On Tuesday, police entered an abandoned house in a Dallas suburb and found two missing emperor tamarin monkeys that had disappeared from the Dallas Zoo. The theft of the monkeys on Monday was only the latest in a string of puzzling and alarming incidents at the zoo: A clouded leopard escaped and roamed the grounds; a fence was cut in a monkey enclosure; a lappet-faced vulture died under suspicious circumstances. What on earth is going on? And how can zoos protect themselves from humans with nefarious designs on the animals? I spoke to Jonathan Miot, director of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida—which was the victim of a thief who stole 11 animals in 2018—about how zoos protect their animals and why a perpetrator might want to steal a monkey. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dan Kois: When these stories about escaped and injured animals at the Dallas Zoo started appearing, to me it seemed like the Dallas Zoo was undergoing some kind of managerial breakdown. Like, what is going on there!
Jonathan Miot: The first stories, animals missing—escapes happen. They’re very rare, but they do happen. When there was discussion about damage to habitats, damage to enclosures and barriers—again, damage can happen. These are man-made structures that degrade.
But it would be unusual for all these things to happen at once, right?
At a facility like the Dallas Zoo, these things usually don’t all happen at once. So for me, personally, it brought back a lot of feelings. I absolutely felt for them, because I knew what they were going through. Our responsibility is to the animals. And when you feel like that faltered somehow, you feel personally responsible. But I’ll tell you something law enforcement here told me when this happened to us: You can’t blame yourself. You can’t stop people from doing abnormal things.
Why on earth would someone try to steal a monkey or a clouded leopard? Did they watch too much Tiger King?
We ask that all the time. Even with our case, we never got the answer. The individuals involved in our situation were found and prosecuted and held accountable, but what we never got was a why. We can speculate up and down the river. For our case, these were college-age individuals, and there was probably a showing-off situation, potentially a perceived monetary gain. And you know, sometimes people just say, “Oh, I would also like these animals in my own care, and they should be here.” I didn’t get an answer, and I wish I had.
I tend to think of the security problem at zoos as breakouts, like when a gorilla at the Dallas Zoo leaped out of its enclosure in 2004 and injured three visitors. But are break-ins a common problem that a lot of zoos face? Do you plan and prepare for that as much as for a breakout?
Well, we should have done better. We assumed break-ins would be very rare. But we do a better job now, with hard-won experience. We’re a teaching zoo, so we train the next generation of animal-conservation professionals. Part of that is interacting with visitors and keeping an eye on them. You’re the eyes and the ears of the animals, in a way.
How can a zoo harden its security when there’s a threat like this? When you have a sense that someone is targeting animals over days or weeks?
It’s the same thing we dealt with. We also had multiple issues. And there are things you can do, but if someone’s motivated enough, they can probably work through it.
You can bring the animals into the buildings at night, but if someone’s highly motivated …
They can break into the buildings, yes.
Where I live in D.C., there was a recent enclosure breach, but the culprit was a fox, who killed 25 flamingos. I’m sure that was horrible for the zookeepers and the flamingos, but from a nature standpoint, I sort of gotta hand it to that fox. Is this a problem that zookeepers see regularly, and that you prepare for?
Absolutely. We have a perimeter barrier. What’s the point of the perimeter barrier? It’s to keep people out, to keep our animals in, just in case one gets out of its enclosure—but also to keep wild animals out. But animals are quite creative! Foxes are doing what foxes do. Raccoons climb right over barriers. It’s our job to plan for those things and protect against those things. The National Zoo—that’s a beautiful facility in a beautiful area, a wild area. It’s not through some fault of theirs that this happened. Animals are creative. A predator is exceptionally creative.
I’m sad for the keepers, the animals, the institution. But are you mad at the fox? It’s hard to be mad at the fox.
What animals were stolen from your zoo in 2018?
We had tortoises, turtles, a skink—that’s a large lizard—and a squirrel monkey that were taken.
Were all the animals recovered?
We didn’t get one box turtle and one gopher tortoise back. The police retrieved the rest, and they were fine. The two that we didn’t retrieve, we assume—we didn’t get an answer—that they were released, they were let go.
That must have been difficult for the students and the staff at the zoo.
It felt like a personal violation. We felt as if we were personally attacked. The keepers and the students were very upset. Luckily, we’re at a college, so there was support staff—counselors came over to talk to the students. And people said, “Oh no! The squirrel monkey.” But we’re impacted by all of those animals.
Not just the cute, furry ones.
Our keepers are just as bonded to the turtles and tortoises and the skink. And I think some people thought, Oh, they’re native to Florida, they’re gonna be fine. But they were on medication. We were rehabbing them. They had daily issues that they needed daily medication for. Look, we all do this job because we love the animals. We love the animals, and we want you to love the animals.
But keep your hands off the animals.
We have the animals so you can care about them—but we’re the ones who care for them. If you want to get your hands on an animal, I would encourage you to go to your local shelter and adopt a pet. Those animals need you.
Or you could enroll in the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo!
Yes, you could live the dream! But just remember, our students, conservation professionals, they’re not snuggling up with the squirrel monkeys. We keep our hands off too.