Cougars' freedom short-lived
2 big cats escape from zoo, but are recaptured quickly
Two male cougars at The Zoo Northwest Florida had nearly three hours of freedom Tuesday afternoon when they escaped.
The cougars were recaptured with the use of tranquilizer darts less than 200 feet from their cages. No one was injured.
Gulf Breeze residents Jon and Diane Bicker reside a half- mile from the zoo on U.S. 98. They were driving to Navarre when they saw the collection of emergency vehicles. Zoo officials locked the entrance gate.
When they discovered cougars were on the loose, they grew excited.
"With us living just down the road, we don't want to see cougars in our backyard," Jon Bicker said. "It's getting kind of scary out here. It's wild."
H. Doug Kemper Jr., zoo executive director, said the cougars wiggled their way through a hole in their cage about noon.
Within 10 minutes, zoo visitors and staff were confined to the enclosed buildings.
Santa Rosa deputies set up a perimeter to secure the cats, which also are called Florida panthers or mountain lions.
One cougar, Mexica, got about 200 feet from his area before he was shot with a tranquilizer dart and captured.
The other cougar, Athula, was tranquilized 75 feet away but jumped into thick brush between the zoo and the zoo's adjacent 80-acre property.
An Escambia County helicopter located the big cat using heat-seeking sensors.
The cougars both are 2½ years old and each weighs 150 pounds.
The cage is nearly 20 years old. Although strong enough to hold zoo animals, two clips connecting the fencing had broken, according to initial reports. The fencing was going to be replaced within a few months, Kemper said.
Kemper said it's been an upsetting two days at the zoo.
"Much to my chagrin, we've had two episodes with cats in two days," Kemper said. "Don't these things come in threes? I sure hope not."
On Monday, a 19-year-old zookeeper was clawed on the arm by a leopard. She was not following protocol because she was in an unauthorized area at the time and wasn't with another person.
A buddy system is required when dealing with the large cats.
Besides the Escambia County helicopter, Midway firefighters, the zoo's veterinarian, the zoo's tranquilizer mobile unit and Santa Rosa deputies assisted in the search.
On Wednesday, the cats will be quarantined while the cage is inspected and repaired.
Before this week, the last zoo animal to escape was a kangaroo, who high-tailed it after Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16, 2004, Kemper said.
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