By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006
A toothy 24-pound cat known as a clouded leopard seized an opportunity yesterday and escaped from its enclosure at the National Zoo.
The zoo went on emergency alert, but as it turned out, no harm was done. The leopard, named Mook, was found lying inside the zoo grounds not far from its enclosure and was safely returned to custody.
However, the clouded leopard exhibit, which is along the Asia Trail, has been temporarily closed while officials review security.
Mook fled her enclosure after she or her mate clawed or chewed a hole in the fence, zoo spokesman John Gibbons said. He said the hole was about the diameter of a soccer ball.
"We're looking at heavier-gauge wire for the mesh so they wouldn't be able to create a hole again," Gibbons said. "It seems that the mesh was too thin."
Gibbons said zoo officials do not think it's necessary to examine any other security measures. "Most of our larger mammals are contained through a moat system, rather than a netting system," he said.
Gibbons said the leopard habitat on the Asia Trail, which opened in October, is completely enclosed by wire mesh affixed to a metal frame 20 feet tall. Some zoo officials believe Mook was not acting on an irresistible urge to be free but rather simply saw a hole and stepped through.
Mook was reported safely inside the exhibit during evening rounds Thursday, Gibbons said. But when zookeepers returned shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday, they spotted her outside, partially hidden by a boardwalk that leads from the clouded leopards to the sloth bears.
A "Code Green" alarm was sounded, the gates to the zoo -- which open at 6 a.m. -- were shut, and joggers and other early-morning visitors were rounded up and escorted off zoo property, he said. The zoo remained closed for a half-hour. Animal keepers and veterinarians, armed with nets and tranquilizer guns, surrounded Mook and anesthetized her with a dart gun, Gibbons said. She was taken into a building that is part of the enclosure she shares with Tai, the zoo's 15-pound male spotted leopard, but is not open to the public. Both cats are 5 years old.
"We do drills throughout the year for this very type of situation," Gibbons said. The zoo reopened at 7:40 a.m.
It was not immediately clear yesterday what might have happened if the zoo's emergency alert system had not worked so well.
Clouded leopards, according to zoological Web sites, hunt small mammals, including squirrels, wild pigs, birds and even deer.
As zoo officials were dealing with the aftermath of the escape, they were also introducing a media contingent to three new arrivals: lions from South Africa, housed about three-quarters of a mile from the leopards. Beginning today, the public can view the lions, which number four, together with the one the zoo had already.
Clouded leopards, named for the cloud-like spots that mark their soft, gray fur, are among the best climbers in the cat family, according to the zoo's Web site. They can climb branches upside down or climb down from trees head-first, like squirrels.
The smallest of the "big cats," clouded leopards have the largest canine teeth relative to body size. This seems to support scientists' belief, based on DNA evidence, that the clouded leopard is related to the famed saber-tooth cat of prehistory.
The clouded leopard population in the wild is thought to be fewer than 10,000 and declining. The cat is native to parts of Southeast Asia.
Gibbons said it was no surprise that Mook did not venture far.
"Most animals know where they're most secure, and she associates that exhibit with security," he said in an interview on Washington Post Radio. "How she got on the wrong side of the fence -- that's something for us to look at."
Staff writers Paul Schwartzman and Martin Weil contributed to this report.