A series of alleged crimes that have rocked the Dallas Zoo in recent weeks has also left the industry stumped.

«I don’t know of a zoo that has been subjected to this kind of weirdness,» said Michael Renner, a professor of biology and psychology at Drake University in Iowa and coordinator of its zoo and conservation sciences program.

“People are pretty shocked,” he said. «They’re looking for a pattern that leads to an explanation.»

The events began on January 13, when the disappearance of a clouded leopard from its habitat was reported. In the days and weeks that followed, the langur monkey enclosure was found breached, an endangered vulture was found dead, and a pair of emperor tamarins were allegedly stolen.

Tom Schmid, CEO and president of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said he hadn’t seen anything like it.

«It’s inexplicable,» he said. «I can’t think of a situation like this in my more than 20 years in the field.»

More on the mysterious episodes at the Dallas Zoo

As they struggle to make sense of it, the Dallas Zoo promises «significant changes» to facility security to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Authorities on Friday linked a 24-year-old zoo visitor to three of the cases, including the alleged theft of two emperor tamarins. Davion Irvin was arrested Thursday and is charged with theft and cruelty to animals.

Bella and Finn, the marmosets, were found unharmed in the closet of an empty house on Tuesday.

One of two missing marmosets from the Dallas Zoo in a closet in a vacant house in Lancaster.Dallas Police Department via Twitter

Irvin also faces a burglary charge in connection with the escape of Nova the clouded leopard, the Dallas Police Department said. Irvin is «attached» to the incident involving the langur monkeys, but he has not been charged in that case.

Neither the leopard, nor Nova, nor the langurs were injured.

Irvin also has not been charged in the January 21 death of Pin, a 35-year-old Lappet-faced Vulture who was found with what zoo officials described as an «unusual injury.»

Dallas police spokeswoman Kristin Lowman told reporters Friday that more charges are possible.

Authorities have not determined a motive, but Lowman said investigators believe Irvin was planning another crime prior to his arrest. An employee of the Dallas World Aquarium alerted authorities to him after the Police Department posted a photo from a person they wanted to talk to about the missing animals. Irvin questioned an employee about «means and manners of entrapment,» according to a police affidavit supporting the warrant for his arrest.

Irvin had not worked or volunteered for the Dallas Zoo and had guest access, Dallas Zoo President and CEO Gregg Hudson said Friday.

«It’s been an amazing three weeks for all of us here at the zoo,» Hudson told reporters. «It’s unprecedented what has happened here.»

Three cuts, three habitats

When things go wrong at zoos, Schmid said, the incidents are often isolated and likely involve someone trying to take an animal home or gain access to habitat.

«That’s not terribly unusual,» Schmid said. «The fact that they have had multiple events makes this all the more disturbing.»

Authorities in Dallas have offered few details about the incidents, though a common thread among three of them — the leopard, tamarin monkeys and langur monkeys — were cuts found in the wire mesh habitats that house the animals. Authorities said they appeared intentional.

Pin lived in an outdoor habitat, a zoo spokeswoman said. The cause of death of the endangered vulture has not been determined.

Nova the clouded leopard at the Dallas Zoo in September 2021.
Nova the clouded leopard at the Dallas Zoo in September 2021.Dallas Zoo via Facebook

Authorities have not said what type of tool was used to cut the wire mesh. Pat Janikowski, a longtime zoo designer and principal at PJA Architects, said the mesh typically has multiple stainless steel strands twisted into rope and interwoven.

«It’s really strong,» he said. «It’s strong enough that a gorilla can carry it and pull it and not break it.»

Sean Stoddard, whose company A Thru Z Consulting and Distributing supplies the mesh to the industry and has worked with the Dallas Zoo for more than two decades, said that in order to create a gap large enough for an animal to pass through, the suspect likely used a bolt or wire cutters

zoo routines

Authorities have not said what time the tool may have been used. In two cases, the leopard and the marmosets, the zoo said staff discovered the animals were missing in the morning.

Joey Mazzola, who said he worked as a marine biologist at the zoo from 2013 to 2017, said staff likely discovered the monkeys and leopard were missing while counting the animals, as they do every morning and evening.

Both animals were found the night before, zoo spokeswoman Kari Streiber said. Nova escaped from the public section of her habitat, where she lives with her sister, Luna. Streiber said it’s unclear when she dated.

The marmosets disappeared from a holding space next to their habitat, Streiber said. Mazzola likened such spaces to a backyard: an area likely hidden from visitors and separated from the animals’ public habitat and nighttime habitat.

It is unclear how Irvin supposedly accessed the space. Lowman, the police spokeswoman, said authorities are aware of how Irvin allegedly removed the marmosets, but she declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation, as did Streiber.

pin the vulture
pin the vultureDallas Zoo via NBC Dallas-Fort Worth

More cameras, more guards

Hudson said the zoo is introducing security measures to ensure «things like this don’t happen again.»

Cameras, including towers on loan from the Dallas Police Department, and more night guards were added to monitor the 106-acre grounds. Streiber said staff members were limiting overnight outdoor access for some animals.

«Securing a zoo is a unique challenge that requires specific needs due to the environment,» the zoo said in a statement Wednesday. «There is often extensive tree canopy, expansive habitats and behind-the-scenes areas to monitor, and a lot of traffic from guests, contractors and staff.»

Zoo officials are discussing further changes with security experts, Streiber said.

It’s unclear if metal detectors are on the table. Like most US zoos, Dallas doesn’t have them, and Streiber said he didn’t know if they were under consideration.

More facilities are considering the systems, Schmid said, and the Columbus Zoo is installing them to guard against incidents like mass shootings.

The events in Dallas will likely cause officials at the more than 200 accredited zoos across the United States to examine «what they’re doing,» he said.

Schmid wasn’t sure how that might affect the Columbus Zoo’s approach to safety, but said there have already been several discussions about the care and safety of the animals.

Drake University’s Renner hopes the new emphasis on safety and security in Dallas doesn’t diminish the zoo’s mission to create meaningful interactions between its animals and visitors.

«There could be a strategic approach that would improve security without crippling the zoo or ruining the visitor experience,» he said. «I hope that’s what they’re doing.»