EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A colony of more than a dozen prairie dogs disappeared from the El Paso Zoo in 2021. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection report, it wasn’t discovered until they failed to emerge in the Spring of 2022.
The information was part of an open-source dataset detected by Stanford University’s Big Local News and the Data Liberation Project, which tracks animal-care inspections across the United States.
The USDA report from January 2023 indicates that an entire colony of black-tailed prairie dogs went missing around the same time as a 7-year-old slender-tailed meerkat named “Pink.”
The Zoo staff became aware the 14 prairie dogs were missing in March when they failed to appear from underground at the end of the colder season. Staff last reported seeing the prairie dogs before going underground on September 26, 2021. Zoo staff reportedly began searching for them, using camera equipment to explore the tunnels and burrows and finally excavating the underground passages.
Joe Montisano, Director of the El Paso Zoo, tells KTSM soldiers from Fort Bliss came to the Zoo and excavated the area by hand, “there are no bones, there’s no hair. So they disappeared.”
According to the report, no tunnels were noted to breach the exhibit enclosure, and no opening was found in the exhibit walls that would have allowed the prairie dogs to escape. None of the animals or their carcasses were found.
“We’ve done preventative measures, and now we’ll restock the exhibit. It is a mystery. It’s one of our zoo mysteries. One of our few zoo mysteries; we don’t have many,” Montisano said.
Zoo staff reported a feral cat had been seen around the exhibit around the time of the prairie dog’s disappearance, and the area is mostly uncovered. The report stated the zoo no longer uses the enclosure for any animals, and as of January 2023, they have not obtained additional prairie dogs for the collection.
The same USDA report states that a 7-year-old female slender-tailed meerkat named “Pink” was also reported missing from her enclosure on October 22, 2021. Pink was the only missing meerkat, and the remaining three in the exhibit were all accounted for. A search of the area and excavation of the enclosure proved fruitless, and Pink was never located. The remaining meerkats were moved out of the enclosure.
“Failure the provide enclosures that keep zoo animals contained and safe, and which are built to prevent entry of other animals from coming over or under walls or fences of the primary enclosure can lead to animal injury, escapes, and predation events,” the USDA report states. “The license must ensure that housing facilities are constructed in a manner and of such material and strength as appropriate for the animals involved; they must be sound and maintained in good repair to protect the animals from injury and to contain the animals. Enclosures should not only prevent zoo animal escapes but also effectively prevent predator access,” the report concludes.
The USDA gave the El Paso Zoo a deadline of February 20, 2023, to correct deficiencies in the enclosures to ensure none of the animals could escape and prevent outside predators from entering the enclosures.
On Monday, the USDA was on-site at the El Paso Zoo to inspect and approve exhibit improvements.
Montisano says they plan on repopulating the enclosure in the next 30 days, pending the outcome of a USDA inspection of enclosure upgrades.