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Zoo planning no changes in aftermath of gorilla's escape

Tuesday, February 06, 2001

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the end, she cashed in her freedom for some Hershey Kisses.

That was the culmination of the hourlong escape Sunday by a 10-year-old female gorilla from her complex at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium.

And while the primate's liberty was limited to ingesting the contents of various zoo trash cans and patrons' plates, the escape was one in a long line of notable zoo getaways here and around the rest of the country.

Her exploits are unlikely to earn her the folk following of Alphie, the Japanese macaque who escaped from the Pittsburgh Zoo in July 1987 and evaded capture for six months. Nor will it inspire a song the way the late orangutan Ken Allen did in San Diego after numerous escapes.

But not everyone was happy with how the escape was handled.

Pittsburgh Police Lt. Stanley Mikolajek said he didn't hear about it until an hour after the fact.

"We said, 'What?! A gorilla's escaped and we weren't notified?' I am angry about that," he said.

Mikolajek said he initially was denied entrance to the zoo by an employee who spoke with Baker by phone.

"She probably thinks we'd be coming in with guns blazing," he said. "We're not like that."

Police spokeswoman Michele Papakie said later that Mikolajek was not speaking for the entire department.

"We have a great relationship with the zoo and we trust their judgment," Papakie said. She said police officials think the zoo handled the gorilla escape well.

"Our initial reaction was concern for public safety. Before we had a good look, we felt we should have been called but, afterward, we realized that we didn't need to be."

She said, however, that police do plan to meet with zoo officials to go over the protocol for animal escapes.

Similar primate breakouts have occurred in the past few years from zoos in Dallas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Wichita, Kan., and Nagoya, Japan. Hope Walker, a member of the nonprofit Primate Conservation and Welfare Society in Port Townsend, Wash., isn't surprised.

"They're just intelligent animals," Walker said. Researchers say gorillas have the intelligence of 3-year-old children and 97 percent of a human's DNA.

The Pittsburgh Zoo doesn't plan any security changes, although it did trim the bamboo.

Ken Allen's exploits in San Diego during the 1980s led to the formation of a fan club called the Orang Gang, sweatshirts, the nickname "Hairy Houdini," the "Ballad of Ken Allen" and keepers standing surveillance while disguised as tourists.

Finally, $45,000 worth of renovations at the San Diego Zoo in 1989 stopped Ken Allen, although some claim it was the steady diet of soap operas and nature shows on the TV in his night quarters. He died in December, mourned by the entire city.

At the Pittsburgh Zoo, where animals aren't officially given names, the escapee will remain anonymous. Still, she was quite the acrobat on Sunday, leaping six to eight feet across the Tropical Forest Complex's 16-foot-wide dry moat to grab a 1-inch-thin stem of bamboo that leaned into the void.

Using the bamboo as a rope, she climbed the 16-foot-tall moat wall before hopping over a 4-foot-tall retaining wall to freedom.

The zoo's 10-member Animal Escape Procedure Team for primates -- made up of zookeepers, veterinarians, administrators and Barbara Baker, the zoo president and CEO -- quickly mobilized.

The gorilla was lured into a women's restroom by an orangutan keeper armed with unwrapped Hershey Kisses. Once there, she was injected with a tranquilizer.



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