L.A. Zoo Wrestles WIth Gorilla Escapes

What’s more trouble than a barrel of monkeys? An outdated and run-down zoo enclosure filled with restless gorillas.

The Los Angeles Zoo is desperate to renovate its aging gorilla habitat, which was originally intended to house bears. The space has proven inadequate to contain two of its resourceful residents, Evelyn and Jim, who have each broken out numerous times.

Evelyn, a 24-year-old female who is the habitat’s premier escape artist, has made it out at least four or five times over the years.

She’s jumped on one of her companion’s backs to climb over the exhibit wall, and, most recently, used a stray vine to swing across the 12-foot-wide moat.

“She’s opportunistic,” says Michael Dee, the zoo’s curator. The habitat’s walls have been raised repeatedly, but the primates have been up to the challenge.

“On her last escape it would appear that a vine ... had somehow gotten within her reach,” says Dee, describing an incident last October.

“She got a running jump and managed to get over.”

Visiting the Giraffes, Swatting Bottoms Evelyn spent her hour and a half of free time taking a look at the giraffes and elephants. After failing to lure her back into the enclosure with snacks, zookeepers tagged her with a tranquilizer dart and the 175-pound female fell unconscious in a men’s restroom.

On a previous escape attempt, she swatted a bystander’s bottom, says Dee.

Evelyn’s partner in crime is 12-year-old Jim, who on one occasion ripped a door off its tracks and squeezed through the opening to escape. On another, the 350-pound male jumped straight over a 12-foot-wall.

Federal officials in November gave the zoo one year to secure its gorilla exhibits or face sanctions.

The zoo’s private support group has raised $5 million towards a new gorilla habitat that will recreate a tropical African environment, but the remaining $2 million needed for construction has been elusive. Zoo officials can’t say when the endangered apes will be able to move into a habitat actually designed for them.

The zoo nearly lost its accreditation in 1995 because of deplorable conditions. In the past few years, however, it has rebounded under a new director, said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Evelyn and Jim’s present home has grass, dirt and logs to keep them comfortable, but the large holding area used to introduce new gorillas to the group is a cement, flourescent-lit space.

‘They Deserve a Better Home’ Though the current gorilla habitat is adequate, Ballentine says, “It just wasn’t built for gorillas.” Ballentine hopes the new space will be more inspiring for visitors, and be more stimulating for the apes, as well as more secure.

“They deserve a new enclosure,” says Dee. “The chimps got a new one. The orangs [orangutans] got one.”

Zoobreaks aren’t limited to the L.A. Zoo. In 1997 a 450-pound lion named Nala escaped from a roadside exhibit near Walt Disney World in Florida and roamed free for two days before being tranquilized.

Also today, a supervisor at the Toledo Zoo resigned after an endangered sloth bear died of starvation at the facility.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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