Zoos have changed a lot over the last century. More recently, many have pivoted their focus to conservation, animal rehabilitation and education about wild ecosystems.
But regardless of the intent in keeping wildlife behind bars, some animals seem to feel that they would be better off free from their trappings. Some of these zoo escapes have captured the imagination of the public, while others are downright scary. Here are a few of the stranger zoo escapes in the past century.
1. Escaped Monkeys
In 1935, more than a hundred rhesus macaques escaped an enclosure on Long Island in New York state by crossing a moat via a plank left by a keeper. The macaques ran wild in the surrounding community, climbing on houses and blocking train tracks, according to a news article in the Evening Post. While some of the macaques returned to their enclosure voluntarily and others were captured, it’s unclear whether all of them came back.
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2. An Entire Pride of Lions
What could possibly go wrong during an overnight sleepover next to a pride of lions? In November 2022, Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia was running its “Roar and Snore” program, in which guests spent the night camping at the zoo. Everything was going fine until early one morning, when a male and four cubs broke through the fence and escaped their enclosure.
Luckily, the guests were rushed to safety, and the escapees were still behind another fence separating them from the humans. One cub had to be tranquilized first, but the others returned to their enclosure with a little encouragement from zoo keepers. The whole escape only lasted a few hours — but the guests who paid hundreds of dollars for the “Roar and Snore” experience got a little more than they perhaps expected.
3. The Orangutan Serial Escapist
A Bornean orangutan named Ken Allen may have been born at the San Diego Zoo, but the captive life was just not for him. Even as an adolescent, Ken — nicknamed "the Hairy Houdini" — would sometimes escape by unscrewing the bolts of his cage. He would even cover his tracks by closing the cage in the morning before anyone could see he had been out and about, according to Newsweek.
As an adult, Ken went on a famous streak of three high-profile escapes in 1985. He climbed out of his enclosure and set out to look at the other animals in the San Diego Zoo before being captured once again. He then escaped twice more in the following months, and again a few years later.
4. Gorilla Tactics
Ken Allen wasn’t the only primate escape artist in California. Evelyn, a western lowland gorilla who died in December at the age of 46, earned the distinction of having executed several jail breaks from the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. In 1986, Evelyn used teamwork to escape, jumping on the back of one of her co-conspirators to vault over a 12-foot wall, according to the Associated Press.
When zoo keepers raised part of the wall in response, Evelyn found a weak spot elsewhere, using the same male gorilla to get over. And these weren’t even Evelyn's first forays out of her enclosure — she had previously climbed over a wall using handholds left during renovations.
5. A Cobra on the Run
In 2011, an Egyptian cobra spent nearly a week on the lam after slipping away from keepers at the Bronx Zoo. The zoo closed down its "World of Reptiles" exhibit as a precaution, and the venomous cobra turned up six days later not too far away from its enclosure. The snake gained a sizable following during its escape via a tribute Twitter account, where someone continues to post as the cobra.
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6. Flamingos on the Loose
Most of the animals on this list were eventually recaptured. We can’t say the same for flamingos 492 and 347 at Sedgewick County Zoo in Kansas. The two greater flamingoes escaped in 2005 by catching a passing breeze while waiting to get their feathers clipped. They spent a few days taunting zoo keepers in a nearby marsh drainage area, until a thunderstorm sent them farther afield.
Flamingo 347 made it to Minnesota, then disappeared, according to CNN. Meanwhile, flamingo 492, originally from Tanzania, made its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Against all odds, the bird, since dubbed “Pink Floyd” by some, has survived there for at least 17 years —it was last captured on camera again in 2022.
7. The Fugitive Sea Lion
Cyril the sea lion’s name was changed to Slippery for a good reason. After escaping his enclosure at Storybook Gardens in London, Ontario in 1958, he made his way down the Thames River to Lake St. Clair. At some point, the sea lion managed to skip the country, crossing over the international border into the U.S. as he made his way down the Detroit River and into Lake Erie.
It took 10 days for a a zookeeper in Toledo, Ohio to finally capture Slippery. The marine mammal was repatriated to Canada with plenty of fanfare in the back of a station wagon, according to CBC News. He has since been immortalized by a statue in Storybook Gardens.
8. Rusty the Red Panda
Rusty the red panda is a relatively recent escapee on the list. Zookeepers first noticed Rusty was missing from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. early one morning in June 2013. A massive search campaign — both physical and virtual via social media — began, and Rusty cameos soon started to pop up in the nearby Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Fortunately, the red panda was found later that same day. While Rusty passed away in 2022, his escape was notable since he wasn’t even a year old when he orchestrated his breakout in the U.S. capital.
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