Just three days after she had arrived at the Auckland Zoo in Western Springs, a large, female predator was noticed to be missing from her enclosure.

Unseen, the stealthy leopard from India had seemingly slipped through the bars covering her enclosure and out of the zoo.

Late workers took taxis home, windows were closed, mothers feared for their babies - the city was on edge for weeks after the animal's escape in September 1925.

The leopard that escaped from the zoo found drowned in the Harbour. Photo / File
The leopard that escaped from the zoo found drowned in the Harbour. Photo / File

This was less than three years after the Auckland City Council-owned zoo had opened and just one year since the escape - and recapture - of a young sealion.

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Newspaper readers' fears had been primed by an Indian report of a man-eating leopard being killed, but only after - so the story went - it had done away with 125 people in seven years, often having entered its victims' homes at night, carrying them off into the jungle.

Auckland's new leopard measured 1.85m long, including her tail, and she was said to have a "nasty temper", unlike the "extremely tame" male leopard at the zoo.

The first news report of her escape, in the Auckland Star on September 17 - three days after her absence was first noted by zoo staff - emphasised that humans need not be alarmed, although a hungry leopard might pose a threat to local dogs, cats and poultry.

Such assurances fell on deaf ears.

A Herald correspondent signing herself as "Mother" said the mothers and children of "the Ranges" - presumably the Waitakere Ranges - were afflicted by a "reign of terror".

"Children of a timid temperament will no longer go to bed alone, will not have their windows or their doors open. Children no longer may sleep on verandahs or sleeping porches.

"One mother has a slasher always at hand; another carries an axe; yet another has a loaded gun."

Men armed with guns and clubs repeatedly searched in the vicinity of the zoo and the wider area. The strongest evidence of the leopard's presence was at a tannery - an animal-hide processing plant - near the zoo. It appeared the leopard had fallen into a vat of toxic tanning liquid and left footmarks leading through the building and out to the surrounding vegetation.

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Herald report on the leopard's escape, September 18, 1925. Source: National Library

Claims were soon made of a series of sightings of the leopard and her footprints, and a usually-present cat and seven hens were said to be missing.

These reports were from properties about 2km from the tannery, in the northeastern quarter of Mt Albert: Malvern Rd, St Luke's church and vicarage, the property opposite on New North Rd, the Baptist chapel, and Salisbury (now Sainsbury) Rd.

Herald agent J. Delugar was leaving "Rhodesia", the house of J. Ferriday opposite the church, when from a distance of about 10m he spied the leopard. Virtually hidden, she was eyeing him up from the long grass.

Delugar stood for a moment, then took a step towards her. The animal moved off in a leisurely fashion towards a hedge and vanished without moving a twig.

That afternoon, R. Williams, a coal carrier, spotted the leopard crossing Salisbury Rd, 6m in front of his vehicle, before she headed towards a nearby quarry and disappeared.

"It moved like lightning, crossing the street in about five bounding leaps," Williams said.

The leopard was found drowned in the harbour, after possibly getting stuck in the mud of Motions Creek. Photo / NZH Archive
The leopard was found drowned in the harbour, after possibly getting stuck in the mud of Motions Creek. Photo / NZH Archive

Under pressure to recapture the potentially dangerous animal, the council posted a reward for her return: £20 ($2424 today) alive, £10 dead.

However, it was not until October 11 - 27 days after she was last seen - that the leopard was found, floating and drowned, about 50m off Karaka Bay beach in Glendowie.

Four young St Heliers men had found her while they were fishing from a boat. A large crowd formed when they landed her at their home beach.

The zoo's curator, L. T. Griffin, believed the leopard became stuck in the mud of Motions Creek at the back of the tannery, got caught in the rising tide and was washed out into the Waitemata Harbour.

Under threat of losing the zoo's leopard licence, the council said it had thoroughly investigated the escape. The outer cage's bars were mostly 11.4cm apart, including overhead where they met the back wall, the town clerk said in a report to Internal Affairs.

"There is, however, one small place where the bars meet the wall and where the width of the bars expands to 5-in [12.7cm]. This is the only place it is considered the animal could possibly have forced its way through, but this is very much doubted. Steps are now being taken to have the top portion of the cage lined with heavy netting."

Other zoo escapes:

• 1917 - A lion cub ventured out of the Royal Oak Zoo in Onehunga. Chased by a cow, it took shelter in a hedge and was lassoed and returned.

• 1924 - A young sealion fled Auckland Zoo. Recaptured in Whau Creek.

• 1967 - Two tigers escaped from Wellington Zoo after their enclosure's door was not closed properly. Both were shot dead.

• 2004 - An Auckland Zoo elephant, Burma, dropped a log on to an electric fence and walked into neighbouring Western Springs park. Staff walked her back to the zoo 25 minutes later.

• 2006 - Jin the otter was free for 26 days after escaping from Auckland Zoo.

• 2014 - A cheetah cub at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch swam a moat and entered a public area after an electric fence was turned off because of flooding. Staff quickly returned the animal to its cage.