Recapturing Escaped Zoo Animals: Can Drones Help?

Law enforcement agencies across the nation have turned to unmanned aerial vehicles to track down and capture fleeing criminal suspects.  But some agencies have also found their drones useful for capturing a different kind of fugitive:  escaped zoo animals.

Last month, zoo officials in Scotland were searching for a rare Japanese macaque monkey that managed to escape from Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig, about 120 miles north of Edinborough.  The monkey was spotted in the backyards and gardens of nearby residents, scrounging for food and generally enjoying life outside of captivity.

Officials attempted to track the monkey’s movements with a pair of drones equipped with a thermal imaging camera that can identify missing persons in the dark, based on their heat signature alone.  But it took them nearly a week to zoom in on the macaque long enough to capture him.

“Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a position where we were confident we could bring him in safely,” Keith Gilchrist, who manages collections operations, said days prior to his capture.

Another problem was the weather.  The drone team encountered high winds which made drone flying precarious.  And many residents of the area needed to be advised to eliminate food and food waste from their backyards to keep the money from foraging to survive.

The macaque monkey, affectionately dubbed “Kingussie Kong,” is not the first to escape the Wildlife Park, which breeds a number of zoo animals on site.  In 2008, another Japanese macaque escaped but was never found.

Back then drones weren’t widely available.  A ground search, aided by helicopters, failed to locate the escapee.

These days many zoos either have their own drones – or can readily access them.

In Jupiter, Florida in 2018,  state Fish and Wildlife Commission officials used a pair of drones – on loan from the Florida Highway Patrol – to track and capture an escaped kangaroo.  The marsupial, named Storm, was seen hopping across roads, prompting a days-long search, which initially came up empty.

Finding an escaped kangaroo or a macaque is no easy task, wildlife officials say.  Unlike fleeing human suspects, many animals can survive on their own, even in sub-zero temperatures.  They can also hide and disguise themselves in foliage, escaping detection, in part by blending in with other local wildlife that might resemble the escapees.  Even thermal imaging cameras can encounter difficulties distinguishing them from other animals.

“It’s probably easier to find a needle in a haystack than a kangaroo in the [wild],” a Fish and Wildlife official told the Palm Beach Post.

Another problem is predators.  A macaque monkey or even a large kangaroo might become prey to a coyote or other wild animals and be killed before it can be rescued.  Time is of the essence.

Storm, the kangaroo, was eventually found and captured with additional help from a K-9 team on loan from the local Tequesta police department.  And earlier this year, Scottish officials were able to capture Kong after a prolonged search.

But it wasn’t easy.  The pursuit of Kong – which eventually included participation by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and local police – became a global sensation, with feature stories appearing in newspapers like the New York Times.

“You would think we were chasing an international fugitive instead of an innocent monkey,” one area resident told a Times reporter, after discovering Kong devouring birdseed from his backyard feeder.

Another local resident found Kong peering into her living room window and called the RZSS, which dispatched a drone team armed with tranquilizer guns.  The team subdued Kong and hauled him back to the Wildlife Park.

The earliest known use of a drone to recapture an escaped zoo animal occurred in July 2016.  A Carpathian lynx escaped from the Dartmouth Zoo in Devon, England, promoting a frantic search for the animal, which is endangered.

A ground search team cornered the lynx in a remote area outside the zoo but lost track of the animal when darkness fell.  Local police dispatched a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera and the lynx was found and tranquilized.

Zoo officials say the earlier a drone is deployed following an animal escape, the more likely recapture will occur quickly – and without incident.

In June 2018, two lions, two tigers and a jaguar briefly went missing from their enclosures at the EifelZoo in Lünebach, Germany.  Given the ferocity of the beasts, zoo officials feared the worst.  Local residents and school children were placed on high alert and told to stay indoors.

But thanks to a rapid drone deployment, the five animals were found — still roaming on zoo premises.  All were returned to their cages in a matter of hours.

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