Gracie Acts More Like Hairy Houdini

Times Staff Writer

Her admirers call her Amazing Gracie, and this week the 16-year-old chimpanzee proved just how amazing she is by escaping from her enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo for the fourth time.

Gracie's leap to freedom Monday afternoon set a single-animal zoo record, and the incident caused the kind of buzz the zoo dreads. Television helicopters hung noisily in the sky, threatening to spook the hoof stock, which was penned up as roughly 4,000 zoo visitors were evacuated.

CNN carried the story and City Council members swapped tales about Amazing Gracie at their Wednesday meeting.

By escaping, Gracie had done what the zoo had promised the U.S. Department of Agriculture last summer it would prevent. The department enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, and after more than 35 animal escapes in recent years -- a gray kangaroo briefly hopped out of its enclosure in 1998 -- the zoo had agreed to improve its record, and escapes were down.

Then came Gracie.

On Wednesday, zoo general curator Michael Dee showed two Agriculture Department representatives where Gracie had escaped for 45 minutes and what the zoo was going to do about it.

But even as zoo officials promised to Gracie-proof the chimp enclosure, her captors expressed admiration for their hirsute escape artist.

"It was quite a feat," said Jennie McNary, the zoo's curator of mammals, describing the leap as "pretty spectacular."

But if her jumping ability was surprising, her ingenuity was not.

"She comes from a family of leaders," McNary said. "That family does unusual things."

Gracie was born at the zoo to a matriarchal female named Pandora. Gracie's younger brother, Jerrard, successfully challenged the adult males in the group for dominance at the relatively tender age of 8, McNary said. And another younger brother, Andy, was the only chimp in the group who would wade into water up to his neck, back when the chimps' enclosure was protected by a moat.

Gracie's keepers plan to use a tape measure to determine just how far Gracie jumped, leaping from a beam near the top of the chimps' Mahale Mountain enclosure and grabbing on to a water pipe about 15 feet away.

Observers say Gracie kept trying until she got it right. According to the visitor who reported the incident to zoo officials, the chimp made four attempts. The first three times, she missed, sliding down a wall about 20 feet high, then loping back to the beam and jumping again. The fourth time -- about 3:30 p.m. -- was the charm.

While officials whisked visitors from the grounds, Gracie clambered along the back of the enclosure to the so-called penthouse, where she and the zoo's 16 other chimps are housed when not on exhibit. Zoo workers surrounded her, and she returned to an enclosure on her own.

"Gracie is just a really smart chimp who was acting like a really smart chimp," said Craig Stanford, an expert on great apes and an anthropology professor at USC.

Stanford praised the Mahale Mountain enclosure despite the breach.

"You can only account for so many contingencies," he said. "The people at the zoo do a fantastic job making the exhibit work for the chimps."

He said it would be unfortunate if the zoo ended up being sanctioned because of "one chimp who's very clever and can find her way around any obstacle."

Dee said he told two Agriculture Department inspectors that the zoo would be extending an existing redwood fence at the top of the enclosure by 10 feet and removing the water pipe that Gracie grabbed on to. Dee said the work would probably begin this week. Mahale Mountain remains open, Gracie in the penthouse.

McNary said Gracie is the only chimp who has ever escaped at the zoo "and the only one who seems to make the effort."

Gracie, who turns 17 on Monday, is "inspirational," McNary said. She's not only the most intelligent of the zoo's chimps, but "she has a very strong personality. She likes to be in charge, and she's very, very inquisitive."

She also likes to challenge her environment. Chimps and other great apes are known for their intelligence and dexterity. And, as Stanford points out, when such animals are confined in zoos, they often come up with ways to get out.

"I know of stories of chimps who escaped from islands by commandeering small boats," said Stanford.

After Gracie made her third break, in 1999, the zoo smoothed out potential handholds in the enclosure and spent $35,000 for an overhang designed to keep the chimps inside. The changes deterred every one, but Gracie.

Gracie is superior at such chimpanzee arts as using sticks to get food and nest building, McNary said. And she also is gifted in what would be called emotional intelligence if she were a person.

"She's very, very good with the kids up there," McNary said of the way Gracie interacts with the zoo's three juvenile chimps, who include her 3-year-old daughter, Jean.

Several years ago, Gracie's keepers recognized that she was the perfect primate to ease the zoo's three baby chimps into the group. Said McNary: "She took on the responsibility very maturely and introduced these hand-raised chimps into what it is to be a chimp, into chimp society."

She is a patient parent, McNary said, although when the youngsters got older she would discipline them with a bark or a smack.

"She's beautiful, too," the curator said.

"She's got a classic chimp build, and she's got a very pretty face. You can just see the intelligence in her eyes."

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