Think the animals you visit at the zoo are happy living out their days in dreary confinement? The evidence suggests otherwise. Despite efforts by zookeepers to create more humane conditions in captivity, animal escapes have increased dramatically in recent years. And attacks on zoo handlers — and meddlesome visitors — are surging, too.
Will humans heed the call of the wild?
In 2006, a Siberian tiger named Tatiana bit a zookeeper on the arm during a public feeding at the San Francisco Zoo. It seemed like a modest mishap, so the tiger handlers took pity on Tatiana and let her live. It was the wrong message.
Less than a year later, Tatiana broke out of her cage and proceeded to stalk three young men visiting the zoo, eventually mauling and killing one. The zoo staff wasn’t so forgiving this time they decided to execute Tatiana — on Xmas Day.
It’s not just the swiftest or fiercest of mammals that are trying to break free. It’s friendly lumbering beasts, too. Earlier this year, a 14-year old African bull elephant managed to scale a 6-foot wall at the Kansas City Zoo and nearly escaped. Zookeepers are still dumbfounded at how the elephant, not good climbers at any age, managed to pull off that feat.
In fact, Kansas City’s zoo is notorious for animal escapes, including some of the most ingenious on record. In 2014, seven chimpanzees fashioned a ladder out of tree branches and climbed out of their enclosure. The ringleader initiated the escape by breaking off a 6-foot tree limb and laying it against a wall. He then enticed the remaining chimps to escape. Eventually, all were recaptured.
Zoo escapes have become so common in some locales that the local media have begun running a special series about them, in some cases, rooting the animals on… 4
At the city zoo In San Antonio TX — consistently rated in the Top 10 of the world’s zoos — escapes became a near epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The zoo was cited for abusing numerous animals during this same period, and even worse, as caught dumping millions of gallons of water contaminated with E.coli into a local aquifer.
Environmentalists have been calling for a boycott for years.
Some zoos have become so hapless at preventing escapes that they’ve decided to celebrate them instead. The most infamous case was that of Ken Allen, an orangutan that escaped from the San Diego Zoo repeatedly even though zoo authorities kept reinforcing his pen — at one point even building a moat and an electrified fence to contain him.
When those measures didn’t work, the zoo brought in a number of female orangutans, hoping to distract Ken with sex. Instead, Ken recruited his new mates to help organize his next escape. Ken eventually died of an illness and the zoo placed a plaque in his honor, celebrating his exploits.
These days zoos are under siege from the public, in some cases, facing growing pressure to close. With each new expose of zoo conditions or the shooting death of an escaping or marauding animal, the public has become open to the message of animal rights groups like PETA that zoo captivity is inhumane and not justified by the demands for conservation or public education.
In fact, most countries have no legal framework to regulate the conditions of zoo captivity. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture licenses animal exhibitors and is supposed to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). But according to PETA, permits are issued to nearly anyone who fills out an application and sends in a fee, with minimal public oversight.
Zoos typically claim that they are doing their best to replicate conditions in the wild. But animals have no control over their conditions of existence. Zoos barter and trade animals at will and disrupt their social structures in ways that undermine their physical and emotional health. An all-too-common problem is “zoochosis,” a condition of despair that results from an animal abruptly losing its mate. Sufferers slowly wither away and die in captivity.
Zoo officials claim that animal escapes are rare overall. That’s true but it’s more a reflection of the harsh conditions of captivity than animal satisfaction with zoo life. Any opening the animals can find they try to exploit these days. Most don’t get too far because the zoos are on high alert and the animals are usually too hungry and confused by their surroundings to seek more permanent sanctuary elsewhere.
But some jail-breakers yearn to be free. In September of this year, a yak named Meteor from a zoo in Buckingham, VA was being transported to a butcher shop. Sensing that his end was near, he kicked his way out of the trailer that was carrying him to certain death.
Despite an assiduous pursuit, Meteor managed to escape being recaptured for nearly three weeks, even crossing a busy highway to saunter into the hills. The incident caused a local sensation. Many residents felt that Meteor posed no danger and should simply be left alone
According to police; Meteor was killed in a collision with a motor vehicle on the Interstate. But there were no independent witnesses to the accident, which some skeptics doubt ever occurred.
In fact, there are rumors that zoo officials and local police may have captured and killed Meteor, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to re-adapt to zoo life. Or was it to set an example to the other animals that defiance wouldn’t be tolerated? Some say the proud beast saw his captors closing in, and refused to be taken alive.