Another mystery is brewing at the Dallas Zoo. As the Dallas Police Department continued its investigation into the escape of a clouded leopard
just over a week ago, it had to launch a new investigation on Saturday.
That day, the zoo notified DPD that one of its endangered vultures was found dead in its enclosure. The cause of death hasn’t been determined yet, but DPD is investigating it as suspicious. An autopsy will be performed on the bird as part of the investigation.
DPD didn’t have any more details to make public, but the zoo said in a statement on social media that the circumstances of the vulture’s death were unusual: “… the death does not appear to be from natural causes. ... Given the recent incidents at the Zoo, we alerted the Dallas Police Department. We cannot share many details until Dallas PD has had more time to look into this matter.”
At a press conference Monday afternoon, the zoo said it is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and indictment of whoever is responsible for the vulture's death. As for the cause of death, zoo staff would only say at the press conference that the vulture was wounded.
The dead bird was a 35-year-old lappet-faced male vulture named Pin. He’d been at the Dallas Zoo for 33 years and was one of four of his kind at the zoo. “Pin was much beloved by the bird department,” the zoo said. The bird sired 11 chicks that now live at the Albuquerque BioPark, Zoo Atlanta, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Cincinnati Zoo and the Dallas Zoo. Pin’s first grandchick hatched in early 2020 and now lives at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
The species, native to Africa and parts of the Middle East, gets its name from the folds of skin on its neck called lappets. Vultures play a critical role in consuming dead animals and preventing the spread of potentially deadly diseases throughout the environment. These vultures’ wingspans can reach up to nine feet, making them the largest in Africa.
“… the death does not appear to be from natural causes.” – Dallas Zoo
These birds live long and reproduce slowly. They are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are likely only 6,500 of them left in the world, according to the zoo. The greatest challenges these vultures face in the wild are poisonings by poachers and farmers, and habitat encroachment. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for this species is hosted by the Dallas Zoo.
Local environmentalist Ben Sandifer said there have been a number of animal welfare issues at the zoo over the years. Because of this and in light of recent events, he believes the zoo’s management should take a deeper look at the problem.
Sandifer said there have been a few instances at the Dallas Zoo in which animals have died or escaped their enclosures. One of the more tragic examples he cited was from 2004. That year, a 300-pound gorilla escaped and injured several people at the zoo before it was shot to death.
More recently, three giraffes at the Dallas Zoo died in October 2021. According to The Dallas Morning News
, a 3-month old giraffe named Marekani was euthanized earlier in the month after an irreparable leg injury. Two others, 19-year-old Auggie and 14-year-old Jesse, died within a week of one another later the same month. Based on the timing and autopsy results showing Auggie and Jesse both had liver damage, the zoo initially thought the deaths were related. But it was later determined the deaths weren’t connected. Auggie died of severe hepatitis and liver failure, and Jesse died of colon inflammation.
Even more recently, five of the zoo’s western lowland gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 in February 2022, according to WFAA. All of them were asymptomatic and were testing negative for the virus by the end of the month.
“There have been some animal care issues in the past there,” Sandifer said. “Every living thing eventually dies. … Your pet dog and cat don’t live forever. But in regards to some of the deaths here, I think there needs to be more of an introspective look with the city zoo management on how some of this is happening.”
“There have been some animal care issues in the past there." – Ben Sandifer, local environmentalist
Sandifer also wondered whether the vulture death would have even been newsworthy were it not for the recent, potentially criminal, escape of a young clouded leopard named Nova about a week before. Nova escaped through a cut in her enclosure on the morning of Jan. 13. It was found at the zoo after a daylong search. But DPD announced at a press conference that day it was opening a criminal investigation into Nova’s escape, adding that the enclosure may have been cut open. As of Monday, the criminal investigation into Nova’s escape was ongoing, according to DPD.
“Health and safety of the patrons of the zoo is real important, but the health, safety and quality of life of the animals are also top of the list,” Sandifer said. “Everybody likes to go to the zoo to see animals. They are captive, but you hope that they’re being treated well and that they’re living out their best life in captivity.”
With security cameras now at a relatively low cost, Sandifer said he’s surprised at the level of mystery behind the vulture’s death and the escape of the clouded leopard.
The zoo said in its initial statement that it was addressing some of these concerns with additional security cameras throughout the premises and increased on-site security overnight. “We will continue to implement and expand our safety and security measures to whatever level necessary to keep our animals and staff safe,” the zoo’s statement said.
Sandifer hopes these events will lead to better security and safety measures for the animals there, adding that he’s sure the animal care team at the zoo is heartbroken about the loss.
“You always have to find a bright side to all of this,” Sandifer said. “Hopefully it helps [the zoo] come up with a better flow chart of caring for animals and some generally accepted practices that are best for the species they have in their care and captivity.”