The Great Zoo Escapes

Both my father and grandfather were head keepers at the London Zoo, having spent some of my childhood ‘assisting’ Dad at work, I’m always interested in anything zoological related pertaining to Zoological Society of London.

It must have been a quiet news month in February 1965, when Goldie the Eagle escaped and for two weeks London’s press was giving updates of ‘Goldie Sightings’.

When he escaped from the Bird of Prey aviary he was a bird with no name. A newspaper reporter asked a Zoo official, quite reasonably, how was he affectionately known. Not wishing to appear callous he blurted out ‘Goldie’, now London’s population had a purpose. Spotted as far afield as Camden Town, Tottenham Court Road and even Euston. Goldie spotters caused traffic jams in Regent’s Park Outer Circle; the Royal Navy was engaged to use special equipment to effect a capture; veteran BBC presenter, John Timpson played an Ethiopian bird pipe in an attempt to lure him.

Goldie attacked an elderly lady’s two terriers, but was seen off with a well-aimed handbag; he was even referred to in a House of Commons debate, and a diplomatic incident was averted when he was rumoured to have killed and eaten a duck in the American ambassador’s garden.

Goldie was finally caught on 11 March after the zoo’s deputy head keeper tempted him to earth with a dead rabbit. The Zoo’s attendance nearly doubled in the days after his return.

Goldie escaped once again on 15 December 1965 and was recaptured on 19th December 1965.

The roles of the keeper and a caged animal’s dinner were nearly reversed in a well-told Zoo anecdote, which just might have been possibly true. The old lion house had the animals raised on a concrete platform behind bars, with a series of steps to allow spectators to view these large cats (whose faeces are remarkably pungent…I was always amazed at just how many families would bring their lunches to this bit of the zoo, trying to consume a scotch egg with watering eyes within the enclosed and unventilated space of the enclosure).

One evening, after the public had left, the lion’s keeper, who was no stranger to alcohol, was showing his friend, who was also partial to a tipple himself, an old arthritic, virtually toothless, the lioness who at this stage was fairly sober. In his enthusiasm the keeper opened the cage, so his inebriated friend could become better acquainted with the queen of the jungle.

Unfortunately, the old lioness was powerless to stop herself from sliding off its platform. A witness described seeing the two drunks, pinned under an old lion, trying to shove the creature back into its lair.

According to J. Barrington-Johnson’s book The Zoo: A History of London Zoo tells of Cholmondley the Chimp who in 1948 didn’t need an Oyster Card to board a bus:

On one occasion, while temporarily in the Zoo hospital, he managed to escape: he got out of the Zoo, walked across the corner of Regent’s Park, and hailed a bus in Albany Street. Having got on the bus, he sat down next to a lady and put his arm around her shoulders. He then — probably because the lady was having hysterics – bit her!

More recently in 2009, a red panda was spotted during the night sitting in a tree, after spending several hours trying to lure the panda down a tranquillizer dart was used to return it to the enclosure.

In 2014 Belsize Park residents had a year of entertainment, even creating a Twitter account when a peahen escaped when a visitor left a door open to the aviary.

All these tales were nearly eclipsed when in October 2016 Kumbuka a male silverback gorilla managed to enter the service area, allowing him to get into the area used by zookeepers. He didn’t get the chance to explore the rest of the Zoological Gardens.

Featured image: Panthera leo in London Zoo by Pelican (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

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