from The Pittsurgh Post-Gazette

    Pittsburgh zoo denizen makes a break for a taste of freedom and junk food

'The gorilla was just standing there' 

Bob Geiger of Pitcairn shot this photograph of a female gorilla when he encountered it on the visitors' side of a zoo moat about 2:45pm yesterday

Monday, February 05, 2001

By Linda Wilson Fuoco and Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writers 

The 150-pound gorilla went where no gorilla had gone before, crossing a wide moat and scaling a 14-foot wall to taste nearly an hour of freedom -- as well as muffins, cherry Danish and soda pop scavenged from trash cans.

About 250 Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium visitors were held captive in buildings from 3 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. yesterday while the 10-year-old female gorilla visited the Plaza, which is a large outdoor concession area near the gorilla exhibit.

No visitors or staff members were threatened or injured during the gorilla escape, which was briefly a zoological mystery.

"We have no idea how she got out," said Barbara Baker, the zoo president and CEO, during an afternoon press conference yesterday.

Further investigation by animal keepers revealed that a bamboo stalk had fallen into the waterless moat that surrounds the gorillas' outdoor exhibit, Jen Roupe, manager of media and public relations, said she as told later by general curator Lee Nesler. Apparently the female used the bamboo to climb out, though none of the other nine gorillas followed her. 

No gorillas have ever gotten out of the outdoor exhibit, part of the Tropical Forest Complex that opened in 1991. Though the moat is inspected daily in the summer, that is not routinely done in winter because the gorillas stay indoors on the coldest days. After temperatures climbed into the 40s yesterday and the decision was made to let them out, the bamboo was not noticed, Roupe said.

The bamboo will be trimmed back, Roupe said.

When a zoo visitor spotted the gorilla on the wrong side of the monkey house, zookeepers quickly went to her side.

"She was hand-raised. She is only 31/2 feet high. This is not an animal we consider to be dangerous to human life," Baker said. "The keepers stayed with her to keep her calm. At times they were walking her, holding her hand and feeding her fruit."

They almost walked the gorilla back to her habitat, but she returned to forage in the concession area.

"She was going through the trash cans, removing food and drinking from cups that had not been emptied. She seemed to especially like the Orange Slice" soda, Baker said.

Keepers finally lured her into the women's restroom, where they injected her with a tranquilizer.

The other gorillas "seemed concerned that she had left the exhibit," Baker said. "Her baby was crying and calling out to her, but she continued eating." 

The gorilla was in good shape last night, though she may experience some nausea as a result of the anesthesia and the junk food, which was a drastic change from her diet of fruit and monkey chow.

The incident was handled by the zoo's Animal Escape Team, which holds "escaped animal drills" twice a year, Baker said. The plan includes herding visitors into the closest available buildings and closing all doors and gates on the 77-acre zoo complex.

The 30 people who were secured in the Pavilion restaurant got a once-in-a-lifetime gorilla show. Others reported being safe but bored in buildings including the aquarium, education complex and the always-tropically-hot Tropical Forest exhibit.

Bob Geiger of Pitcairn had a close encounter of the hairy kind.

He shot a photo of the escaped gorilla when he left the Tropical Forest exhibit in search of a men's room at about 2:45 p.m. 

"I just went outside to go to a bathroom and the gorilla was just standing there about four feet away," said Geiger, talking on a cell phone from inside the building during the lock-down. "I stood there and took a picture and the gorilla just walked away. I wasn't fearful, but it wasn't where it was supposed to be over on the other side of the moat. It was on the people side of the moat."

Geiger and his wife, Gretchen, and their children, Amber, 6, and Cody, 3, were among the 30 people locked in the monkey house.

No visitors were allowed to enter the zoo during the lock-down.

"They don't think it's dangerous, but they're not letting us out," said Geiger's wife, Gretchen. 

"Everyone's just anxious to get out; it's warm in here," Bob Geiger said during his time in captivity.

Sam Potter, 11, of Monroeville was locked in a zoo building while his mother, Maggie, waited outside. Sam and other children were attending an Amazon program when the gorilla escaped.

Parents had an anxious 30 minutes, but the zoo staff behaved in a very professional manner, Maggie Potter said.

The gorilla was not the first primate to go for a walk on the civilized side of the zoo's fences. Alphie, a footloose Japanese macaque monkey, made his escape from the Pittsburgh Zoo in 1987 and led his keepers on a chase that lasted for six months before ending near Bridgeport, Ohio, 60 miles away from the zoo.

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