation had led to Irvin and did not indicate that others had been involved in the crimes.

Texas is among the top states in the country for exotic animal ownership, and there is also a robust illicit trade in animals that are barred by law from being bought or sold, said Shelby Bobosky, executive director of the Texas Humane Legislation Network. “On the black market, these animals will sell for thousands of dollars,” she said.

Zoos nationwide were watching with increasing concern what had been taking place in Dallas, thinking of their own animals. “Security is going to be an increasing challenge for us,” said Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Dallas zoo officials say they are reviewing their security protocols.

At the same time animals were disappearing in Dallas, 12 squirrel monkeys were stolen from a family-owned Louisiana zoo.

At first, the brief disappearance of the clouded leopard on Jan. 13, while disturbing to zoo officials, had been spoken about largely as a kind of urban animal oddity, like a coyote in Central Park or a tiger roaming through Houston. Some jokingly suggested that a respected Texas writer could be the culprit, having staged the leopard escape to gin up attention for his novel about the escape of a much larger leopard in 1950s Oklahoma City.

But the killing of the vulture cast a pall. And the stolen tamarin monkeys — “complex, delicate, incredible little primates,” Edell called them — had been in apparent danger, particularly as the temperature dropped across the Dallas area, freezing roads and bending trees under the weight of a dangerous glaze.

“It started out fun,” said Stephen Harrigan, writer of the loose leopard novel. “But it turned kind of grim.”

Police were able to locate the tamarin monkeys after releasing a single image: a young man, in a warm hat and a hooded sweatshirt, casually walking through the zoo while eating from a bag of Doritos. The police said Friday that the man in the image was Irvin.

He looked familiar to Jeremy Ross, whose father is the pastor at a small church nestled among modest homes in Lancaster, a community of 42,000 southeast of Dallas.

“He’s come to our church before — it’s how I know that he’s from the neighborhood,” said Ross, 36, adding that the young man’s visit to the church had been notable, and not in a good way.

“I couldn’t even pay attention to the service because he was acting like he was going through a metamorphosis,” Ross said, likening the behavior to a person hallucinating on drugs.

In recent months, Ross said, the man had been squatting at an abandoned one-story brick ranch house that belonged to the church but had been in disrepair for years.

Neighbors said they had occasionally called the police about suspicious activity around the church, which is on a residential road and sits quiet and mostly unused except during Sunday services. But no one had been able to catch the squatter in the home.

“The dude is like smoke,” said Ronnie Bates, who lives across from the church.

One Sunday last month, Ross said, he and his father noticed the door ajar in the home. They went over to investigate, Ross with his pistol. “Hey, if you’re in there, come out,” his father called out.

As they pushed open the door, several cats bounded out as if fleeing the pungent aroma that emanated from inside. Ross said that there were chickens, dogs and cats in the home, along with their droppings. “There was an Old McDonald’s farm at our house,” he said. “He had a whole petting zoo there.”

After the image appeared on the news, the family debated whether the man at the center of an international mystery could really be the squatter in their small corner of suburban Dallas.

“I’m the one that called the police,” said Winter Ross, Jeremy Ross’ wife. “I was like, ultimately, if we don’t say anything and those monkeys die in that house, I would never forgive myself.” The tip from the Ross family was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

At first the officers appeared skeptical, Winter Ross said. But then, she said, she spoke to a detective on the case. Within hours, police cars descended on the abandoned home.

The discovery of the moneys was the talk of Lancaster, she said. “People were like, seriously, here?” Cheryl Basham, 59, said, standing outside her ice-coated home on a recent weekday.

Bates, another neighbor, said the neighborhood squatter had family members who live right across from the church, indicating the home next to his own.

He said the man had been back in the neighborhood as recently as early Thursday morning. “When my dad came back from the doughnut store, he came up and asked my dad for a ride up out of here,” Bates said. “My dad said no, that the law was looking for him.”

A man who opened the door at the Irvin home on Thursday said he knew nothing about the monkey theft and shut the door without giving his name.

The Dallas Zoo, founded in 1888, has had a number of animal escapes over the years, including one involving a rampaging 300-pound gorilla who injured several people before being shot to death at the zoo in 2004.

The zoo sits just south of Interstate 35 in a Dallas neighborhood slated for new city investments. “It’s the centerpiece of a fast-developing area,” said Rafael Anchia, a state representative who lives nearby and described himself as “a big zoo fan.” His daughter volunteers there on weekends, he added. “She thinks animals are superior to humans.”

The zoo remained closed Friday because of icy weather, and only a few animals ventured out: some feisty gibbons, a pair of gorillas. The holes cut in the metal mesh had been repaired, but the stolen tamarin monkeys remained in quarantine, fed and cared for by zookeepers in Tyvek suits, to make sure they had not contracted anything while outside the zoo.

For Harrigan, the writer, the entire series of episodes at the Dallas Zoo underscored how the relationship between animals and humans had changed over the decades.

“It was more a kind of predator-prey mentality,” he said of the attitude in 1950 when a 175-pound Indian leopard escaped the Oklahoma City zoo. “You had this dangerous animal and this almost hysterical excitement of who would bag it.”

By contrast, the reaction in Dallas had been marked by a sense of empathy. “People have a relationship with these animals,” Harrigan said. “They’re not exhibits anymore. People understand they’re living, feeling creatures.”

The past few weeks had been an emotionally trying time for zookeepers and other staff members as they tried to care for animals and keep them warm in the cold and ice, Edell said, while also fearful for their own safety before any arrests had been made and having to speak with police, who were looking to see if the person responsible could have been an employee.

There were more than 100 cameras at the zoo before the clouded leopard went missing, and more had been added, but animal habitats are not always brightly lit at night, when the animals are sleeping, he said. “Blasting their habitats with floodlights isn’t an option,” he said.

Locating the tamarin monkeys had been a moment of relief. Edell recalled going to the abandoned home and meeting a staff member who had arrived there first, a grin across her face and tears in her eyes. “It’s them — it’s totally them,” he recalled her saying.

Once back with zookeepers, the hungry animals tore into their food pans. Finn devoured an entire strawberry, said Edell, “and it’s maybe the happiest I’ve ever seen an animal.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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