A gorilla climbed out of the Riverbanks Zoo exhibit Friday, using a droopy bamboo shoot no thicker than one of his strong fingers to pull himself over a 10-foot wall near the pizza restaurant.
After pounding his chest, the gorilla chased down and batted around a concessions worker who had walked out of the restaurant upon hearing the commotion, according to Riverbanks executive director Satch Krantz.
The unidentified worker, who alertly balled up into a fetal position when knocked down, was treated and released at a local hospital for a few bumps and scrapes, Krantz said.
The gorilla experienced fewer than five minutes of freedom before jumping back into the Gorilla Base Camp exhibit.
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Like most animals that have escaped from zoo enclosures throughout the world, “they realize they are somewhere they’re clearly not supposed to be and they go back into their exhibit,” Krantz said.
About 250 customers and 90 young campers were in the zoo at the time. They were escorted either into buildings or out of the entrances as the zoo went into lockdown for about 45 minutes, until all three gorillas were back in their barn.
A bird keeper hearing the commotion sent out the Code E alert over the hand-held radios zoo employees carry, letting everyone know a dangerous animal had escaped.
At least two employees with guns raced to the scene, ready to shoot either to tranquilize or to kill. Other workers rushed visitors to safe locations.
“We have protocols, and the protocols worked beautifully,” said Krantz, who was on vacation at Kiawah and hurried back to Columbia. “Every employee did exactly what they were supposed to do, preventing what could have been a more dangerous situation.”
Zoo officials originally identified Mike as the gorilla who escaped, but later acknowledged it could have been any of the three adult males — Mike, Chaka or Kimya.
While they aren’t sure of the culprit, they are certain of the escape route. The resourceful gorilla left behind plenty of clues.
A thin bamboo stalk hung down over the wall. Bamboo residue was found on the top of the wall from the stalk being pulled tight against the concrete. And most telling were gorilla footprints on the wall, Krantz said.
The bamboo apparently had drooped down during recent heavy rains. Keepers walk the perimeter of the exhibit each day before the gorillas are allowed out of their barn.
Also, Krantz said nobody would have expected one of the gorillas — at 390 pounds, Mike is the lightest of the three — could pull himself up on such a thin stalk. But the stalk didn’t break and the roots didn’t pull out of the ground.
Nearly every week, an animal at the zoo “does something you’d swear they couldn’t do,” Krantz said.
Later in the day, mammal curator John Davis tested the escape theory by climbing on the stalk himself. The stalk didn’t break.
The gorillas won’t be allowed back outdoors for several days, while the exhibit is examined and vegetation is cut back. However, there won’t be any other consequences for the gorillas.
“He was being a gorilla,” Krantz said. “He found something he found curious.”
People waiting outside during the lockout got the barest of details from zoo employees at the ticket window. Some learned about the escape during cell phone conversations with friends who read about the incident on news Web sites.
“We were waiting outside, not realizing what had happened,” said Tomiko Lloyd, who was one of three adults with a large group of youngsters from All God’s Children Day Care Center in Hopkins. “Someone called the bus driver and told him what was going on. As soon as I heard it was a gorilla loose, I rounded up the kids and put ‘ em back on the bus.”
But Lloyd didn’t hesitate when zoo officials reopened the entrance gate, and she said the kids enjoyed seeing all the animals, including the gorillas in their barn.
All those waiting outside at that time were allowed to enter for free.
“That was a nice gesture,” Lloyd said.
Before the Gorilla Base Camp opened in 2001, Riverbanks hired expert rock climbers and asked them to try to climb out of the exhibit.
Several years ago, one of the original group of gorillas at Riverbanks got past the first of the three entry doors at the barn when a keeper left it unlocked. But it was lured back behind the door before it could do any harm.
The zoo has a thick safety manual and strict guidelines on dealing with each species. Each keeper also is equipped with pepper spray and a radio. On the rare instance when a call goes out about an escape, Riverbanks has nearly a dozen staffers with SLED training and access to rifles.
The two gorilla incidents are the only times guns have had to be pulled out, Krantz said. No guns were fired in either case.
Back in 1974, just after the zoo opened, a zoo worker had to use a blowgun to shoot an escaped polar bear with a tranquilizer dart. Just before opening time, the bear got out of its exhibit on a ramp accidentally left in the exhibit moat, Krantz said.
There have been other escapes — by siamangs, lemurs, bongos and plenty of birds. But escapes by the most dangerous of zoo animals — tigers, lions, bears, hyenas, gorillas, elephants, alligators, crocodiles and venomous snakes — are rare.
Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.