Caged animals are unhappy animals. They don’t usually show it of course, because the last thing they want is anyone suspecting that they’re plotting an escape, or figuring out how to put their keepers behind bars. Or on their dinner menus. But whether it’s a boa constrictor in a home terrarium that looks at the family dog as an appetizer to the main course, or an orangutan in a maximum security zoo who thinks humans should be kicked off the family tree, they do escape. Perhaps to remind us of the instincts we’ve lost as we sit in our comfortable houses and watch “Naked and Afraid” on TV.
Escapes happen quite often from homes and substandard facilities, where knowledge and concern for and of the animals take a back seat to the ignorance and selfishness of owners who struggle to impress their own species. But it even happens about five times a year on average worldwide from the 240 facilities with certified Association of Zoo and Aquarium care and security standards. Just like people, there are more than a few animals who simply want a chance to see a bit of the world, to sleep under the stars, and to ponder the meaning of life the way it was meant to be, as food for thought, and many hungry creatures.
Tigers, who are so smart they’ve combined food for thought and food for the body and simplified their lives, make terrible captives, particularly as the generally out-of-reach visitors are the only menu items they think about. In the natural world, visitors are not out-of-reach, and hungry tigers make no secret of their distaste for how humans think by devouring everything on the menu but their minds. So besides the regular demonstrations of their thought process in substandard facilities, it should have come as no surprise when Tatiana, a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, somehow climbed a moat wall, and attacked three people, killing one. Think of that the next time you see a captive tiger, because it’s certain the tiger will be thinking of you.
Although there are plenty of examples of great zoo escapes, few animals can brag they’ve done it twice. Bokito, a Western gorilla, was incarcerated without charges at the Berlin Zoo when he climbed a ten foot wall and made a run for it. After his capture, he was unrepentant, and so transferred to a zoo in Rotterdam. Testing a new plan, this time he went into full-on ape mode, jumping a water-filled moat and violently attacking a woman, before running into a nearby restaurant and trying to blend in. The plan might have worked had not Bokito become impatient and tossed a few chairs to demand faster service. As one would expect, the people in the chairs complained.
On hearing of Bokito’s escapes, two orangutans knew that, as higher order primates who could teach even humans a thing or two about restaurant manners, they could do better. Dubbed “Hairy Houdini,” Ken Allen of the San Diego Zoo became a folk hero with his record-breaking four escapes, while assisting in five others. Not to be outdone, Fu Manchu at the Omaha Zoo busted his whole family out three times by picking a lock with a piece of wire he kept hidden, and was awarded an honorary membership in the American Association of Locksmiths. While they never made it back to Borneo, both orangutans said through interpreters that they hoped to be an inspiration to anyone whose lives are on public display. Social media platforms responded by removing their posts.
In Hunsbruck, Germany, a wild fox and a wild boar with a call to duty and more empathy than most humans, tunneled under two fences to try and spring a zoo’s prisoners. Three homesick kangaroos crawled to freedom and hopped away. The plan unraveled though when none of the local animals could tell them the whereabouts of either the Australian Embassy or the Quantas air terminal, or even locate Australia on a map, sparking an outcry both for zoo reform and better wildlife education.
One of the longest bids for freedom belongs to Penguin # 337 at the Tokyo Sea Life Park, a Humboldt penguin who jumped a large rock, wriggled through a barbed wire fence, and made it to Tokyo Bay. For 82 days, the South American bird searched fruitlessly for its name and others of its kind while eluding would be captors, outsmarting and out-maneuvering even the Japanese Coast Guard, who had to endure the taunts of both the penguin and the other Japanese self-defense forces. All the while the penguin, endangered in its native habitat, was truly threatened in this foreign one while being mocked as “flightless” by the local birds. Without a name itself, it nonetheless had a few choice names for the authorities upon its return.
The list of animals making desperate attempts at freedom is long, but most such escapes are kept quiet so as not to alarm the public, or to give the other animals any ideas. As the escape records show, however, animals already have clear ideas about where they belong, and where they don’t belong. Many are no doubt even full of ideas about where humans belong, but have also elected to remain quiet so as not to alarm the public.