Dr. James “Jay” Joyce loaded his dart gun and fired, sending a dart into the zebra’s rump. But the beast still stood, even after another dart stuck into his skin.
Joyce, owner of Total Equine Veterinary Services in Leesburg and a nine-year U.S. Navy vet, had the unique opportunity on Nov. 28 of chasing down a pair of zebras that had escaped from the Leesburg Animal Park.
This wasn’t altogether unfamiliar territory for Joyce. He spent three months at Kruger National Park in Africa, dangling out of helicopters while wielding a dart rifle. In that job, Joyce was working as part of a buffalo tuberculosis study and the team routinely had to drop buffalos via tranquilization for study.
In Africa, wild exotic game is the norm. In Leesburg, not so much.
Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Kraig Troxell said that the zebras had escaped the animal park around noon.
Soon after, Joyce and his team was contacted by the Leesburg Animal Park, and he was headed to the scene.
“We just drove out there, and the Sheriff’s Office was already there, and Animal Control was already there, and half a dozen other people and the zebras just standing,” Joyce said. “We kind of walked up to them and they just bolted.”
Joyce said that zebras have a comfort zone that’s “pretty big,” and started to devise a plan to drive the animals back towards the park.
“We had hoped they would get familiar and just run back in,” Joyce said. “But that’s not what they wanted to do.”
What happened next became a wild goose chase, as the zebras scampered through neighborhoods, easily navigating around homes without fences.
At one point, someone suggested to Joyce that they might have to shoot the zebras to stymy a growing public safety threat as emptying schools and rush hour loomed.
“We saw little kids, and soccer moms, people taking cell phone pictures and everyone peeking out their front door as the zebras ran across,” Joyce laughed.
“There goes a zebra, and there goes a zebra, and there goes a guy chasing him with a dart gun, and there goes his technician, and there goes Animal Control and there goes a bunch of cop cars.”
Eventually, they were able to chase the zebras to a more secure location, away from roads and with some fences blocking off escape routes.
What happened next was straight out of an old video game as a chain of people, including Animal Control staff, employees of Leesburg Animal Park, Sheriff’s deputies and curious neighborhood bystanders, moved inch-by-inch to cut off sections of the grass, containing the zebras in a grid.
“All the people wound up helping, it ended up being really cool,” Joyce said.
Back to the zoo
Once the zebras were contained to a basic area, Joyce was able to load up a dart and fire tranquilizer syringes into the zebras to slow them down. As the chain of people continued to move closer, the group was able to herd the animals onto a trailer, to be safely returned to Leesburg Animal Park.
“Once we had them onboard, everybody broke into a cheer,” Joyce said. “There was a lot of high-fiving and fist-pumping going on.”
Joyce knew he was the right man for the job as soon as he got the call.
“Who else could they have called that could show up in a short time, who had game capture experience, who had a dart gun and who has the leadership ability to move all those people the right way,” Joyce said.
Sometimes animals escape, as Loudoun County was reminded last April when a serval – which resembles a small cheetah – named Nairobi escaped from Leesburg Animal Park and was eventually hit by a car. The animal was later recovered.
Despite all the excitement in Leesburg, this story had a happy ending – for Joyce, the zebras and Leesburg Animal Park.
Joyce is keeping his phone on in the future.
“For sure, I think I will receive similar calls, absolutely,” he said. “From Leesburg Animal Park and Animal Control.”
For now, though, it’s back to those equines without stripes.