Members of a Lancaster church led authorities to the home where two monkeys taken from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday, the family who runs the church told The Dallas Morning News.
Tonya Thomas, whose father is the pastor of the Family Center Church of God in Christ in Lancaster, said two emperor tamarin monkeys missing from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday evening inside their community house, next door to the church, after her family tipped off Dallas police.
She said police also found other animals inside the home, including birds, cats and possibly chickens. The house, in the 2500 block of Gerry Way Street just south of Wintergreen Road, is about 20 minutes from the Dallas Zoo.
“I was just shocked,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think somebody would go as far as to go to the Dallas Zoo and take monkeys and bring them to this location.”
Although police haven’t announced any arrests, the family’s tip was a major development in the mystery at the Dallas Zoo that has deepened over the last several weeks. It followed an unprecedented string of incidents, including other missing animals, torn enclosures and the unusual death of an endangered vulture.
The first incident took place Jan. 13, when a 4-year-old clouded leopard named Nova escaped from her enclosure after the mesh surrounding it was cut. She was found hours later near her habitat, unharmed. The day after she escaped, officials revealed a similar cut was found on an enclosure of langur monkeys, but all of the langurs were in their habitat and accounted for.
About a week later, a 35-year-old endangered vulture named Pin was found dead, and zoo staff quickly declared it “unusual.” After the zoo’s veterinary team conducted a necropsy — or an animal autopsy — they said the bird was found with a “wound,” but declined to expand on their findings because of the ongoing investigation.
Zoo officials discovered the emperor tamarin monkeys, Bella and Finn, were unaccounted for in their habitat Monday morning, and said it was immediately “clear the habitat had been intentionally compromised.” Police said the habitat was cut.
Police said Tuesday evening they received a tip the monkeys might be in an abandoned home in Lancaster, and they found Bella and Finn there in a closet. Thomas said the home isn’t abandoned — it belongs to their church, but was boarded up to prevent break-ins while they tried to raise funds to bring the house up to par.
Thomas said her family suspected unusual activity at the community house since just before Christmas. One Sunday, when they went to attend services at their church, her family noticed the door to the community house, normally locked shut, was wide open. Her father, the pastor, walked over and heard music and other noises.
They called police, but by the time officers arrived, no one was inside the home, Thomas said. Police found blankets where someone appeared to be sleeping, as well as canned goods, she added. Animals were also inside the home, including chickens, pigeons, birds and cats, Thomas said.
The family said the house also had no electricity and was cold inside. Authorities and animal control officials cleaned out the house, she said, and the family locked it again.
Thomas said they never saw anyone entering or leaving the community house. But the family suspected the first break-in may have been someone who lived in the area and visited the church before based on “his behavior when visiting our services and other events held at the church.” She said he was a nice, young man, but had acted off.
“We didn’t know for sure who it was,” she said. “We just knew somebody had broken into the house and destroyed it and brought all these animals in there.”
It wasn’t until Dallas police released a photo Tuesday of a man believed to have information about the missing monkeys from the zoo that the family pieced it together. The department shared surveillance images of a man and said detectives were looking to speak with him, but added that “he is not a person of interest currently.” Dallas police reiterated Wednesday the man is not a person of interest.
The man looked like the person who attended their church, Thomas said. Her siblings texted the photo to the family and wrote, “Hey, does this guy look familiar to y’all? Is this the guy that’s been in the neighborhood, around our church?”
“We were all like, ‘Yes, that’s him!’” Thomas said.
Thomas’ sister, Winter E. Ross, called police. A Dallas police call log shows officers responded to the address Tuesday about 4:05 p.m. Police later released a photo showing one of the missing monkeys inside the closet of a home. Ross said her family was “very shocked.”
“We only knew we had seen a lot of other stray animals in the house and that we had never actually been able to catch him while he was in there,” Ross said. “Our family talked about it and even joked about it. ... We were totally shocked but relieved the monkeys were safe and unharmed.”
The monkeys were secured and taken back to the zoo Tuesday night, where they were examined by the zoo’s veterinary staff. In an update Wednesday afternoon, the zoo said besides “losing a little bit of weight, they showed no signs of injury.”
Since they were taken off zoo grounds, the zoo said Bella and Finn must undergo a quarantine period before they can be reintroduced to their habitat.
“We cannot thank the Dallas Police Department enough for their quick response and assistance in locating the tamarins,” the zoo said in a tweet. “We are pleased that video from our surveillance cameras — which we shared with Dallas PD — seems to have been critical in generating a tip that led to the recovery of the tamarins.”
Police did not release any information about the other animals Thomas said were found inside the home.
Thomas said she’s glad the animals are safe, and the family’s hope now is that authorities find the man. The family planned to provide summer youth programs and daycare at the community house once they raised enough money, but they now anticipate the facility is destroyed, Thomas said.
If awarded the $25,000 offered by the zoo for information leading to an arrest or indictment, she said the money would go toward fixing the facility to turn it into a place that can serve the community.
But for now, she said, key questions remain unanswered: How and why did someone steal the monkeys and bring them to Lancaster?
“Who has a desire to go to the zoo and cut out animals and bring them to our house?” Thomas asked.