No One Likes the Zookeeper

Editors’ note: The film, The Zookeeper, was released today. It depicts the relationship between a Franklin Park keeper and an assortment of captive animals?in particular, a gorilla. In the film’s honor, we thought the true story of the Boston zoo and its most famous gorilla, Little Joe, should be told.

Electrified wires were the answer. There was simply no way that Little Joe, a 300-pound adolescent gorilla, could ever figure out how to get around these. Sure, the gorilla had just escaped over a twelve foot wide and twelve-foot-deep moat, a feat which no ape should have ever been able to do. But these shock-inducing wires, the Franklin Park Zoo assured itself and the general public, would certainly do the trick and prevent any further escapes. Right? Well, no. Only one month later, in September of 2003, Little Joe out-smarted his captors once again and made it out of his exhibit. And this time, he made the national news.

Responding to the barrage of questions that followed, the best that the Boston, Massachusetts zoo could come up with was a collective shrug of the shoulders. How did the gorilla get over the moat? We don’t know. How did he get by the electrified wires? We don’t know. Is a teenage ape really smarter than a medley of experienced keepers, curators, and engineers? No comment. The zoo’s spokesman kept repeating, “There’s a lot we have to find out, and we’ll be reviewing what happened.” When pressed further for a better answer, one employee slipped off the scripted response and offered his honest take on the situation. Gorillas “go through a stage where, physically and psychologically, they’re growing much stronger, and become much more lean and long, and containment can be an increasing challenge at the age.” Gorillas, he hinted, can resist their captivity. Indeed, whether this employee fully grasped the potency of his acknowledgement or not, the fact is that these animals do have a long history of outmaneuvering and overcoming the very best of ideas and designs deployed by zoological parks.

At the Los Angeles Zoo, a gorilla named Evelyn escaped seven times over a twenty year period. Born in 1976, she had been the offspring of the only two surviving lowland gorillas at the facility?that is, the only two who lived long enough to tell the tale of their transfer from the western jungles of Africa to the urban center of southern California. The other four apes had died almost immediately upon arrival from a combination of negligence and sheer stupidity on the part of the staff. Nevertheless, this is the place where Evelyn was brought into the world, and it was here where she would grow?both in terms of her size and her resourcefulness.

The gorilla’s most infamous escape occurred in October of 2000: for not only did Evelyn get out of the gorilla enclosure, but she wandered the park grounds for over one hour. Visitors had to be evacuated. Television helicopters criss-crossed the sky with their cameras aimed down upon the scene, each in a desperate search for the elusive ape. When keepers finally tracked her down, they shot her with a tranquilizer dart. The gorilla pulled it out and stumbled into a nearby bathroom. There, she was cornered, hit with another dart, and “subdued.” Park officials were not quite certain how Evelyn got out of her exhibit. There was that time when she scaled a high wall after getting a boost from another gorilla. But cooperation did not appear to be the answer here. Instead, keepers guessed that she probably used some overgrown vines to pull her way out. Whatever the case, Evelyn was not the only troublemaker at the California zoo.

In July of 2000, Jim, a thirteen year old gorilla, escaped. Approaching a group of school children, he was fire-hosed back by a keeper. “Jim started running,” the man exclaimed, “and then soared across the twelve foot wide moat. He landed without a wobble.” In another incident, Jim made it out after noticing that someone had forgot to lock his cage. Gorillas constantly keep a close watch on this sort of thing. They know the comings and goings of employees and volunteers and whether or not all doors have been securely fastened. In the summer of 2004, seven Columbus, Ohio gorillas did just that and fled their cage. They never were able to get out of the main primate building and onto the grounds, but, at least for a few hours, they were able to do some exploring. Then there was Mema, the San Diego gorilla. In the summer of 1992, she made it from her unlocked exhibit and roamed the park for two and half hours, frightening visitors, running from handlers, and dodging two tranquilizer darts. That same year at the Miami Metro Zoo, a gorilla named Jimmy decided to take matters into his own hands and picked his cage lock. Officials noted that for some time Jimmy had been working on this particular skill but, as of yet, had failed in his attempts. The zoo was confident that the gorilla would never be able to understand the complex locking mechanism. They were wrong.

Of course, patience is a virtue that not all primates share. Waiting for a keeper to slip up or months spent learning the art of lock-picking might be okay for some gorillas but not all. There have always been those, who like Little Joe or Evelyn, have been more active or immediate in their approach to resistance. Some have tried to batter down the doors with brute strength. Jim used this method once in Los Angeles, and succeeded. Togo, a gorilla at the Toledo Zoo, once ripped off the entire roof of his exhibit. He also, on several occasions, bent the bars of his cage and attempted to slip out between the gaps. But, perhaps, his craftiest idea came when the zoo placed him behind a thick layer of shatter-resistant glass. ‘Let’s see the gorilla get out of this one,’ his overseers must have laughed. Never without a retort, Togo studied the new structure for a moment and then began removing the putty that held the window in place.

Other gorillas have used their keen athletic abilities to flee. An unidentified female gorilla at the Pittsburg Zoo, for example, leapt across a sixteen foot moat, grabbing a stalk of bamboo along the way, and pole-vaulted herself to the other side. After the chaos had settled and each question had been answered, the media still stood in disbelief. Gorillas look so big and slow, like some sort of lumbering, lethargic giant. They cannot possibly be so agile and acrobatic. Or can they? Yes, a spokesperson assured, gorillas can. And, while Pittsburg administrators might have been surprised by the manner in which the escape was executed, they were not caught entirely unprepared for it. These types of break-outs were the precise reason why the park developed its “Animal Escape Procedure Team for Primates” in the first place: to strategize and prepare for the inevitable. These animals know what freedom is and they want it. At the end of the day, the Pittsburgh zoo assured visitors that the bamboo would be trimmed to a lower height whereby no gorilla could repeat the same action. These primates would have to discover a new means to get out of their enclosure.

Then there was the limber Jabari of the Dallas Zoo. In 2004, this thirteen-year old climbed out an exhibit that was, according to the facility director, “among the best in the country.” It was only a few years earlier when the entire structure had been redesigned. This happened because of another gorilla. His name was Hercules, and, after his November of 1998 escape, the zoo was fined $25,000 by the United States Department of the Agriculture. Park executives vowed it would never happen again. Consultants were brought in. Gorilla habitats from around the country were surveyed. The answer appeared to lie in a specially engineered wall: sixteen feet in height and concave in shape. It would be, experts guaranteed, escape-proof. No gorilla could ever master this barrier. Yet, Jabari accomplished the impossible. As the Dallas director later admitted, the gorilla “had to have scaled the wall . . . This blows our minds.”

And who could forget about Bokito at the Diergaarde Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam. During his escape in 2007, this gorilla scaled several supposedly unscalable stone walls. Then he somehow managed to get himself across a water-filled moat. This latter feat, a zoo spokesman explained, was most remarkable “because gorillas can’t swim.” Significantly, there is still some debate about this, as to whether gorillas can actually swim or not. Some biologists say no. These creatures sink like stones. Others say maybe. Big apes could theoretically paddle around a little bit before drowning. Either way, everyone agrees on one particular point: gorillas are deathly afraid of water. They do not like it and do not want to wade into it. Nor are they alone. Many primates and monkeys are frightened by bodies of water, whether a steam, a river, or a lake. Zoos know this, and they use the fear to their advantage. A water-filled moat makes for a most effective border and deterrent. It is Alcatraz for primates. Nevertheless, there will always be those individuals held in captivity for whom no cage could ever be strong enough and no body of water wide enough to contain their zeal for freedom. Bokito was one of those defiant spirits. Another was a gibbon named Archie. At his Minnesota zoo, he would regularly escape from his water-enclosed island. Each time, Archie would be netted, tranquilized, and dragged back. And each time, he would stick a figurative middle finger up in the air, overcome his fears, and cross the water again. Why did he continue to do it? A park administrator spoke candidly: Archie enjoys beating up on visitors. Indeed, for zoos, escapes are often just the start of their problems.

When Little Joe broke out from his Franklin Park exhibit for the second time, he ended up attacking two people. One of them was a teenage girl. The other was a young child. The gorilla threw them both onto their backs. He dragged them about. He bit the teenager several times. After that outburst of violence, Little Joe made his way out of the zoo and into the Boston streets. The surprise of a lifetime awaited the people at one neighborhood bus stop, as standing beside them was a gorilla. Little Joe, though, decided to skip the bus and ran off again. It took two hours, over fifty cops and zoo workers, and more than a few tranquilizer darts to bring Little Joe into custody. Franklin Park could breathe a sigh of relief?but only momentarily. Soon, the AZA would be calling. USDA inspectors would be on their way. Local and state law enforcement would want to talk. Lawyers were undoubtedly racing each other to the park. Lawsuits would follow. The media was already everywhere.

A similar frenzy attended Jabari’s escape at the Dallas Zoo. He had attacked a group of parents and children. Keepers tried to tranquilize him, but they missed. Jabari was too quick. After an extended chase, the gorilla was finally cornered and shot to death by police. It was an ugly sight, and one soon not forgotten. At the press conference that followed, one particular line of questioning weighed on people’s minds. Why did the gorilla do this? Why did he attack this particular group of people? Why did he attack innocent children?

Such occurrences are easier to rationalize and explain if they involve zoo employees. We can imagine that a trainer probably tried to prevent the animal from escaping and thus got injured in the process. Or, maybe the animals were extracting a little revenge for being held in captivity or for being mistreated. The first thing Jimmy did in Miami after unlocking his cage was to assault his trainer. The same can be said for Hercules in 1998. He knocked his handler down and bit the woman repeatedly on the arm and side. The injuries proved to be quite serious. Or there was the case of Kongo, a twenty-seven year old from the Bronx Zoo. This gorilla actually made his slip while being transferred from one cage to another. When confronted by his keepers, Kongo did not hesitate. He ran straight at the two men. “The scene was chaos,” one witness observed. Yet, when we insert visitors into this question of attacks, it becomes more problematic. Was Jabari or Little Joe making a random choice? Were these visitors in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was there intent behind the assaults?

The Dallas Zoo favored the first explanation: the attack was random. Similar was Franklin Park’s explanation. Little Joe, the director stated for the record, could not be blamed for acting like an animal. He meant no harm. His actions were an aberration. But a deeper investigation into these incidences suggests other possibilities. For instance, witnesses at the Dallas Zoo reported that a group of children had been teasing Jabari immediately prior to his escape and attack. The gorilla, they believed, had been provoked.

Significantly, the zoological industry has always had trouble in dealing with cruel and sadistic behavior on behalf of visitors. Some parks have attempted to tackle the issue by posting warning signs and hiring more security guards. Others have chosen to ignore it. Few have ever admitted publicly how frequently captive animals are tormented by zoo visitors.

The hard truth is that teasing is endemic at zoos, and it is perpetrated by both children and adults. The sight of visitors yelling, screaming, and banging on windows and fences is normal. People hurl rocks, coins, bottles, cans, and other objects at animals. Cigarettes butts have been found in cages for as long as there have been cigarettes. Sometimes, even needles, pins, nails, razorblades, and shards of glass find their way into exhibits. Every year an undetermined number of animals die, or become ill, due to the accidental ingestion of foreign items tossed into enclosures by visitors. Can visitor behavior possibly get worse? Yes, it can. Animals have been poisoned at zoos. They have had acid thrown on them. They have been punched and kicked. They have been stabbed and shot. Pellet guns seem to be a particularly favorite weapon among visitors.

But let’s return to the matter of intent in escaped animal attacks. We know that Jabari had been teased and thus had motivation for his attack. Whether he chose the right group of children to take his frustrations out on is another issue. Neither the Dallas Zoo nor the parents involved have been forthcoming with such information. As to Little Joe, no reports about taunting surfaced in the days that followed the incident. His attack, however, was anything but random. The teenager involved turned out to be an off-duty zoo volunteer. Little Joe could have chosen any number of visitors to beat up on. Yet he chased down this particular person. He obviously had his reasons. And while Franklin Park administrators chose not to acknowledge this fact, they still had to deal with it. In the end, there were four separate investigations. The AZA threatened to pull accreditation. The zoo itself “refused to rule out putting the restless primate to death in order to protect the public.” Little Joe had caused a public-relations nightmare.

At the Los Angeles Zoo, Evelyn and Jim’s escapes in 2000 caused similar unwanted attention. Stories began to emerge about the decrepit conditions of the gorilla house. Reporters wanted to know more about escapes. When they were told that the zoo did not keep records of such things, they started their own investigation. The results were shocking: thirty-five break outs in the past five years. In November 2000, the USDA demanded that the park secure its exhibit. “Every time a gorilla escapes,” a handler admitted, “we raise the walls a little higher?and we’re about to do it again ? We really need a better, more secure enclosure. It would make it a lot easier for me to sleep at night.” In 2003, the zoo shipped its entire gorilla population to Colorado until an entirely new, more secure enclosure could be constructed. Ironically, one year later, Evelyn would escape from her Denver Zoo habitat. Along the way, she assaulted a keeper, roamed the primate building for nearly an hour, and caused a “code red” alert. The event prompted an independent investigation, and the findings made the national wire. There had been forty-five separate incidents in the past five years wherein a Denver zoo employee had been injured by an animal.

Back in Boston, Franklin Park officials decided ultimately not to execute Little Joe. Instead, they placed him into solidarity confinement where he would remain until a new enclosure could be designed and built. Years ticked by and Little Joe stayed out of the public view. Rumors surfaced that the gorilla was being drugged by keepers in order to keep him under control. These stories were denied. In 2007, the exhibit was unveiled. With triple-layered glass walls, a woven-steel cap, and twenty-four hour video surveillance, the place made for quite a spectacle. Franklin Park, though, was not nearly as excited as the media or visitors. It just prayed that there would be no more escapes. Stay tuned.

Jason Hribal is a historian and author of Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch / AK Press). He can be reached at:






Jason Hribal is the author of Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch/AK Press).