The Great Escapes

Check out this post with Moxie LaBouche author of Your Brain on Facts

In 1935, on Long Island, NY, an employee of Frank Buck’s Jungle Camp Animal Park left a plank of wood across the moat surrounding an enclosure of rhesus monkeys. The plank escaped the notice of the worker, but not that of a monkey named Capone. In an arguable moment of nominative determinism, Capone broke the rules and escaped. He not only escapes, he took 172 of his cohorts with him out of the park and into the woods. As the troop crossed a set railroad tracks, the wave of small monkeys chased away a pair of workers and brought the train to a dead halt. My name…

If you’ve been staying inside as much as possible these past few months, much easier to do now that the summer heat has set in, you’re probably anxious to fly the coop. Animals who can fly should be getting out of zoos all the time, it would stand to reason. Usually, they’re in an enclosure with netting across it, or they’ve had their wings clipped. That’s a process of trimming off a bird’s largest flight feathers, so they can’t get enough lift when you flap, which I’m going to have to do with my chickens if they don’t knock off free-ranging themselves. Birds generally stay in captivity well, but of course there are exceptions to the rule or I wouldn’t have brought it up.

In 2005, an African flamingo managed to get away from the Sedgwick County Zoo where it lived in Kansas. A massive search was launched, but Sebastian the crab’s back-up singer couldn’t be found…until 2013, when he was spotted 650 miles away on the Gulf Coast of Texas, among a flock of wild local flamingos. A bird watcher named Neil Hayward was able to confirm the flamingo’s identity by the numbered band on its leg and offered to help recapture it. The zoo essentially said, I’m not even mad, I’m impressed and told the folks in Texas to leave the flamingo to his new life, with a mate who had herself escaped from a Mexican nature reserve.

Anyone who’s dealt with a parrot knows they’re too clever by half and that certainly applies to Chuva the macaw, a resident of Vancouver Zoo’s Parrot Gardens. Even though the Zoo had taken all precautions to prevent the Chuva from escaping, it seemed that the clever girl was hell-bent on getting out. On a pleasant spring day in 2009, zoo staff has moved the parrots to an outdoor enclosure. A little while later, their head-count came up short. The keepers weren’t panicked; all the birds had their wings clipped, so how far could Chuva have gotten? Surprisingly far, considering she hitched a ride on an RV. Chuva got into a compartment near the vehicle’s engine bay and hung out for three days before the family in the RV found her. Luckily, they were on a more sedentary part of their vacation and had only gone 20 miles, so it was barely out of their way to take what I’m assuming was a very annoyed parrot back to the zoo.

Anyone who’s watched a jailbreak movie knows that you won’t get far without stealing a set of wheels. Try to imagine the end of The Great Escape without that motorcycle jump. Even Juan the Andean spectacled bear at the Berlin Zoo knew that. In 2004, he rode a log across the moat that surrounds the bear habitat and scaled a wall to freedom. Now that he was out, he had to use his time wisely. First stop? The zoo’s playground. Terrified parents rushed their children away, while Juan had a jolly go on the merry-go-round and went down the slide. After getting bored quickly, Juan wandered off, only to find a bicycle in his path. When he stopped to examine it, perhaps to assess it as a get-away vehicle, the keepers who had put it there were able to tranq Juan and carry all 300 lbs/136kg of bear back to his habitat.

Big and potentially dangerous could also describe a gator named Chucky who got loose from Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in 2004 with help from Hurricane Ivan. Zookeepers hadn’t been able to evacuate the gators and the storm surge destroyed their enclosure, setting them free. Them, meaning plural gators, though only Chucky got any real publicity, probably owing to the fact that he was 12ft/3.7m long and weighed half a ton. It makes for better copy. Zoo officials weren’t as worried about Chucky going native as they were of Chucky going up to people, expecting to be fed as he had for the past 14 years, a situation that could get very ugly very fast. Luckily, a dedicated Alligator Retrieval Team from Gatorland in Orlando was able to catch Chucky less than a week later.

Some animals get by with a little help from their friends, or even from strangers. Three kangaroos staged a daring escape from Hochwildschutzpark Hunsrück wildlife park near Frankfurt, Germany by going *under the fence – thanks to the work of fox and wild boar accomplices. Skippy, Jack and Mick made it under the first fence of their enclosure by using a hole dug by a fox. One got stuck there, but two were brave enough to use a hole dug by a wild boar under the exterior fence to make it to freedom. Of those two, one was captured quickly, but the other gave the park staff the slip, and wouldn’t you know it, there are dozens of articles about the escape and one ‘roo being missing, but can I find anything on him ever being caught? We’re so fickle and flighty when it comes to news.

Speaking of outside, thanks to the folks who have been reviewing the YBOF book on Amazon and pleasing the algorithm so that it might suggest the book to more people, so please keep ‘em coming, like this one from Seanish123, “I love podcasts because they’re like books someone reads to me. I LOVE this book because it’s like a podcast I’m reading to myself. This book is so full of facts I literally didn’t know where to start. So I just opened it to a random page and started reading. The facts are extremely well researched and presented in such a friendly and fun way, you’ll want to read it again and again. I’m absolutely enamored with this book, it will be a mainstay on my coffee table/living room bookshelf for years to come. I can’t wait to push it on all my family and friends.”

Thanks also the members of patreon for generously supporting the show. Not only did three new people sign up last week, welcome Alesha, Laurie and Karen, but they signed up on the same day! You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’m so grateful and remember…

If my gentle listener had ever touched a penguin, can you let me know if they feel as slippery physically as they look, or as one young Humboldt penguin at Tokyo Sea Life Park proved to be? Known only as ‘Penguin 337,’ this penguin somehow scaled a 13 foot wall topped with barbed wire. None of my sources listed *how he did it, possibly so the other penguins won’t over-hear and get ideas. Over the next few months, 337 had allegedly been spotted swimming in rivers that feed into Tokyo Bay, but no one could get their hands on him. 337 managed to stay on the lam for a year before he was recaptured. Zoo officials weren’t sure what state he was going to be in, since he’d been raised in captivity and had always had his food provided to him. But 337 surprised them again. He was the exact right weight he should have been for his age and size, and was in tip-top shape all around.

In 1965, a golden eagle named Goldie decided five years of living at the Regent’s Park Zoo in London had been quite enough, thank you very much, and made its bid for freedom while its cage was being cleaned. Even in the pre-internet days, Goldie became a media sensation and the public ate the story up. For nearly two weeks, while Goldie was loose, people bombarded the zoo with calls and letters offering unsolicited advice to animal experts on how best to catch a rogue eagle. A crowd of roughly 1,000 people gathered to watch the eagle’s keepers, police, firefighters, and even a BBC reporter attempt to catch the bird. Goldie was caught by the deputy head keeper, who lured the eagle with a dead rabbit tied to a rope and was able to quietly walk up to the bird and pick it up with his bare hands. Zoo attendance doubled for a while after Goldie was returned. There are no reports of such hoopla when Goldie got loose again later that year but was recaptured within four days. Bonus fact: there are 60 species of eagles in the world, only two of which are native to North America: the bald eagle (which is the national bird and the national animal) and the golden eagle (the national bird of Mexico).

While Goldie was out, he did what predators do, snatching a duck out of someone’s garden and even trying to make take-away of two terriers. Remember captive does not mean tame. A similar scenario played out with a young male jaguar at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in 2018. The jaguar, named Valerio, got out of his enclosure under cover of darkness and found himself loose in a buffet. The staff found and tranquilized Valerio within an hour of discovering his was missing the next morning. That’s probably about the same time they found five alpacas, two foxes, and the emu that had been properly jaguared. No humans were injured by the jaguar, although the circumstances of the escape sparked worry at what might have been: The “jaguar jungle” is also home to a children’s play area. Zoo officials insisted the facility was safe for the general public, even though they wouldn’t say how the apex predator managed to escape and take out every alpaca on the property. Officials also chose not to euthanize Valerio, because he was just doing what wild animals do.

For escapes with a bit more sophistication, and a little less carnage, we need only look over to the next branch on the evolutionary tree, to great apes, chimpanzees, and other primates. Like us, they are able to learn new skills by watching others, even when we don’t think they’re watching. Such was the case with a keen-eyed orangutan named Fu Manchu at Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska in 1968. Fu Manchu and the other orangutans were out, but keepers were able to coax them back in. The keepers assumed someone had accidentally left the cage door open, so they made sure it was closed properly, but Fu Manchu escaped again. And a third time. It was after that jailbreak that something caught his handler’s eye. A little speck of light. A glint off a piece of metal wire that Fu Manchu was keeping hidden under his lip. Just as he’d seen the staff use keys to open the cage, Fu Manchu picked the lock. The staff confiscated the wire and made sure there was nothing else in the enclosure that Fu Manchu could use to try for escape number four.

Down in Adelaide, Australia, an 27 year old orangutan named Karta did Fu one better. She had to contend with an electric fence, so she used a stick to short-circuit the electric wires around her enclosure before piling up some more sticks to climb out. A Zoo spokesman said: “She climbed over those disabled hot wires, built up a mound of leaf litter and then used a branch to climb out of the exhibit and on to the surrounding wall of the exhibit.” Karta was only free for about half an hour before letting keepers coax her back in. She seemed to realize that she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be and never went within yards of any visitors. The zoo was evacuated as a precaution. Karta’s keepers think she might have gotten out to look for her mate, Pusung, who had passed away a month earlier.

A silverback gorilla named Kumbuka got free from his enclosure at the London Zoo in 2016 in what seems like a lucky break for him and big trouble for the performance review of one of the keepers. The zoo refused to reveal much further information about the incident, but they did say that the gorilla did not smash any glass or force its way out of the enclosure, and if that isn’t code for “someone left the door open,” I don’t know what is. Despite the description of Kumbuka as a “gentle giant,” visitors were ordered to take cover in buildings when the 400lb/184kg ape escaped. This situation was resolved quickly; Kumbuka was tranquilized and returned to the enclosure within half an hour. Silverback gorillas are incredibly strong, empirically having the strength of ten men, but thankfully Kumbuka never left the staff-only area. The only casualty of his escape was the loss of 5 liters of blackcurrant juice concentrate that Kumbuka drank in the service corridor.


Of all the animals I don’t want getting out of their cage, an Egyptian cobra is high on the list, so I’m glad I wasn’t in the Bronx in 2011 when one went missing for the better part of a week. A city-wide man-hunt–snake-hunt–was underway. Luckily, the cobra had only gone a few hundred feet over the course of those six days. As it happened, though, the snake’s escape was a big topic of conversation among New Yorkers. One person even began a hugely successful Twitter account for the snake that began with the opening line, “I want to thank those animals from the movie Madagascar. They were a real inspiration.” The closer: “Oh this isn’t over. Tomorrow is going to be big. This has only awakened the sleeping Bronx Zoo’s Cobra nation. Tune in tomorrow. You’ll never see this coming.”

Social media plays a part in zoo escapes, as it does everything else these days. In 2016, the hashtag #CapybaraWatch was trending after a pair of capybara soon to be known as Bonnie and Clyde got away from staff at the High Park Zoo in Toronto during a transfer. For those who don’t know what capybara are, picture a cross between a guinea pig and an actual pig, but really cute and cool with everybody. The furry duo made international headlines and evaded the law for nearly a month because they were caught in traps and taken back.

Social media can be useful in escaped animal situations, by spreading the word and helping find the animals. But, people being what they are, i.e. the reason we can’t have nice things, they’ve used social media to fabricate tales of animal escapes, amidst the George Floyd protests no less. People aren’t anxious enough, in the minds of trolls, who think it would be nifty to also say there are gigantic escaped animals on the loose. A picture of a hippo that got away from a traveling circus in Spain in 2016 is now captioned “Loose on the streets of Chicago.” A picture of a giraffe next to two cars in a safari park is claimed to be on the streets of Minneapolis. The Alameda County Sheriff’s office even fell for one, or at least the person in charge of their Twitter account did. They posted “Reports of a tiger on the loose; if you see it, call 911” at 10:40 pm, then at 10:52 “Tigers are all accounted for at Oakland Zoo, they checked.” Next time, maybe call the zoo first, *then tweet.


Of course, nothing new under the sun, zoo escape hoaxes aren’t a modern invention. “Another Awful Calamity. The Intellectual Department of The New York Herald Let Loose Upon the Public.” So proclaimed the Daily Graphic on Nov. 13, 1874.

On November 9, 1874 the Herald, one of the most widely read and highly decorated newspapers of the time, published a front-page article claiming that the animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging through the city. A lion had broken a church. A rhinoceros had fallen into a sewer. Forty-nine people were already dead and two hundred injured as the police and national guard heroically tried to fight the beasts. It was “a bloody and fearful carnival,” the article despaired, and the animals were still on the loose! It was pandemonium, though no pandas were reportedly involved. [rimshot]

Many readers panicked when they read the article. However, those who did should have read the whole thing. At the end of the article it stated, in literal small print, that, “the entire story given above is a pure fabrication.” So the tendency to read the top of something and immediately overreact isn’t new either.

The Orson Wells of this furry War of the Worlds was Thomas Connery, an editor at the Herald, who confessed to a Harper’s Weekly reporter nearly twenty years later that the hoax had been his idea. He insisted that the owner of the Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was blameless, but many believed Bennett must have at least given Connery the go-ahead. Connery claimed that the idea came to him after he witnessed a leopard almost escape while being transferred into its cage in the Central Park Zoo, then called “menagerie”. Connery was concerned about the state of the zoo. He thought of writing a stern column scolding the zoo keepers, but decided he needed something with a bit more razzle-dazzle to get people to notice, “a harmless little hoax, with just enough semblance of reality to give a salutary warning.”

The article, assigned to one Joseph Clarke to write, ran to over 10,000 words in length; for comparison, that’s twice as many words as are in this script. It took up six columns on the front page. Technically, it was on page three, but back then the first two pages were always filled with ads and were more like a cover. “AWFUL CALAMITY,” the headline screamed. “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death.”

The article claimed the carnage began on Sunday afternoon and continued through publication time on Monday morning. It all started when a reckless keeper provoked a rhinoceros by prodding it with a stick through the bars. The enraged beast smashed down its cage, killing the keeper in the process. It then battered down the cages of the other animals, who scattered throughout the city, wreaking havoc wherever they went. The author painted on gruesome details heavy and thick. Rhino horns plunging into bodies, a panther chewing on a victim’s head, animals jumping on desperate, fleeing people and dragging them to the ground. The mayor was urging all citizens “to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed.”

Say what you will about Clarke, he had quite an imagination. The article went on to describe a lion and a tiger fighting on fifty-ninth street, a battle between a sea lion and a rhinoceros, an anaconda attempting to eat a giraffe, Swedish hunters stalking a lioness on Broadway, a Bengal Tiger shot on Madison Avenue, a panther attacking worshipers inside a church on West Fifty-third Street, and a tiger ransacking a ferryboat. Clarke even wrote a list of names of the dead and wounded.

If you were hooked on the article and didn’t immediately drop it to load your rifle and hammer crooked bits of wood over the windows, you would have read: “Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may choose to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park.”

By all accounts, the article caused widespread panic throughout the city. Armed men rushed into the streets, ready to defend their homes. The police mobilized. Parents rushed to bring their children back from school. One grain of salt before I continue: those reports of panic come from other, read: competing, newspapers. They may well have made the reaction seem bigger or worse than it had been to make the Herald seem irresponsible, unprofessional, and even a danger to public welfare. The same thing would happen after the great War of the Worlds radio play. We’ve been led to believe that virtually everyone thought it was real and there was panic in the streets and people in desperate fear for their lives. In fact, Wells repeatedly said during the broadcast that it was fictional. The reports of widespread panic come from newspapers, a medium at the time afraid of the upstart radio industry and what its popularity could mean for them.

So other newspapers across the state and the country quickly and unanimously denounced the hoax. The Galveston Daily News wrote: “To be in keeping with its enterprise, the Herald should bribe a keeper to let loose a lion or two upon occasion, so as to bring up that journal’s prophetic record… Bennett had better recall Stanley [the man who found Dr. Livingstone] from the interior of Africa. He is the crack lion shot of the Herald establishment, and should be at home to protect it.” The New-York Times, while admitting that the “animals in the Central Park are confined in the flimsiest cages ever seen,” described the article as an “intensely stupid and unfeeling hoax” and printed letters from readers claiming to have been terrified by the story. They also reported a small angry mob descending on the DA’s office to demand something by done, though no charges were ever brought against anyone at the paper.

The Herald’s response was unrepentant, claiming to be surprised at the reaction. Essentially, it was just a prank, bro, the last refuge of the truly un-funny. By way of apology, it simply inserted a short article into the next issue, titled “Wild Beasts,” urging that safety precautions at the zoo be improved. The public were not best pleased with the apology, yet the Herald did not report any drop in circulation as a result of the hoax. In fact, it probably gained subscribers, people who didn’t want to miss the next bout of nonsense.

And that’s… The Long island rhesus monkey escape could have been a lot worse. There were over 500 monkey in the enclosure, so the worker who forgot to remove the plank was able to stop ¾ of them from getting out. Monkey sightings were reported from two counties, primarily from owners finding monkeys playing in their yards, and fruit stand owners hassled by hungry monkeys. At dusk, 30 monkeys returned on their own, but the rest trickled back in slowly over the next few weeks after Frank Buck publicly promised a free season pass to the park to anyone who caught and returned a monkey. Remember … thanks…

Your Brain On Facts

Things You Didn’t Know, Things You Thought You Knew, and Things You Never Knew You Never Knew

The world is full of things you didn’t know, things you thought you knew, and things you never knew you never knew. From the eponymous podcast comes Your Brain On Facts.

Train your brain. So what if you picked up some historical inaccuracies (and flat-out myths) in history class. Your Brain On Facts is here to teach and reteach readers relevant trivia. It explains surprising science in simple language, gives the unexpected origins of pop culture classics, and reveals important titbits related to current issues.

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