By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo will review its security procedures after a break-in early Tuesday that caused damage to property and animals.
“We’re looking at everything right now,” said park manager Lindsay Bullock. The park has remained open since the incident.
At least four people entered the sprawling complex on Coley Road through a heavy gate wired with electricity, according to park officials, who said it appears a vehicle was used to knock it down.
They traversed a field containing bison, giraffe and a yak before entering the main zoo, which contains numerous primates, exotic birds, a black bear, lion, kangaroo and other animals. Vulgar words and “2013” were spray-painted across property and the flank of a horse. Security video also shows young men trying to spray paint the lion.
They risked getting trampled or gored during the incident. They also left a gap in the fence where the grazing animals could have escaped into the general public.
“We’re fortunate that didn’t happen,” Bullock said.
Tupelo police on Wednesday and Thursday arrested four Tupelo High School seniors and charged them with felony malicious mischief in connection with the incident.
Tate Johnson, 18, of Meadow Ridge Drive is the only one charged as an adult. He was released from Lee County jail late Thursday on a $500 bond. The other three are 17 and have not had their names released. Because they’re juveniles, their identities and status aren’t made public.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was called after this week’s incident because it requires zoos to provide safe and secure housing for animals and to keep dangerous species away from humans. USDA found the park to be in compliance, said Sheila Franklin, the wife of park owner Dan Franklin.
A Daily Journal call to the USDA was not returned.
Records obtained by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service show the Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo received three “indirect” violations during a total of six inspections conducted in the past two years.
One resulted from an employee’s failure to properly lock an animal pen.
The others were for improper bedding storage and insufficient barriers at a hoofstock feeding area.
In addition to an electric perimeter fence enclosing the entire complex, the park secures most of its animals in private or communal pens that offer an extra buffer between them and humans.
The more dangerous animals, including the lion and bear, sit behind two sets of fences with a wide no-go zone in between.
Security cameras also record footage throughout the park.
This is the first time anyone has broken into the park, Franklin said. But it’s not the first time anyone has broken out.
Oliver the capuchin monkey famously escaped twice in 2007.
The park installed more complex locks after the second incident, and Oliver hasn’t escaped since then.
JB Clark contributed to this story. firstname.lastname@example.org