Ape Keepers Go Undercover to Stem Escapes : Beware, Ken! That Tourist Is Not a Tourist

Times Staff Writer

Ken Allen is an orangutan who wants out of the San Diego Zoo. Twice he has outwitted his captors and scaled the wall to mingle with visitors and throw rocks at a neighboring orangutan. Each time he has been caught.

But this has become a job for an undercover zookeeper.

Zoo officials say Ken is too smart to try anything with uniformed keepers around so, when he is allowed back in the exhibit next week, he will be under careful watch--by zookeepers masquerading as tourists.

Plainclothes zookeepers--perhaps wearing shorts, sunglasses and a camera--will be assigned to watch the wily Ken, who escaped last Wednesday for the second time in six weeks. At the slightest indication that he’s eyeing an escape route, the zoo agents will report by radio to intelligence, according to mammal curator Diane Brockman.


Brockman said orangutans are extremely intelligent and Ken, 15, would be suspicious if someone in a zoo uniform, or someone he knows, was observing him. “We’ll have keepers who haven’t worked with him before,” she said. They will be dressed inconspicuously to blend in with the tourists.

Ken first escaped June 13, five days after he was moved to a new enclosure in the Southeast Asia exhibit. The exhibit, a large open area with a jungle gym made of telephone poles, has a deep moat in back bordered by high walls. Officials speculate that Ken escaped by shinnying up the wall using his long, strong arms.

After the first escape, the height of the wall was extended four feet, but he managed to find another route. Last Wednesday he climbed the wall again and was found throwing a rock at his neighbor, Otis, a 20-year-old orangutan who is not known to be amiable.

Zoo workers are busy plugging all the possible escape routes. The rear wall has been smoothed to eliminate handholds and the moat will be deeper so that Ken can’t reach the walls as easily. Work should be completed this week, said Brockman.

But zookeepers fear that Ken may find yet another chink in the zoo’s armor. And that’s where the surveillance comes in. If Ken is spied eyeing a particular nook or cranny, the undercover agents will be instructed to call an ape keeper and warn Ken that he better not try it. If he is caught in the act, zoo officials will know where to focus their next attempts to escape-proof the exhibit.

In the meantime, Ken is confined to his bedroom, a cage in the basement of the exhibit. “He’s being cool,” Brockman said. “He’s contemplating finding a big rock to throw at Otis.”