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Nova's great escape: Clouded leopard found after leaving Dallas Zoo habitat

Search continues for clouded leopard at Dallas Zoo
Search continues for clouded leopard at Dallas Zoo 04:03

UPDATE 1.14.2023: The Dallas Zoo said Saturday that Nova spent the day in the habitat with her sister Luna while several guests stopped by to give her well-wishes. Vets said that Nova shows no signs of injury and has already settled back into her routine.

UPDATE 1.13.2023: A clouded leopard named Nova, who escaped her enclosure at the Dallas Zoo was found after a day of searching by both zoo officials and the Dallas Police Department. She is unharmed and under evaluation by their veterinary staff. She was found near her original habitat just after 5 p.m. 

DALLAS (CBSNewsTexas) - The Dallas Police Department has opened a criminal investigation into the disappearance of a 20-25 pound clouded leopard named Nova from the Dallas Zoo. 

"When we initially responded to the location on a report of a missing clouded leopard, we first dispatched our SWAT officers out here... not clearly understanding what a clouded leopard was. We were thinking perhaps a big cat," Dallas Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Warren Mitchell said at an afternoon press conference. "And after investigating, it is our belief that this was an intentional act."

Meantime, the zoo remains closed and on Code Blue status as the search continues for Nova. 

"While I wouldn't put it past her to hunt squirrels or birds given the opportunity, she is absolutely not a danger to humans at all," said Harrison Edell, Dallas Zoo's executive vice president for animal care and conservation. "If you happen to see a cat that's bigger than a housecat, but smaller than a bobcat, please call us."

Calling Nova "non-dangerous" in a tweet, the zoo said that as of this morning, she was unaccounted for. 

"The zoo is closed today as our teams work to find and recover the animal. Given the nature of these animals, we believe the animal is still on grounds and hiding."

Nova's habitat is located in the Zoo North area of the zoo not far from the Children's Zoo. It's in between the Prime Meriden Cafe and Primate Place, across from the tigers and tortoises in the northeast area of the zoo. 

The frantic search for Nova led to zoologists finding a tear in the mesh of her two-story habitat. They said she's likely "hunkered down" in a tree somewhere on zoo grounds. 

"We don't think she has gone very far. She is likely to stay linked to home as she and her sister Luna are attached at the hip," explained Edell.

Dallas Zoo

Clouded leopards are from Southeast Asia but Nova is a native Texan. She came to the Dallas Zoo from the Houston Zoo where she was born alongside her sister. 

Often called the "smallest of big cats," the clouded leopard isn't directly related to regular leopards, according to the Smithsonian's National & Zoo Conservations & Biology Institute. Males weigh up to 50 pounds while females are significantly smaller, usually 25 to 35 pounds.

Nova's great escape isn't the first time an animal has escaped its habitat at the zoo. 

In 1998, a 25-year-old zookeeper was mauled by a gorilla at the zoo after the door to the animal's cage was left open.

In 2004, a 300-pound, male gorilla named Jabari cleared a 16-foot wall and mauled four people, including a toddler. It was reported a group of children taunted Jabari before he broke free. Holding a pair of white children's sandals, Jabari got within 15 feet of two tactical officers before they opened fire, killing him. 

In 2010, another gorilla named Tufani escaped a holding area when a worker left a door open. Tufani never got into a public area.

The following year, in 2011, the zoo declared a Code Red when an adult chimpanzee named Koko escaped through an unsecured gate in what authorities called a sort of "bedroom" area. She was shot with a dart gun in a hallway and sedated. 

Dallas police have deployed drones with infrared capability and zoo workers are checking surveillance footage in hopes of finding Nova. 

Even though Nova is a small cat -- not a lion or tiger -- she still has claws and sharp teeth. Thus, both Edell and police warn not to approach should you come across this unique, endangered animal. 

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