Gorillas missed: Two escape exhibit at Kansas City Zoo

Water hose was used to lure animals back to enclosures. Public was never in danger.

02/19/2012 5:00 AM

02/20/2012 10:39 AM

His name means peacemaker.

But on Sunday at the Kansas City Zoo, Mbundi and his half-brother Ntondo decided to stir up a little trouble instead.

The western lowland gorillas, each weighing more than 400 pounds, managed to get from their enclosed exhibit into a zookeeper area. That triggered a “code red” and prompted zoo employees to herd visitors into buildings as a precaution.

Two keepers who were in the area and realized that they were close to the animals climbed a ladder out of the exhibit, said Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff.

Zoo officials emphasized that the public was never in danger during the three-hour incident, which ended when employees used water hoses to force the animals out of the building and back into their secure enclosure about 5:45 p.m.

Just under 1,800 people visited the zoo Sunday, and employees immediately gathered visitors throughout the zoo into enclosed areas and told them to keep the doors shut.

After about 45 minutes, officials determined the extent of the situation and allowed people to leave the secure areas. As a precaution, the Africa area of the zoo was shut down for the rest of the day, but visitors in other areas were not evacuated, and many were unaware of the situation until they walked out and saw numerous television vans and trucks.

Raytown resident Ron Ballenger and his family were among those who were taken to the building housing the crocodile exhibit. Ballenger said they were only told that an animal had gotten loose.

Derek Zaun of Lee’s Summit said he and his family were starting to walk across the swinging bridge that leads to the area of the gorilla exhibit when other visitors told them to turn back.

“People were rushing at us saying a gorilla was loose,” Zaun said.

They were guided by zoo employees into the lion viewing area.

Some visitors leaving the zoo after the incident said they weren’t told specifically what was going on.

But Wisthoff said that a code red means that there is a potentially dangerous situation, and employees don’t necessarily known which section of the zoo or what animals are involved. They are trained to get people to safety as quickly as possible.

“Our highest priority is to get visitors to a safe area,” he said.

Several zoo visitors said employees acted professionally during the incident.

“They were cool, calm and collected. No one panicked,” said zoo visitor Tom Fevurly of Kansas City.

Mbundi and Ntondo, whose name means “where it all begins,” were born in 1993 and came to Kansas City from the zoo in Calgary.

They are among six gorillas at the zoo and are kept separate from the females in the exhibit.

That may have accounted for them staying so long in the unauthorized area because it put them into a place where they could see the females.

“They were posturing for the females,” said Julie Neemeyer, the zoo’s director of marketing. “They were doing what male gorillas do.”

A special team was standing by to tranquilize the animals, but because they were not endangering anyone, keepers instead tried to lure them with special treats like marshmallows.

Finally, the staff resorted to hoses to force the gorillas back out into their compound, and employees were able to shut an open door.

Wisthoff said Sunday that officials did not know yet how the gorillas got out of their exhibit, but a “full assessment” will be undertaken.

He said it was the zoo’s first code red since 2004, when a group of chimpanzees escaped after a large tree fell across the perimeter wall of their enclosure. They, too, were safely returned.

The director said zoo employees are trained and drill for “any and all situations” that could arise.

“Fortunately everything worked out,” he said of Sunday’s incident.

Most people leaving the zoo Sunday afternoon seemed unfazed by the situation.

“It was an exciting day,” said Wolf Zueckert of Fairway.

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