London Zoo officials are trying to reassure the public that stories about one of its gorillas escaping from an enclosure last week were exaggerated.
Reports that Kumbuka had left his secure pen at the London Zoo last Thursday sent visitors into a frenzy.
Armed police descended on the zoo and visitors were locked inside buildings until the 400-pound male western lowland gorilla was subdued with a tranquilizer dart, according to the Associated Press.
The response on the Internet was similarly intense. Immediately, people drew comparisons to Harambe, a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla who was shot and killed in May after a child wandered into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Harambe’s death has spawned hundreds of unrelenting memes.
But Kumbuka would suffer no such fate: He was tranquilized and placed back in his enclosure in just over an hour, the AP reported.
A week later, director of zoology David Field penned a post on the zoo’s official blog, saying that “the incident itself was less dramatic than some would have you believe.”
“I can certainly tell you that there were no broken locks, Kumbuka did not smash any windows, he was never ‘on the loose’ and his normal gorilla posturing reported by visitors earlier in the day was unrelated to the incident,” wrote Field, who noted that he started his career as a volunteer zookeeper in 1980, caring for gorillas and chimpanzees. “What I will tell you is what happened, according to those who were actually there.”
According to Field, Kumbuka was “called into his private night quarters” for his dinner around 5:10 p.m. on Oct. 13.
“As a big silverback male with a matching appetite, he eats separately from the females,” Field explained, “otherwise they wouldn’t get a look in.”
However, both the door to his den and a secondary security door had not been properly secured. That’s when Kumbuka made his way from the unlocked den into a “staff-only service corridor” where a zookeeper was working, Field wrote.
“Thanks to the incredibly close bond and relationship shared by the zookeeper and Kumbuka, the zookeeper was able to continually reassure Kumbuka, talking to him calmly and in the same lighthearted tone he would always use, as he removed himself from the area,” Field said.
As the two interacted, other staff members raised an alarm that triggered a “standard escape response.”
Cue the armed police descending on the zoo.
Kumbuka, apparently unaware of the ruckus he was causing, explored this “staff-only” area. At some point, he got his hands on “five liters of undiluted blackcurrant squash,” or a little less than 1 1/2 gallons of concentrated blackcurrant syrup.
The gorilla opened the container and promptly drank the whole thing.
Shortly after his blackcurrant binge, Kumbuka was tranquilized and moved back into his den, Field said.
While drinking such a large amount of sugary liquid could have caused the gorilla severe stomach pains and diarrhea, Kumbuka did not seem to be adversely affected, perhaps because of his size, University of Stirling primatologist Phyllis Lee told BBC News.
“Five liters is quite a lot for a gorilla to consume in one go, but given a gorilla’s manual dexterity, I would assume that some would have been spilled,” Lee said. “He must have found it and taken his opportunity, similar to how a 4-year-old child would.”
A London Zoo spokeswoman told BBC News that the drink — albeit a far more diluted version — is a part of the daily diet for gorillas at the zoo, along with cold fruit tea and fresh vegetables.
Field acknowledged that any security breach was serious but praised the quick-thinking actions of zookeepers and others involved in the response.
“Within two hours Kumbuka was back with his family, snacking on treats, and probably wondering what all the fuss was about,” he wrote.
Since his escape, animal rights activists called for an independent investigation, saying the situation could have ended much more tragically, the AP reported.
Field said the zoo would review its security measures but continue to trust in “our people” who “have the utmost respect for Kumbuka and the gorilla troop.”
“We know that humans sometimes make mistakes, but these are rare,” Field wrote. “We also know that automating every security system poses a greater risk of mechanical failure, and could lead to an overreliance on technology that will create the kind of complacency that has no place here.”
Since 2007, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the western lowland gorilla as “critically endangered,” noting that the population of the species has declined by more than 60 percent in the past 25 years.