The cheetah on Monday scaled a wall at least 10 feet tall and got into a rocky area that separates animals from people at the River's Edge exhibit. The area was quickly evacuated. Twenty-seven minutes later, the cheetah was found, tranquilized and returned unharmed to its exhibit.
"We have no idea how the cat got up there," said Jack Grisham, vice president of animal collection for the zoo. "We have a million theories. It could have been the cats playing with one another and it made the lucky jump _ or unlucky jump."
The cheetah, a female named Zuri, weighs 40 to 45 pounds, Grisham said. She is one of four born on Nov. 10, 2006, at the zoo _ the first new litter here since 1992. One of the cheetahs died a month later. Zuri, her sister and brother continue to reside at the River's Edge, a popular 10-acre area of the zoo designed to look like the natural habitat for animals ranging from big cats to elephants and hippos.
Grisham said the incident began when a visitor noticed the loose cheetah and notified a zoo worker. Security workers cleared the River's Edge area and all visitors at the zoo were told to get inside a building.
Meanwhile, veterinarians and keepers raced in and found the cheetah. Grisham said the animal apparently never made a threatening move toward a patron.
Cheetahs are more docile than most other big cats, Grisham said. Still, "any wild animal could be a danger to the public," he said. "These animals are not pets."
The incident marked the third time since 2000 that a cheetah has escaped from an exhibit at the River's Edge. In both previous instances, changes were made to offer better protection to the public _ fencing was increased and a moat separating the animals and visitors was widened.
Zoo officials were still evaluating if additional changes need to be made. Grisham said a cheetah under normal circumstances shouldn't be able to jump to the top of a 10-foot fence.
"River's Edge is a very safe exhibit," Grisham said. "This is one of those freak things that happens."
Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in suburban Washington, agreed. He said the zoo will issue a report to the association about what happened. The association's Accreditation Commission will then determine if any changes need to be made to make sure another animal doesn't get out.
The cheetah is endangered throughout Africa. The zoo said that over the last century, the cheetah population has declined from 100,000 to fewer than 12,000, and the species has become extinct in at least 13 countries.
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