DENVER — The Denver Zoo’s latest feline resident has been waiting in the wings for more than a year — first smuggled through the Denver International Airport on a commercial flight, then held as evidence in a federal investigation.
In April 2022, a video went viral when a cat escaped its carrier on a United flight to Denver, reportedly scratching and biting other passengers as it attempted to flee the flight.
What passengers didn’t know is that this wasn’t a regular, domestic cat — it was a wild Geoffroy’s cat and the person transporting it had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into.
Geoffroy’s cats are small, wild cats native to southern and central regions of South America. Although they have a similar size and appearance to domestic cats, they are a wild species and should not be considered a pet, according to a release from the Denver Zoo.
“[The cat] was flying with a person who didn’t know what they had,” said Rebecca McCloskey, carnivore curator at the Denver Zoo. “She wasn’t the owner, just someone who was transporting what she thought was a regular, domestic cat from point A to point B, from a breeder to a buyer.”
McCloskey said the person wasn’t originally scheduled to end their trip in Denver, but she lived in an apartment in the city. After having a difficult and painful flight trying to wrangle the cat, she decided to go home for the night and skipped the connecting flight.
That’s when she called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who reached out to both Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Denver Zoo for assistance.
Zoo employees, including McCloskey, attempted to help identify the cat through photos, relying on its shorter-than-normal tail, distinct color patterns and white spots on the back of its ears to peg it as a wild Geoffroy’s cat, McCloskey said.
The cat was fondly named Dia after the airport it was smuggled through and a play on the word diabolical from the viral video, McCloskey said.
Together, McCloskey and other zoo and CPW employees worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff to wrangle Dia from the apartment bathroom into a crate, where she was taken to CPW’s wildlife rehabilitation center pending an investigation into her previous owner.
After several months of harboring the wild cat, CPW reached out to the Denver Zoo for assistance in housing Dia while the lengthy investigation dragged on, the zoo stated in a social media post Thursday.
“Dia came to stay with us in December of 2022, but at that point she was still evidence in both a federal and state investigation so we had to keep her under wraps,” McCloskey said.
The zoo’s Animal Health and Care teams immediately jumped into action to make sure Dia had everything she needed at the zoo, including an appropriate diet, expert care and a safe home.
It wasn’t until September 2023 when the case finally resolved and the zoo was able to talk about their newest visitor, now on track for permanent residency.
At 71/2 pounds, Dia is smaller than the average housecat but just as lively.
“She just has the most confidence and the most personality,” McCloskey said.