Great zoo escapes: confessions of a zookeeper

By Terry Boylan 1 June 2011
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With a 40-year career, zookeeper Terry Boylan has just about seen it all, including some amazing escapes.

ANIMAL ESCAPES ARE RARE EVENTS at Taronga. Nonetheless, keepers are well prepared for this unlikely incident and a zoo team is equipped with various duties to carry out if the animal escape alarm is activated: veterinarians with anaesthetic dart guns, security marksmen with firearms and general keeping staff with nets and other paraphernalia.

Contrary to what you would reasonably assume, most zoo animals are very reluctant to leave the security of their enclosures. I found this out one day when, as a junior keeper, I was assigned on rotation from the reptile department to assist with the primates.

Monkeys are mischievous at the best of times and none more so than crab-eating macaques. My task was to hose out their exhibit, which consisted of a huge circular pit surrounded by a high wall.

I entered the enclosure via a locked outside door, short tunnel and a final bolted door opening into the monkey pit itself. I realised that I didn’t have the right tap key to turn on the hose I had dragged in with me. I emerged again after carefully bolting the doors behind me and attached the hose to a garden tap outside the exhibit, foolishly throwing the end of it down into the pit.

Strolling nonchalantly back down to the outer door, I entered the exhibit again, just in time to see the last of our fifteen monkeys shinny up the hose and onto the concrete parapet encircling the pit.
From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to having the run of the zoo grounds.

For a moment I couldn’t quite take in what was happening; not two minutes ago the same monkeys were studiously ignoring my existence and lounging about in the sun. I raced back out the tunnel, bumping into Bruno, our Italian gardener, as I did so.

“Quick,” I said. “Contact switch – tell them the macaques are out. Hurry!” I had no time to take in Bruno’s quizzical reply as I clambered to the upper edge of the pit, where the hose still dangled accusingly.

“Hurry, Bruno!” I yelled down to the puzzled gardener. By this time the monkeys had run around the rim of the pit to the other side. Shouting and waving my arms in the hope I could scare them into returning, I ran over to their side only to have the monkeys run around the rim back to the hose.

This went on for about ten minutes. After we had completed three fun-filled circuits the monkeys decided that this game was a bit boring and, being a little intimidated by the incomprehensible noises and frantic windmill-like arm actions I was making, decided to slide back down the hose and into their enclosure.

Zookeeper Terry Boylan has been a zookeeper for over 40 years, including stints at the London Zoo and Melbourne Zoo, as well as Taronga.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I hastily hauled up the hose and strode back into the enclosure where the monkeys, now back in familiar territory, resumed their languid poses. Apart from my racing heart and heavy breathing, it was almost as if the whole episode had been a figment of my imagination.

Just then I heard a commotion and, looking up at the edge of the pit saw the entire animal escape team – including the marksmen – peering down with the utmost concern on their faces, “Where are they?” said Ted, our veterinarian, obviously alarmed. He was panting from running, as were the others.

“They’ve all jumped back in, Ted.” I said.

“The big cats are back in?” Ted barked back, with genuine puzzlement in his voice.

“Big cats? No. The macaques,” I said, now puzzled myself.

“Macaques! You mean to say you let the macaques out? Not the big cats?” A string of oaths rained down upon me.

It so happened that Bruno’s English was a bit scratchy and he had relayed my hurried request up to the main office as “Terry in monkey pit…says ‘big cats’ are out.” Understandably, pandemonium ensued. Funnily enough, my rotation period was cut short and I was back in reptiles the next day.

It comes as no surprise that because of their intelligence and dexterity, monkeys and the great apes (gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees) are the zoo animals most frequently implicated in escapes. The latter three are classified as dangerous, and if loose in the zoo grounds, they necessitate either shepherding the public into ‘safe houses’ or the complete evacuation of the zoo.

Great ape zoo escapes

Taronga has fortunately only experienced two escapes involving great apes. In 1972 a young female orangutan managed to climb onto the roof of the ape house after ripping up the floorboards of her enclosure. After spending a leisurely hour admiring the panoramic harbour view she was finally coaxed to return to her cage.

More seriously, back in the mid-1950s Koko, an ex-circus chimp, escaped from her enclosure. After sprinting through a thankfully deserted zoo she had leapt into the office manager’s little Ford Prefect car parked inside the grounds.

Chimps are smart animals. Koko herself had spent a lifetime in close contact with people before her increasing age made her unpredictable and dangerous, so opening and then closing behind her a car door presented no problem. No chimp is quite smart enough to joy ride a car through the zoo! Koko, perhaps frustrated at her lack of driving skills (or maybe she was a Holden girl at heart), decided to trash the Ford’s interior. I was told by one of the keepers present at this demolition that he was surprised at the number of car parts you’d normally expect to be non-detachable that became, in the hands of an excited and determined chimpanzee, quite the opposite.

Luckily, the window had been left wound down a fraction, which enabled the contents of a bottle of chloroform to be surreptitiously poured into the car. Although the window gap had been sealed with a cloth, more chloroform had to be obtained from the local chemist in Mosman before Koko was finally declared to be well over the limit. Comatose in fact!

Another athletic escapee was an entellus langur monkey. In 1967 it escaped from its Taronga enclosure – a huge pit with a central mound surrounded by steep walls decorated with cement bass reliefs of vines.

When it opened in 1956 it housed more than 50 of these monkeys, which in their native India are often seen bounding over rooftops or foraging for food in towns. The concrete vines, although protruding from the walls by only an inch or so, provided just enough of a toehold to enable one of these highly gymnastic monkeys to race around the walls, reminiscent of one of those motorcycle riders in the Wall of Death sideshow stunts, and catapult itself over the top and away through the zoo.

Moving swiftly via the treetops it managed to get into nearby Bradley’s Park, where it was eventually shot by zoo director Ron Strahan (this was in the days before Taronga acquired an anaethestic dart gun, or a vet for that matter).

Smarter than the average bear

Looking at the statistics for great ape escapes in zoos in the USA, which has more zoos than any other country in the world, it would seem that these animals are smarter than we credit. The new architect-designed zoo enclosures, with their emphasis on natural environments, are providing too many opportunities for apes to practise their Houdini skills.

Since 1990, for example, gorillas have escaped from 11 zoos in the USA, orangutans from 12 zoos and chimpanzees from 10 zoos. In all but a few of these cases the escapees were sedated by dart guns and returned to their exhibits without any injuries to human or beast.

However, in 2004 in Dallas Zoo, a 136-kilogram gorilla escaped and uncharacteristically attacked four people. A three-year-old boy was critically injured as a result of multiple bites to the head and chest, and from being flung against a wall. The gorilla was shot. In 1999 three chimps escaped from Salt Lake City Zoo. A keeper was attacked and lost two fingers, part of his nose and ear.

On the other side of the coin are instances where children have fallen into enclosures with gorillas and come to no harm. Most famously, this occurred in Jersey Zoo in 1986. A five-year-old child clambered atop the chest-high wall surrounding the zoo’s troop of gorillas and fell 3.6 metres into the enclosure.

The boy landed on a concrete parapet and was knocked unconscious. Jambo, the dominant male, sat near the boy, probably out of curiosity, and in so doing discouraged the other gorillas from approaching. After the gorillas were locked away the boy was rescued and made a full recovery. A statue of Jambo now stands in the grounds of Jersey Zoo as a memorial to the incident.

I wouldn’t have liked to be the keeper responsible for the error that, in 2009, allowed the mass escape of 30 chimps from Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom. Like a mob of unruly school kids, the chimps stormed an adjacent food preparation area to gorge on hitherto forbidden quantities of delicacies before being coaxed back into their exhibit.

Zoo animals outsmarting humans

All in all Taronga, through a combination of good luck and good zookeeping, has had relatively few animal escapes. On the odd occasion, however, animal capabilities have fooled even the experts.

In 1973 director Ron Strahan put out a press release stating that two freshwater crocodiles had been stolen overnight from the zoo aquarium. It made all the newspapers, television and radio broadcasts.
A zoo spokesman claimed that they would probably be smuggled out of the country and sold overseas.

Fortunately, if embarrassingly, both crocs turned up in the zoo the following day. They had not been stolen, but had escaped by scaling a 2.5-metre tall mesh fence, confounding even Strahan who “didn’t think it was physically possible for these animals to escape from their compound.”

In 1990 Taronga’s new clouded leopard exhibit opened. It included a feature now commonplace in zoos: high tensile steel ‘piano wires’. Thin and incredibly strong, they allow an almost unimpeded view of the caged inhabitants.

On being moved to their new exhibit prior to its official opening, the clouded leopards assiduously inspected every inch of their new home. Unfortunately, one of the wires had broken loose from its spring-loaded base without anyone knowing. The loose strand was just enough to allow one of these beautiful endangered animals to escape into a nearby massive concrete structure, replete with ledges, outcrops and crevices that formed the outside walls of the old lion and bear pits.

Although it was normally an inhabitant of Asian forests, this particular leopard made itself at home among the artificial rocky surroundings. After a day spent feasting on the numerous pigeons roosting on the structure, the leopard was discovered fast asleep on a ledge by a keeper who followed a trail of feathers. It was anaesthetised without fuss and returned to the hastily repaired exhibit and its less adventurous mate.

Luckily for Taronga Zoo’s Mosman neighbours, most zoo escapees rarely stray far from the home territory and security represented by their enclosures. The exception was one of Taronga’s himalayan thars or mountain goats. It bounded over the zoo’s 3m high stone perimeter wall after escaping from its rocky enclosure and made it as far as nearby parkland at Balmoral before being rounded up.

By far the most serious incident at Taronga occurred in 1946 when a Bengal tiger escaped from its enclosure into the zoo grounds. Luckily it wasn’t a busy day and the frightened but unhurt public were quickly rounded up and herded into the mesh enclosed empty seal enclosure. Unfortunately, in an era before the advent of anaesthetic dart guns, the fate of the tiger was sealed and it was shot dead.

Red panda mayhem

Apart from the above isolated, albeit serious, incidents and the odd bird taking flight from the open-air bird show, Taronga’s escaped animals list is thankfully pretty short. We did, however, have a red panda, Mayhem, who seemed to make a yearly event of escaping into the trees adjacent to her enclosure, giving the keepers below her a merry dance as they tracked her for an hour or two before coaxing her down. After a tree inside her large exhibit fell down one windy morning, Mayhem didn’t even require her considerable escape skills; the fallen tree trunk presented her with a perfect exit ramp over the low wall that separated her from the public.

Passing nearby, I was alerted by a woman who had rushed up to me in a panic to announce “the panda’s escaping”. I raced over to find Mayhem, still inside her exhibit, with her front legs on the lower part of the fallen tree, as if testing this convenient launching pad but not quite believing her good luck.

Having heard stories about how hard these diminutive cousins of the giant panda can bite, I thought it wise to first arm myself with a small branch as I approached. Throwing caution to the wind, Mayhem suddenly rushed up the trunk, seemingly intent on springing at me. An audible collective gasp arose from the assembled public. I adopted an en garde stance and jabbed the leafy branch at her. Momentarily taken aback, she steadied herself before appearing to launch herself at me again. Like an Olympic swordsman, conscious of a growing number of enthralled spectators, I skillfully jabbed the branch at her again and again. I was convinced her aim was to escape, even if it meant mauling me in the process. “Over my dead body,” I thought.

Just at that moment Rob, the panda keeper, arrived. Without so much as a thank you for containing the vicious beast, and disdainfully glancing at my makeshift rapier, he walked straight up to the panda. Mayhem, apparently only too happy to escape from the horror of the branch-wielding maniac, promptly leapt into his arms and snuggled against his chest.
The change in attitude from the public was instant.

As they now crowded in around Rob and the panda, making “oohing” and “ahhing” noises, I thought it wise to quietly slip away. Before I had a chance to do so a small child piped up and, in a loud authoritative voice tinged with disgust, announced to all and sundry: “Panda’s don’t bite.”

I expected Rob to contradict the budding David Attenborough but instead he grinned. Speaking to no one in particular, but looking at me, he said “Yes, everyone knows Mayhem’s a pussycat. Do you want to hold her, Terry?”

I declined. To be quite honest I’d had enough of pandas for one day, and it’d be just my luck to be bitten by a so-called non-biting animal, especially one I’d just duelled with.

This is an edited extract from Terry’s book The Keepers and the Kept: Confessions of a zookeeper published by New Holland.