Nova, a clouded leopard missing from the Dallas Zoo, was found late Friday afternoon following a day of searching, but the mystery of how she escaped is still being pieced together.
Police said Friday the leopard’s enclosure was “intentionally cut," after law enforcement and zoo officials determined that the 25-pound cat’s escape was not a result of negligence by a zookeeper, a problem with the enclosure itself or her own break-out attempt.
Officials searching the zoo grounds found Nova near her original habitat at 4:40 p.m. She seemed to be uninjured and was being evaluated by the zoo’s veterinarians, said zoo spokesperson Kari Streiber.
“We’re thrilled,” Dallas Police Sgt. Warren Mitchell told The Washington Post. “They worked all day long trying to locate the animal, and we’re just glad that it has returned to its habitat.”
Smaller than a bobcat but larger than a housecat, the clouded leopard is not considered a threat to people and is generally elusive, preferring to stay in trees. Zoo officials had said Nova, who is spotted and a tawny gold, was likely to be found in a tree if she were around the zoo or in a neighborhood.
Mitchell said he believed the cat had been located around feeding time, and that the zoo had set traps in hopes that she would enter one when hungry. It took about 35 minutes to capture the leopard after finding her, according to Streiber.
The zoo will give updates on her condition Saturday, the spokesperson said, adding, “It has been a long day and the team is focused on Nova right now.” The criminal investigation by Dallas Police will continue, Mitchell said.
The disappearance of the 25-pound wild cat, who was discovered to be missing from her enclosure Friday morning, shut down the zoo and brought a slew of tips from the public.
We are thrilled to report we located clouded leopard Nova on-grounds at the Zoo this afternoon at approximated 4:40 p.m. She was located very near the original habitat, and teams were able to safely secure her just before 5:15 p.m. pic.twitter.com/XucvBrQO4V— Dallas Zoo (@DallasZoo) January 13, 2023
Not knowing that a clouded leopard was a small animal — though the zoo’s “Code Blue” alert means a non-threatening animal is out of its exhibit — Dallas police first sent a SWAT team to the area Friday morning, Mitchell said. When they realized a big cat was not loose, they brought in patrol officers and drones for the search.
The Dallas Police Department used a heat-sensing drone to try to find the animal, having calibrated the drone to “the heat signature of that particular cat,” Mitchell said at an afternoon news briefing. Nova was not ultimately found with the drone, he told the Post after her rescue.
“We suspect the animal is still on property or nearby,” zoo director Gregg Hudson said at the news conference, just a few hours before Nova was found. “These are very elusive animals. They live in dense forests, up in the trees, so it’s a very difficult animal to try and find.”
Officials had asked the public not to approach the cat, directing anyone who spotted Nova to call 911 and send a photo to the zoo.
Mitchell told The Post after Nova’s rescue that police hope to determine what happened. During the news briefing, police gave no other details about the crime scene, which an evidence team had canvassed. Mitchell said police had reviewed surveillance videos but had no information to provide.
Zoo officials were hoping their knowledge of the animal’s behavior and habits would help them find it, Hudson said. That appeared to prove true after Nova was found “very near” her habitat.
“It’s an important animal to us,” he said.