KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A group of seven chimpanzees at the Kansas City Zoo got the briefest taste of freedom on Thursday afternoon, before being lured back into their enclosure with a more familiar taste: dinner and dessert.
Zoo officials believe a chimpanzee broke off a six-foot tree branch and used it to scale the enclosure wall. After the ringleader climbed, he beckoned six others to follow him. Three chimps jumped off the other side of the wall, out of their enclosure, into a zookeeper area not open to the public.
“Chimps are so smart and they live in this big social group. So hey - I found a way out, why doesn't everybody come join me,” explained Kansas City Zoo director Randy Wisthoff.
The incident happened as the zoo was preparing to close for the afternoon, and officials estimate there were only a few hundred people left in the park. They were never in danger, officials say, but animals getting outside of their enclosure triggered a so-called “code red” for the zoo, which put the entire 200 acre property on lockdown and moved remaining patrons to interior areas like restrooms, concession stands, and even the penguin exhibit.
“They were having fun watching, looking at the penguins, then it got kind of boring,” said Felicia Allen, who spent 45 minutes closed into the penguin exhibit with her children and some 40 other people.
Zookeepers used food, mostly vegetable, to ultimately lure the escaped primates back to their enclosure. Wisthoff said chimpanzees are highly territorial, but curious, and probably weren’t actually interested in escaping.
“They're really like dogs and cats. If you've got an inside dog and a cat, they get outside, rarely do they run off,” Wisthoff said. “They sort of stay around home base. Our animals at the zoo are most of the time that way.”
The last of the chimpanzees were lured back with a little dessert of malted milk balls. Not part of their normal diet, said Wisthoff.
The zoo will be open Friday, but the chimpanzees will not be on exhibit. Zookeepers plan to scour their public enclosure for any other potential escape ladders.
“You try to think of everything that could possibly go wrong,” Wisthoff said. “Once in a while Murphy's Law is there. And a chimp pulling those pieces off a tree today, will it ever happen again? I can't say no.”