Restless gorillas

An adolescent's dash to freedom at Franklin Park dramatizes problems faced by US zoos

By Rebecca Deusser and Katherine Lutz, Globe Correspondents, 9/28/2003

The gorilla exhibit at the Franklin Park Zoo was supposed to be escape-proof. Its 12-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep moat was intended to prevent even the most agile ape from leaping across to the human side of the divide.


But designers of the 15-year-old Tropical Forest didn't figure on Little Joe, a 5-foot-tall, 300-pound adolescent gorilla who, like human teenagers, was increasingly restless with life at home. Little Joe, 11, was able to scale a steep wall and cross the moat because he has not yet gained the weight to fill out his long arms and body.

That's when startled zoo volunteers spotted Little Joe with nothing between him and the public except a potted plant. Zookeepers quickly evacuated the one family in the Tropical Forest that morning, allowing Joe to tour the forest exhibit building, returning to the ape enclosure on his own 10 minutes later.

Though no one was hurt, the incident alarmed zoo staff since there had never been a successful gorilla escape before.

Joe's brief brush with freedom in August underscores a growing problem at American zoos: an increasing number of young male gorillas who are both agile enough and restless enough to challenge the security systems that hold them.

While the growth is only part of an overall 38 percent increase in the captive gorilla population since the 1980s, zookeepers say the adolescent males present the most problems.

"It's a challenge and a growing challenge in North American [zoos]," said John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England in Boston, which runs the Franklin Park Zoo. The zoo has acquired three male gorillas since 1998.

In many zoos, including Franklin Park, the gorillas live in a single group of males and females rather than in gorillas' more natural grouping, a harem where a single sexually mature male mates with several females. The young adult males, called bachelors, can start to become a social problem between the ages of 10 and 19 as they start to become more interested in the females.

Victor Camp, zoo director at St. Paul's Como Zoo in Minnesota, compares the adolescent ape problem to the "bar male syndrome:" The guys in the bar are getting along fine, playing pool or whatever, until the women arrive and their whole attitude changes. "They start strutting their stuff," Camp said.

When males start to act out, the best solution is to remove them from the larger group. But, because most zoos do not have multiple long-term holding areas for gorillas, they have trouble nipping conflicts in the bud.

As a result, bachelors can become restless, and at times, physical. A young gorilla escaped from the Como Zoo in 1994, leaping nearly 12 feet onto a boulder and jumping across a moat to climb out. Another male gorilla, named Hercules, broke loose at the Dallas Zoo in 1998. Hercules bit a zookeeper and then dragged her down a hallway.

Breakouts are not the only problem. The combination of massive size and an immature mind can be dangerous. Camp said that while males are not aggressive by nature, they can unintentionally hurt each other by posturing, throwing their arms at each other, or accidentally brushing up against large canine teeth.

For instance, Kitombe, a 17-year-old male at Franklin Park, deeply ripped another gorilla's calf muscle during a skirmish several years ago.

In a way, the zoos are victims of their own success: Captive breeding programs have worked almost too well, boosting the number of captive gorillas in the United States from 270 to 375 over the last 20 years. But while zoos can increase the birthrate, they cannot control the gender of baby gorillas.

"The problem we have in a captive environment is that there are an equal number of males and females," said Tara Stoinski, manager of conservation programs for Zoo Atlanta in Georgia.

Unfortunately, Species Survival Plan, the group in charge of managing endangered animal populations in US zoos, does not offer much guidance because zoologists are just starting to understand captive gorilla behavior.

Zoo Atlanta, which just finished a two-year study of adolescent males at seven institutions, is about to issue a report suggesting that the bachelors be grouped together, but away from females. "The data suggests that bachelor groups are good for males," Stoinski said, keeping them socially engaged without as much sparring.

In the meantime, zoos employ a number of methods to control problem behavior and to keep the peace among their gorilla groups. The design of the enclosures themselves is key in minimizing dangerous encounters.

"The basic premise is that the animals need to get away from each other," Camp said. "You try to create avenues of escape where one [gorilla] can't be cornered by another."

The Como Zoo built a bridge in its gorilla enclosure so that animals could run in a circle. If a chase occurs, they eventually tire out. The Franklin Park Zoo built in climbable walls to offer escape routes to gorillas trying to avoid confrontation.

To prevent future escapes, the Boston zoo will also add hot wires to the top of the enclosure.

In some cases, zoos may use psychotropic drugs to handle  aggressive behavior. "If the aggression is too severe and is potentially a threat, the zoo may provide some sort of medication to the animal," Camp said. "We haven't done that."

Linehan said that the Franklin Park Zoo experimented with low dosages of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications about five years ago. "We  didn't see any positive effects so we discontinued use," he said.

Looking ahead, institutions building new gorilla exhibits are creating two areas, one for the family group and one for the bachelor group.

"Probably we're going to need double the number of all-male groups in the future," said Stoinski, who advocates moving adolescent males into bachelor groups while they are quite young. "The longer we wait, the harder it's going to be integrating them."

For the time being Little Joe will remain with the family group at Franklin Park, but the dynamics are changing. Little Joe continues to be more aggressive and dominant among his peers, while Kitombe is ready to breed for the second time and take on the father role of the group.

Linehan said that the exhibit groups might change or Joe may have to be moved to a new zoo in the future.

The group dynamics for the Franklin Park Zoo gorillas have been stable  for five years, Linehan added. "It's been such a joy to watch them grow, and not worry about the challenges," he said. "Now we will just have to work through it."

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


related graphic

 Little Joe's escape


Franklin Park gorilla escapes, attacks 2

Ape cuts girl, 2, and bites zoo worker before recapture

By Brian MacQuarrie and Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff, 9/29/2003

In his second escape in two months, a 300-pound gorilla stormed out of the Franklin Park Zoo last night, attacking a 2-year-old girl and an off-duty zoo employee and leading authorities on a massive chase through darkened woods and along a nearby street until his capture nearly 2 hours later.


Both humans survived the ordeal. The 5-foot adolescent male gorilla, known as Little Joe, was shot at least four times with tranquilizer darts as a cordon of authorities used noise to try to drive him back toward the zoo. The animal, described as nervous outside his enclosure and energized by adrenaline, eluded authorities despite the initial shots of sedatives, drawing large crowds of curious spectators and even pausing for a rest at a bus stop.

More than 50 officials from Boston police, State Police, environmental police, the zoo, and the Animal Rescue League swarmed the area around the zoo, closing Blue Hill Avenue and all streets into Franklin Park. As the gorilla prowled  the edge of the park, a police dispatcher was heard warning officers to "kill the lights" of their cruisers to avoid attracting the animal.

The gorilla escaped just before the zoo's 6 p.m. closing time.  According to witnesses, the ape attacked 2-year-old Nia Scott and 18-year-old Courtney Roberson,  a family friend and off-duty zoo employee who was with her. The animal bit Roberson and deeply scratched the toddler before attempting to attack other zoo workers huddled in fear inside an enclosed ticket booth.

The child, with a gash on her head, was taken to Boston Medical Center, where several stitches were required to close her wound, according to family members. Roberson was bitten on the back and scratched on the leg, according to her mother, Shamika Woumnm of Dorchester.

After Little Joe escaped the apes' enclosure at the Tropical Forest exhibit in the zoo, ticket-taker Nilsa Silva said, only a thin pane of glass separated her and some co-workers from the gorilla. Silva said the animal pressed his face against the glass, just inches from her own, and lifted his arms menacingly as he banged on the booth, apparently trying to get inside.

"I could smell him. He was really big and scary. We were trying hard not to scream," said Silva, 22, of Dorchester. "His hands were up on the booth, and he was trying to figure a way to get in.

"I was terrified," she said.

The gorilla's brush with freedom ended when he was captured, heavily sedated by tranquilizer darts, in a wooded area near Humboldt Avenue and Seaver Street. According to police, Little Joe collapsed on a trail that runs along the park's periphery.

Police and zoo personnel wrapped the gorilla in netting and secured his hands and feet before placing him on a stretcher and taking him back to the zoo in a van. "It's the same basic approach as dealing with an emotionally disturbed person," said police Superintendent Robert Dunford.

Zoo officials said later that the gorilla would not be destroyed, but  they were uncertain about when Joe would be displayed to the public again.  John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, said an intense review would begin today to prevent future escapes.

"Nothing is ever static," Linehan said, adding that live cameras and changes to the rock structure in the Tropical Forest exhibit might be ordered.

In Little Joe's previous escape, on Aug. 13, he exited the apes' enclosure but did not leave zoo grounds. He was recaptured without further incident, and zoo officials said they would add electrified wires to the top of the enclosure in an effort to deter a repeat of the episode.

But yesterday, while Little Joe was on the lam, a wild and at times bizarre chain of events played out in the streets and neighborhoods surrounding Franklin Park.

Mark Matthews, a firefighter who lives on Seaver Street, heard the reports of the gorilla chase on his police scanner.

"I saw the gorilla sitting at the bus stop. Everybody was scared, including the police. They hit him twice with a tranquilizer gun," Matthews said.

Rhonda Devance saw the gorilla at Seaver and Harold streets. "I thought it was a person," she said. "I thought it was a guy with a big black jacket and a snorkel on."   Tiffany Rice, 15, who lives on Crestwood Park, where Nia Scott lives, was out with her 5-year-old brother, Matthew Branch, to get ice cream. Her aunt came by and told them a gorilla was loose. They screamed and ran inside.

Boston police said the gorilla was hit with four tranquilizer darts but had managed to pull at least one of them out. The gorilla was seen pounding his chest with both hands shortly after escaping, police said.

Patrolman John Dorris  summed it up. "I thought I'd seen it all in 18 years," he said.

Relatives of Scott said Roberson  had taken the child to the zoo for an outing. The ape knocked Nia from Roberson's arms and bit Roberson in the back before the young woman tried unsuccessfully to close a door locking the gorilla inside.

Silva, the ticket taker, said Roberson screamed "Code One" --  zoo lingo for a dangerous animal on the loose -- to warn fellow employees.

Terry Scott, Nia's mother, rushed to Boston Medical Center.

"The gorilla snatched my baby," Scott said. "This gorilla, this bastard, jumped on my 2-year-old. My baby's going to have to be all stitched up." After Little Joe had been recaptured last night, zoo president Linehan said, "Of course, we're very regretful someone was injured."Prior to his escape last month, Little Joe had been kept in an enclosure surrounded by a 12-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep moat intended to contain even the most agile ape. But authorities said he was able to scale the wall and cross the moat because, as a typical adolescent, he had not yet gained  the weight to match his long arms.  The escape last month alarmed zoo staff because   it was the first from the Franklin Park facility. Globe correspondents Adam Krauss and Leila A. Fadel contributed to this report, which was written by Globe correspondent John McElhenny.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.







Franklin Park employee tells of attack by gorilla

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 9/30/2003

Courtney Roberson was worried but not terrified when Little Joe leapt at the glass of his cage. After all, the 18-year-old ticket-taker at Franklin Park Zoo had watched the gorilla grow up over the years. Five other gorillas at the tropical forest exhibit were peacefully eating.

But minutes later, one of the four children she had taken to the zoo screamed. Ten-year-old Temani Feagin, Roberson's upstairs neighbor, noticed that Little Joe had his hands on the top of the glass and was dangerously close to climbing out.

''He was just leaping,'' said 9-year-old Josette Kimbrough, whose grandmother lives near Roberson. ''The next thing you know, he's on top [of the edge of his cage], just banging his chest.''

Roberson, carrying 2-year-old Nia Scott, dashed outside the building with the other children and the 300-pound ape in pursuit. Roberson, still holding Scott, threw her weight against the door, trying to keep Little Joe inside.

''I slammed his hand in the door,'' said Roberson yesterday, recalling the episode.

But the 11-year-old gorilla forced a hairy arm through the crack in the door and pulled on the baby's leg, said Roberson and the children. Kimbrough wrapped her sweater around her arm and tried to beat back the gorilla's hands. But seconds later, Little Joe burst through the door.

''I knew . . . there was no stopping him because he's quick, he's big,'' Roberson said.

The gorilla picked her up by the front of her shirt, tossing her several feet and causing her to drop Nia, Roberson recalled. The gorilla then bit Roberson in her lower back and dragged her nearly 15 feet as she screamed and punched at him.

''He picked me up, he threw me, bit me, dragged me,'' she said.

It was only when the ape heard Nia crying, Roberson said, that he stopped attacking her and focused on the 2-year-old several feet away.

The gorilla jumped on Nia, batting her head about three times with his hands, Roberson said. Two of the children -- Feagin and Salanta DePina, a 6-year-old neighbor of Roberson's -- escaped to a booth at the far end of the park.

But Kimbrough said she stayed, hoping to communicate with the animal or find a way to hurt him. Roberson ordered her to run away, and ran away herself to call for help, leaving Nia. ''I cried for two hours, knowing that I left her while he was attacking her,'' Roberson said.

She made it to a nearby booth and sent out a ''code one'' alarm. She soon heard Little Joe outside the booth and saw his hands reach through the opening.

''I can't say for sure that he was looking for me, because I don't know,'' said Roberson, who suffered bruises on her face, cuts on her knee and elbow, and 4-inch bite mark on her back.

Little Joe eventually wandered away and was later captured outside the zoo. A security guard rescued Nia.

As the bandaged child returned to her Roxbury home yesterday, she was asked by reporters about the attack. ''Monkey bite me,'' she said.

After the attack, Roberson made a few hysterical phone calls to family and friends: ''I was just attacked by a gorilla,'' she cried on her mother's answering machine.

Some thought she was just joking.

Although Kimbrough went to school yesterday, Feagin and DePina stayed home after suffering nightmares.

Even Roberson crawled into bed with her mother Sunday night. ''I can't even sleep,'' she said. ''Every time I close my eyes, I see him coming down the hall.''

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 9/30/2003.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


Zoo boosts security; 4 probes begin

By Raja Mishra and Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 9/30/2003

With recaptured gorilla Little Joe safely locked away in a holding pen, police yesterday demanded that Franklin Park Zoo officials quickly upgrade security at the popular gorilla exhibit and refused to rule out putting the restless primate to death in order to protect the public.

Four separate investigations were launched into zoo security and management following the startling escape of the 300-pound ape, who bolted out of the gorilla pavilion Sunday, attacked two people, ambled off the zoo grounds, and shocked residents by showing up at a bus stop on nearby Seaver Street.

Zoo officials sought to reassure the public that the zoo could be safely visited and future gorilla escapes averted. They announced that they would add security cameras in the gorilla area and hired independent zoo security consultants to conduct a review. State and city police officials must sign off on any new security plan.

Little Joe, who spent much of the day eating fruit and watching television yesterday, will remain locked up until the new security measures are in place, as will the other five gorillas that share the habitat with him, said zoo officials.

''He had a history of being a wonderful animal,'' said Zoo New England CEO John Linehan. ''He's not a criminal of any sort. He's a gorilla.''

Zoo officials said, in addition to new security cameras, they would consider motion sensors and higher barriers to protect the public.

Police, who spent two hours pursuing and capturing the gorilla Sunday, stressed that they must put public safety first and would consider euthanizing the gorilla if necessary. State Police are overseeing the investigation into the escape, and have ultimate jurisdiction over what actions to take to prevent another escape. Boston police are assisting State Police.

''If it comes down to that, we have to use whatever tools are necessary,'' said Rafael Ruiz, the Boston police deputy superintendent.

But zoo officials downplayed that possibility. Little Joe is a member of an endangered species, and Linehan said: ''He's a great animal and we will work very hard at finding him a good home if we can't properly contain him.''

Zoo officials were already contemplating shipping the adolescent gorilla out of Boston. They said they were considering moving him in about three years, to prevent him from mating with the zoo's females, who are related to him. Inbred offspring with genetic problems could result.

Yesterday, zoo officials said they are still piecing together all the details of the gorilla's escape over a moat, past an electrified wire, over a waist-high glass barrier, and out of the pavilion.

Little Joe fled his confines once before, last month, prompting zoo officials to add electricity-charged wires along the top of the moat that separates the public from the gorillas' habitat. The wires are designed to deliver a low-voltage charge of sharp pain to frighten the gorillas but not cause serious injury.

But on Sunday, Little Joe got past the 12-foot deep moat, firmly gripping the electric-shock cables on his way out, said an eyewitness. The eyewitness, one of the victims of the gorilla's attack, said it appeared to her the wires were turned off.

''He climbed on the wire that was set up so he couldn't get out,'' said Courtney Roberson, 18, a zoo employee who was thrown, bitten, and dragged several feet by Little Joe. Zoo officials, however, said the wire functioned all day Sunday, passing a morning check and another check conducted moments after Little Joe escaped.

The gorilla also struck and jumped on 2-year-old Nia Scott, who yesterday was discharged from Boston Medical Center with six stitches and several bruises. An independent security specialist will inspect the entire gorilla habitat to determine if certain rock formations within it helped Little Joe get past the moat.

Little Joe had not recently exhibited any behavior unusual for a gorilla surging into puberty, when the primates become sexually active and seek to assert themselves through belligerent posturing and physical challenges directed at other gorillas, said zoo officials. Rather, it was the gorilla's extraordinary physical gifts -- the strength of an adult with the agility of a child -- that appears to have enabled him to bound past a moat that can ably confine the vast majority of gorillas, they said.

Nonetheless, four separate investigations commenced yesterday. Zoo officials began their internal security review. State and local police launched an evaluation of public safety measures in the pavilion that houses the gorillas. The US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service started probing whether zoo conditions violated any federal animal welfare laws. And the National Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits zoos, planned an already scheduled accredition check that will now include extra scrutiny of gorilla security.

''We're checking their safety protocol, finding out how they operate here. Our main goal is public safety and to make sure this doesn't happen again,'' said State Police Commander Lieutenant Brian Greeley, who inspected the perimeter of the gorilla habitat yesterday.

Meanwhile, zoo attendance yesterday was heavy for a Monday, said zoo officials, as mothers curiously wheeled kids in strollers by the empty gorilla habitat and local middle school students peppered tour guides with questions about the ape escape. Though all six gorillas living at the zoo were quaratined, other denizens of the pavilion, like the warthog, contentedly sat in their pens.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, ''There's always going to be that one chance in 1,000 that it could happen again. But I'm confident it'll be safe.''

Gorilla experts said the Franklin Park Zoo's security measures were up to industry standards. The Central Park Zoo's Dan Wharton, who coordinates gorilla breeding at zoos nationwide, said numerous security upgrades were available.

''The list of remedies is so vast and so large. Euthanasia really shouldn't even need to come up,'' he said.

However, Roberson, one of Little Joe's victims, said yesterday: ''They need to let me shoot him.''

Little Joe, a western lowland gorilla native to central Africa, is classified as an endangered species by wildlife agencies. About 100,000 remain in Africa, threatened by rampant poaching, as well as logging and civil strife that have decimated much of their habitat.

He was born in captivity in 1993 at the Bronx Zoo. Zoo keepers call him ''The Scientist'' as well as ''Don Juan,'' and he is considered among the most intelligent of the animals at Franklin Park.

The gorilla has delicately taken apart cameras accidentally dropped into the habitat, curiously arranging the tiny pieces before him. But he has also shown a fondness for blonde women, often blowing kisses or fluttering his eyes at blond female visitors and blond zoo volunteers.

[Not unlike his distant, far better known relative or namesake?, JL]

He has shown particular tenderness with the youngest gorilla at the zoo, 4-year-old Kira, often holding and cuddling the smaller primate; he was specially trained by zoo keepers to handle infants. Zoo volunteers said he has never acted overly belligerent; when several other gorillas were given anti-depressant medication several years ago, well-adjusted Little Joe was exempt. Often, he could be found contentedly watching his favorite videos: footage of himself or the children's show ''Teletubbies.''

About two months ago, said zoo volunteers, the gorilla did, as expected, start acting more assertive. He beat his chest and often stood rigidly, part of every male gorilla's puberty habits. His physical prowess has allowed him to muscle aside 17-year-old Kitombe, until recently the zoo's dominant male.

''Puberty and testosterone has much to answer for in all this,'' said zoo volunteer Gail O'Malley.

Zoo officials say they may never allow him to breed: 37 of his family members live at US zoos, and gorilla experts, in their effort to maintain genetic diversity among the gorilla population, consider the family line too widespread. Zoo officials said Little Joe could therefore be sent to live out his days in a male-dominated colony or even isolated from from other families.

Staff writer Doug Belkin and correspondent Sasha Talcott contributed to this story. Raja Mishra can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/30/2003.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.