Norma Martínez was at home last Thursday in the western Puerto Rican town of Mayagüez when she received a call from her husband, who was doing chores behind their house, asking her to join him.
“He was scared and amazed,” she said.
When she went outside, the couple found themselves face-to-face with a shaggy, brown, goat antelope with twisted horns that reached down its shoulders. The giant animal was near a fruit tree and dashed off.
Since it was “an animal that we don’t usually see on the street,” they drove off in their car to see if they could spot it again. Instead, they ran into a herd of natural resource officials trying to capture the creature, called an aoudad. Martínez has since spotted the mammal multiple times.
The adult aoudad escaped from Puerto Rico’s largest zoo, which has been closed since Hurricane Maria in 2017, on April 15. He has since been living in a mountainous, densely forested area of Mayagüez, evading capture from authorities and both delighting and terrifying town residents.
The herbivorous animal, who is approximately seven or eight years old, has been affectionately nicknamed “Rayo Veloz,” or Fast Lightning, by those who have seen him because of how quickly he can run. He was born in the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo in Mayagüez, but his species is native to Northern Africa’s dry mountains.
“You go looking for the phone because you are going to record it, it disappears,” said Martínez.
He is part of a herd of 31 aoudads living in the wildlife park and has stayed relatively close to the zoo’s fence since escaping, remaining near friends and family.
Rayo Veloz managed to escape from the zoo through a small hole in the zoo’s fence. The zoo’s fence has been damaged since Hurricane Maria, said Lynette Matos, president of the Fundación Salvemos el Zoológico, a philanthropic volunteer organization that supports the zoo.
“Upon entering is the forest, he makes the capture much more difficult because he is under all the vegetation and we do not know exactly where,” she said.
The Mayagüez Zoo is home to around 250 animals, including lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, monkeys, snakes, birds, and lemurs. In December 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $6.2 million for the wildlife park to undergo storm repairs.
Employees maintained a “constant monitoring” of the aoudad exhibit, said Gerardo Hernández, Undersecretary of National Parks. He added that measures have been taken to patch up Rayo Veloz’s escape hatch.
Now a team of professionals trained to capture animal escapees is searching for Rayo Veloz, setting traps and prepared to aim rifles that contain tranquilizer darts.
“They have been placing a series of cages that have sensors,” Hernández said. “Food and water are put in them. There are no active streams in that area. Therefore we understand that at some point he will try to find water.”
Emergency management officials have also sought Rayo Veloz out with drones.
It is not the first time an animal in the Mayagüez Zoo pulls off a Houdini act. In 2013, a female chimpanzee named Mara broke free from her exhibition, according to local media.
People have been advised to stay far away from the animal, and to call authorities immediately should they spot him. Despite his intimidating size, he appears to be nervous following his jailbreak. Rayo Veloz, who is not adept at city living, got stuck between a car and a wall and broke a window as he attempted to squeeze through. He also scraped the vehicle with his horns.
“The person has received guidance about the claims process,” Hernández said.
Mayagüezanos and Puerto Ricans across the island have taken to social media to chronicle sightings and to crack jokes of the escaped animal.
In one video where Rayo Veloz is walking down a paved path, an off-camera woman is heard telling her dad to try to bring him inside while officials come grab him.
“Are you crazy?” he responds. “What if it hits me with those horns?”
Martínez’s husband, Jaime Florenciani, had another close encounter with the aoudad in recent days. He said he was going down the hill of his house just as Rayo Veloz was walking up.
“Thank God there was a huge palm tree, and I covered myself with it so he wouldn’t see me,” he said. “In one moment I thought he was going to attack me.”
He estimates that the animal, who he said was as tall as him, came as close as eight feet.
“Then he ran off...and then stopped, turned his neck, looked at me to see if I was following him,” Florenciani said. “He kept walking until he reached the neighbor’s house.”
But the combination of his elderly neighbor’s screams—and her small, “Chihuahua-like” dogs’ yaps—shooed the caprid away.
Florenciani and Martínez both hope that Rayo Veloz is caught soon and that the zoo’s infrastructure is fixed so no more animals escape. The couple lives so close to the park they hear lions roaring and monkeys grunting from their house. However, they would prefer not to host other exotic animals in their backyard.
Still, they believe that Rayo Veloz has earned his title.
“If he hasn’t been caught yet, it’s for a reason,” said Martínez, laughing.