Escaped ape at Sedgwick County Zoo had physical contact with woman

An orangutan that escaped from its enclosure at the Sedgwick County Zoo early Tuesday had physical contact with a female zoo patron, the zoo said Tuesday afternoon.

Shortly after 10 a.m., deputy zoo director Ryan Gulker said Tao, an 11-year-old female Sumatran orangutan, was spotted on a public pathway in the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat.

While Tao was on the loose, she had contact with a zoo patron, though the patron “never felt that she was in danger or in any way threatened by the orangutan,” the zoo said in a statement late Tuesday.

Sedgwick County Zoo officials scrambled to contain the loose animal, a situation for which it often trains, Gulker said.

“Within 11 minutes all the orangutans were secured indoors,” Gulker said. “She went back into the exhibit through a very small hole that we found.”

Tao, whom Gulker described as “mild-mannered,” wandered about 20 feet at most from her exhibit before returning through the same hole in the woven-mesh enclosure she escaped from, Gulker said. The hole she escaped through was near the base of the enclosure, he said, and it was “about the size of a volleyball.”

“It appears that Tao found a weakness in the wire mesh and may have unwoven it enough to be able to exit through the hole,” the zoo said in a statement.

“Orangutans are pretty agile,” Gulker said. “It was a pretty small hole, but she fit through it, out and back in.”

The zoo was temporarily on lockdown.

The patron who had contact with the gorilla has asked to remain anonymous, the zoo said. Zoo patrons were told they needed to get to shelter immediately because the orangutan was loose.

Travis Grover, who was with his son near the lion exhibit, said he was approached by a worker with a “frantic look” on her face, telling him to seek shelter in the elephant building.

In the elephant building, where he took shelter with about 15 patrons and several workers, he heard over the zoo’s walkie-talkies, “Animal escape – this is not a drill,” and “Shotguns ready if needed.”

“It was pretty hectic for a few minutes,” Grover said.

Gulker said no injuries were reported – to humans or the animals.

“Tao, the female orangutan that got out, is a very mild-mannered orangutan,” he said. “She came in Aug. 5 from Germany, and she’s been integrating into the group. That’s gone very well.”

Zookeepers are monitoring Tao to ensure she is not overly stressed from the brief stroll in freedom, Gulker said. The zoo has four orangutans, two males and two females.

Until further notice, the orangutans’ outdoor enclosure will be closed, Gulker said, while zookeepers investigate what went wrong and what can be done to prevent future escapes. Two orangutans escaped from the enclosure in 1996 for about 25 minutes before going back inside on their own.

Gulker said the enclosures are inspected daily.

“We’re going to look at the exhibit inside, outside, up and down with a microscope,” he said. “It’s going to take a little while before we decide how do we fix those – if there’s more than one spot we find, we’ll have to repair those before they can go back out.”

Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt