July 01, 2022

Great zoo escapes funny in retrospect

Asking zoos to talk about their greatest escapes is like asking doctors to tell you their funniest memories of accidental deaths.

But we know chaos lurks right around the corner, and that’s part of the zoo’s appeal, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not for the 78-year-old woman in South Carolina who, according to the local paper, was “knocked to the ground and rolled around like a ball” by a 100-pound escaped chimpanzee. The woman was hanging sheets on a clothesline last August when the chimp escaped from the Hollywild Animal Park. Despite a heart condition, the woman suffered only minor injuries.

In August 1982, a 420-pound Lowland gorilla got loose in the Ape House. Guns were at the ready (since “in our business, there’s a rule, and that is that if a human being is in danger, then there’s really no decision — the animal has to be shot”) and the zoo was evacuated. Meanwhile Oscar, the giant ape, was having a blast ripping pipes out of the wall. One small door stood between Oscar and outdoors. A backhoe was pushed against the door (at which point the gorilla pulled the doorknob out of the door) and Oscar was tranquilized from a loft area. No one was hurt.

Another time, two Japanese snow monkeys swam across a moat at the Columbus Zoo. Over seven months, they traveled about 100 miles, raiding vegetable gardens between Columbus and Cleveland before being caught. At the San Diego Zoo, Malaysian sun bears escaped four times over the course of about a year. During one outing, according to the Los Angeles Times, a 100-pound male named Ringo climbed up to a patio area, and onlookers, thinking this was part of a show, tried to “cozy up to Ringo.”

But the most famous zoo escape story of all comes from the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. In the predawn hours of July 17, 1969, a torrential downpour filled the polar bear moat. Seven massive bears, each capable of killing a 500-pound seal with one swat of a paw, swam to freedom. Keeper Jim Rowell remembers the incident and says, “It sounds funny now, but any time an animal escapes it can turn into a nightmare.” On the loose in the rainy darkness, in a zoo filled with prey animals, the bears, who then were accustomed to being fed by zoo visitors, padded up to a concession stand. They ripped open ice-cream chests and emptied the cash register. After gorging on chips, marshmallows and ice cream, they were herded back into their enclosure by a pickup truck and a Volvo and a few shotgun blasts.

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