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Escaped Hogle Zoo leopard caught as guests sheltered in nearby buildings

SALT LAKE CITY — A leopard briefly escaped from its enclosure at Hogle Zoo Tuesday, prompting officials to shelter all visitors and employees inside the gift shop and other buildings.

A visitor approached the Asian Highlands Exhibit about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, shortly after the zoo opened, and spotted the 60-pound cat asleep on a wooden beam in a trellis just outside the enclosure it was supposed to be in, said zoo community relations coordinator Erica Hansen.

The woman turned back the way she came and alerted a nearby zookeeper, who confirmed that the leopard was loose and began notifying zoo personnel and herding guests into buildings for safety.

Zeya, a 4-year-old Amur leopard, was tranquilized while still asleep, said Nancy Carpenter, the zoo's director of animal health. The big cat sat up and looked around when the dart hit her, then laid down again until the tranquilizer began to take effect.

That's when Carpenter said Zeya lowered herself down 8 to 10 feet into a garden area where she fell asleep again. Claw marks from the big cat were still visible on the beam when the zoo reopened.

"She actually cognizantly held on with her claws until she dropped down," Carpenter said. "These are cats. They land on their feet."

The leopard was safely in a crate by 10:30 a.m. and was expected to sleep the rest of the day. With Zeya contained, zoo officials reopened the front gates to the applause of onlookers who had waited in line rather than going home.

Hansen emphasized the speed and coordination of zoo staff in securing all guests and other employees within minutes Tuesday. The leopard's escape, however, was unquestionably dangerous, she acknowledged.

"It's a real situation, there's no doubt about that," she said. "But our staff is trained for it, and we do drills throughout the year and so we were ready. We responded in a real calm, professional manner."

Zeya was where she as supposed to be inside the Asian Highlands Exhibit when zookeepers conducted their morning checks at 7 a.m., Carpenter said. It is unknown how the leopard escaped or how long she was loose before she was spotted two and a half hours later.

Zoo officials expected to spend the rest of the day Tuesday trying to discover exactly how the leopard escaped her enclosure, which is surrounded on all sides by steel-grade mesh.

There weren't many guests in that area of the zoo, which is on the park's far side, when it was discovered Zeya had escaped, Hansen said.

Staff members instituted a lockdown by ushering guests and zoo workers to the nearest buildings, Hansen said, sheltering guests in the gift shop, restrooms, a restaurant, and in other buildings and exhibits while the zoo's Emergency Animal Response Team attempted to recapture Zeya.

Diggy Hicks-Little and Sander Jones — who are visiting from Guildford, England, with their 1-year-old son — were approaching the Asian Highlands Exhibit when zoo officials hurried toward them and urged them into the zoo's small animal house. Inside, they spoke with the woman who reported the escaped leopard while zoo staff guarded the door with mops and brooms.

"That poor lady, you don't expect that. She said it was just lying still and it wasn't moving, and she thought, 'That doesn't look right,' and then, 'It should probably be on the inside,'" Hicks-Little said. "We're lucky she spotted it, really."

The group of about 30 people, including at least 15 small children on a field trip, waited in the building for nearly an hour before they were told it was safe to leave, Jones said.

"It kind of started pretty exciting, and then after that 40 minutes, it was more like, 'This is pretty boring,'" Jones said.

The couple said that, despite the urgency of the situation, everyone remained calm and zoo staff helped guests feel safe.

Up near the zoo's entrance where larger crowds were streaming in, the alert sent guests hurrying into nearby buildings. Steve Jones, of Salt Lake City, was visiting the zoo for a family reunion and was rushed into the Beastro restaurant.

The cafe was filled to capacity, but Jones said everyone was calm and there was never a sense of panic or feeling unsafe.

The group suspected early on that the emergency was due to an animal "that was where it shouldn't be," he said. It wasn't until they had been in the cafe for about 30 minutes that a manager told them a leopard was loose.

Meanwhile, Katie Boender, who was chaperoning a group of children under age 4 on a field trip from Compass Preschool and Child Care, hid in a nearby women's restroom. Boender and the four children from the day care, as well as Boender's own 15-month-old son, were separated from the group of about 90 people during the lockdown.

Boender said she entertained the children with games, snacks and talking about the animals they would see at the zoo once the lockdown was lifted. The group had no intention of canceling or abbreviating their trip.

"We just kind of hung out for a while, it was just us," Boender said.

Several guests locked inside the zoo documented their experience on social media, including Twitter user @Patro85, who compared the gift shop to the "Jurassic Park" movies.

"I've seen Jurassic Park/World. This situation never ends well for the guests …," one tweet read.

Another tweet, from user @paulcherrington, quipped: "Is letting animals out of the cages part of HogleZoo's 'Zooprises' campaign? Well played cause no one would expect that."

Meanwhile, a parody Twitter account under the handle @HogleZooLeopard was created, purporting to document the big cat's thoughts about the escape.

"I didn't say I would go far. Just wanted to sleep someplace new," read one tweet from the fictional account. Another joked, "Anyone know where I can buy a giant ball of yarn? Like, Costco sized?"

Zeya is an Amur leopard and was born May 22, 2012, at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation in England and arrived at Hogle Zoo in October, according to the zoo's website.

Zoo patrons say the animal has been hesitant to come out into the public exhibit area and has had a hard time adjusting to crowds.

Even though the sleeping leopard didn't appear to pose an immediate danger to anyone Tuesday and doesn't generally have an aggressive temperament, the zoo's vet noted she could still be dangerous to humans, especially a small child.

Hansen called the big cat "extremely rare," noting Zeya was brought to the zoo in hopes of breeding her with a male Amur leopard named Dimitri. The zoo's website says it is estimated that there are fewer than 40 Amur leopards left in the wild.

The last time an animal escaped at Hogle Zoo occurred in March of 2011 when four spider monkeys escaped from their cage. It began when one monkey climbed onto the trees above its exhibit through a hole. The remaining three soon followed the leader and escaped as well. Zookeepers were able to coax them back in their cage with bananas and fruit within a few minutes.

In May of 2006, a gray wolf jumped over the barbed wire fence around its enclosure at the zoo and was on the run for more than an hour while the zoo was evacuated.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com; preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam