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Gorilla Escapes From Compound, Roams Zoo for 1 1/4 Hours

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Zoo visitor Kenny Hansen knew something was terribly wrong Wednesday afternoon when “a zoo guy ran up and yelled, ‘Please leave as quickly as possible! There’s a serious safety condition here!’ ”

In fact, Evelyn, the zoo’s 300-pound, 24-year-old western lowland gorilla, had escaped from her compound and was behaving like a huge child.

For about an hour and 15 minutes, Evelyn, who was born in the zoo, poked flowers, swatted at butterflies, played hide and seek with anxious zoo keepers and even went for a stroll to see orangutans, giraffes and elephants.

In the meantime, about two dozen security people, attendants and curators went on maximum alert. They locked down the big cats, bears and bongo antelope, cleared people out of restrooms and gift stands and ushered everyone toward the front parking lot.

“Our biggest problems were three television helicopters buzzing low overhead,” said Michael Dee, the zoo’s animal curator. “We could potentially have had other gorillas trying to do the same thing, or even had other animals crashing into each other.”

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For a few tense moments, zoo officials worried that Evelyn might try to free other large animals.

After several failed attempts to coax her back into her habitat area with bananas and apples left on the sidewalks, a zoo attendant in a truck fired a tranquilizer dart. Evelyn staggered into a men’s room and collapsed unconscious on the cold tile floor, Dee said.

The animal’s brief adventure had begun about 2:55 p.m., when, Dee said, Evelyn “pretended to be an Olympic athlete” and ran down a 13-foot moat wall at full tilt.

She gathered sufficient momentum to run high enough up the other side to grab a small branch and vault over a cantilevered rim on the other side of the 15-foot-wide moat, he said.

“Luckily, there were only about 250 people at the zoo,” said zoo spokeswoman Judy Shay. “Given that it had just rained, it was a slow day.”

Hansen was walking toward the gorilla compound when the startled zoo keeper stopped him. He also saw zoo employees and visitors running down every path and roadway leading out of the zoo.

“As people scooted past, I heard one guy say, ‘There’s something loose, man!’ ” said Hansen, a St. Louis musician in town on vacation. “It wasn’t until I was outside of the main entrance that a zoo worker told us it was a gorilla.”

In the end, no one was harmed. Evelyn would later receive a drug to reverse the effects of the anesthesia.

It was not the first time a large animal has been wrangled for safety reasons at the zoo. Only a week ago, a gorilla hopped out of one enclosure and into another, officials said.

In 1992, however, a rowdy, 5-ton elephant named Hannibal died after officials failed in their effort to load the sedated pachyderm onto a truck bound for his new home in Mexico. Zoo officials later said an autopsy by a team of Los Angeles County pathologists found that he died of cardiopulmonary collapse.

On Wednesday, the zoo moved quickly to prevent another gorilla escape, Dee said. For one thing, he said, “we clipped that tiny branch.”


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