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Mook, a five-year-old cat who weighs 24 pounds, apparently escaped from the wire mesh-enclosed area overnight, zoo spokesman John Gibbons said.

A clouded leopard, like this female photographed at the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va. was discovered sleeping outside her enclosure along the new Asia Trail exhibit. (Ho - Reuters) 

Leopard Escapes From New Habitat at Zoo
Five-Year-Old, 24-Pound Cat Now Back in Enclosure

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006; 9:38 AM


The National Zoo was shut down for about 30 minutes early this morning after a clouded leopard was discovered lying along the new Asia Trail, just outside her enclosure, a zoo spokesman said.

Mook, a five-year-old cat who weighs 24 pounds, apparently escaped from the wire mesh-enclosed area overnight, zoo spokesman John Gibbons said.

She was reported safely inside the exhibit during evening rounds yesterday, Gibbons said. But when zookeepers returned o the area shortly after 7 a.m., 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 were shut and joggers and other early morning visitors were rounded up and escorted off zoo property, Gibbons said.

Meanwhile, animal keepers and veterinarians, armed with nets and tranquilizer guns, surrounded Mook, and anesthetized her with a dart gun. She was then taken into a building that is part of the enclosure she shares with Tai, the zoo's male spotted leopard, but is not open to the public.

"We do drills throughout the year for this very type of situation," Gibbons said. The zoo reopened at 7:40 a.m.

Gibbons said the spotted leopard habitat on the Asia Trail, which opened in October, is completely enclosed by wire mesh, affixed to a metal frame that stands 20 feet tall.

The enclosure will now be carefully searched to determine how Mook escaped, Gibbons said. Both she and Tai -- who is also five years old and weighs about 15 pounds more than Mook -- will remain indoors "until we are sure we have everything contained," he said.

Clouded leopards, named for the cloud-shaped 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 do.

Although they are the smallest of the "big cats," clouded leopards have the largest teeth relative to their body size. They are very good hunters who prey on birds, monkeys, pigs, cattle, goats, porcupine, deer -- even wild boar.

Based on DNA evidence, scientists believe the spotted leopard may be descended from the saber-toothed cats of prehistoric times. The exact number of clouded leopards living in the wild is not known, but the population is believed to be declining, and to number fewer than 10,000. The cat is native to countries of the Himalayas, southern China, peninsular Malaysia and Indo-China, Sumatra, and Borneo, the zoo Web site says. They are thought to be extinct in Taiwan and possibly Nepal.

Gibbons said zookeepers are not surprised that Mook did not venture far once she escaped from her enclosure.

"Animals tend to go where they feel most secure," he said in an interview on Washington Post Radio. "She associates that exhibit with security. How she got on that side of the fence -- we're going to be examining that."

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