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.


Jumping to 2007

The Boston Globe
'I couldn't believe it,' Little Joe victim says
1st civil suit targets zoo, officials in 2003 attack

By John R. Ellement, Globe Staff | September 19, 2007

Little Joe's thick fingers curled around the leg of the terrified toddler in Courtney Roberson's arms, and then the 300-pound gorilla pushed open the door and grabbed Roberson.

"He picked me up by my shirt, lifted me off the ground, and tossed me," Roberson said yesterday. "When Joe threw me, I dropped Nia. . . . Nia was screaming the whole time."

Nia S. Scott was 2 years and 9 months old on Sept. 28, 2003, when a late afternoon visit to Franklin Park Zoo ended with a harrowing confrontation with a Western lowland gorilla who had outwitted his keepers and escaped from his exhibition space.

"I couldn't believe that I was just attacked by a gorilla at the zoo," Roberson said in Suffolk Superior Court, where Nia's mother is suing Zoo New England and five top officials. "I couldn't believe it happened."

Roberson, who took Nia and three other children to the zoo that day, was the first witness in the civil lawsuit filed by Nia's mother, Terrasita Duarte-Scott, which contends that Nia suffered physical injuries as a result of the encounter and that both mother and daughter have suffered persistent psychological damage.

Roberson said that after attacking her, Little Joe suddenly shifted his attention to the child. As Roberson ran to get help, she looked back.

"The last time I seen Nia, I saw her in front of the Tropical Forest, being attacked by Joe," said Roberson, who was 18 at the time and has her own lawsuit pending. "I remember crying, 'I can't help her!' "

In his opening statement, Scott's attorney, Donald Gibson, accused zookeepers of failing to build a safe exhibition space. He said the gorilla, then 10 years old, had nearly escaped in 1999 and had also escaped the exhibition area, but not the building, in August 2003.

Gibson said that the once-outgoing girl now has nightmares and has become wary. The relationship between mother and daughter, he said, was altered because of her encounter with the ape.

In their opening statements, lawyers for the zoo and its officials acknowledged that Nia Scott had been injured, but urged jurors to closely question the extent of those injuries.

Kevin Kenneally, representing Zoo New England, suggested that the child started and stopped therapy at Gibson's urging.

He also suggested there may be no connection between the incident at the zoo and any emotional difficulties the child may have.

"There are other things in life that can affect people, especially young children," Kenneally said.

After the attack, the gorilla exhibit was shut down, and the zoo spent three years and $2.3 million building a new exhibition space for the apes, which has since reopened.

Roberson, who is close with Nia Scott's mother, said she took Nia and three girls, ranging in ages from 6 to 9, to the zoo, where she worked in guest services.

Roberson said that they entered the tropical forest exhibit area around 5:45 p.m. She said that she understood it was zoo policy to remove the apes from public display around 5:30 p.m. and that she did not expect any apes when they entered.

But Little Joe and two other apes were out. After they had been in the building for a few minutes, Roberson said, she heard a boom and one of the girls ran to her, shouting that Little Joe had escaped.

Roberson said they ran down a long hallway toward the exterior door, and at one point she looked back and saw that Little Joe was pursuing.

When she got to the doors, Roberson said, she realized that Nia had fallen behind and ran back to pick up the child. She had Nia in her arms and had made it outside, when the gorilla slammed into the exterior doors and grabbed Nia's leg.

After Little Joe threw her to the ground, Roberson said, she saw the gorilla standing over the girl on all fours, with his right arm swinging toward her.

She said the gorilla swung his arm at Nia up to eight times, but acknowledged that she never saw if Little Joe struck the child.

The trial resumes today with John Linehan, chief executive officer, on the stand. The girl is expected to testify later in the trial.

John Ellement can be reached at
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


The Boston Globe
Zoo officials liable in gorilla attack
Jury awards girl $175k in damages

By Brian R. Ballou, Globe Staff | September 27, 2007

A Dorchester girl who was attacked four years ago by a gorilla that escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo and terrorized the surrounding neighborhood was awarded $175,000 yesterday by a Suffolk Superior Court jury.

The jury found that five caretakers of the western lowland gorilla named Little Joe were liable for the injuries the animal inflicted on Nia Scott on Sept. 28, 2003, when she was 2 years and 9 months old. But the jury decided against awarding damages to the girl's mother, Terrasita Duarte-Scott, who was not present during the attack but said her relationship with her daughter had suffered as a result.

Duarte-Scott, who appeared disappointed by the verdict, met privately with her lawyers for about 10 minutes and then walked briskly to an elevator. On the way, she said, "They did what they thought was fair, but I'm speechless, just speechless. What I wanted to do was prove that they were negligent."

Her lawyer, Donald L. Gibson, said Duarte-Scott was courageous to bring the case to court. "And the jury, by its verdict, said this [attack] wasn't supposed to happen," he said. "But we're somewhat disappointed that the mother was not awarded damages."

At the beginning of the trial, Gibson attempted to prove to the jury that Zoo New England, the company that operates Franklin Park Zoo, was negligent in its duty to use "reasonable care to keep the animal confined" and that the keepers, the five zoo officials named in the suit, were liable for the harm the gorilla caused.

After deliberating for more than six hours over two days, the jury concluded that the zoo was not negligent when Little Joe climbed out of his enclosure and attacked Scott. But the jury ruled that zoo officials, as the keepers of a wild animal, should still compensate Scott.

The five officials named in the lawsuit include the zoo's president and chief executive officer, John Linehan, and head veterinarian, Dr. Hayley Murphy.

The attack left Scott cut and bruised. Little Joe then went on to terrorize the neighborhood near the zoo for two hours before police subdued him with tranquilizer darts. During the six-day trial, the plaintiffs' lawyers alleged that the attack inflicted long-term psychological damage, causing Nia Scott, now 6, to have nightmares, made her less outgoing, and damaged her relationship with her mother.

Gibson said the case should have a lasting impact on the way zoos around the country safeguard the public from dangerous animals. "We know Zoo New England has rethought its policies and made improvements," he said.

He would not say how much money would have been acceptable to Duarte-Scott, adding that state law prohibits attorneys from seeking a specific amount in damages.

Linehan spoke briefly outside the courtroom, saying the tropical forest exhibit has been fortified since Little Joe's escape.

"Terrasita and Nia clearly are thoughtful and wonderful people," he said. "It's sad this incident happened, but certainly the new facility will prevent it from ever happening again. We respect what the jury brought back."

Nia, who went to the zoo with family friend Courtney Roberson, testified Monday about her harrowing encounter with Little Joe.

"He hit me," she said. "He hit me with his claws. Then he dragged me and gave me stitches."

The little girl testified that she has scars in several places along her forehead and on both of her legs where Little Joe grabbed her. She also said the gorilla damaged her teeth. Roberson, who settled her own lawsuit, testified that the gorilla slapped at the child five to eight times.

Gibson said that asking Nia, a first-grader, to testify was unavoidable. "We would never gamble with a child, but it was necessary to put Nia on the stand and have her tell her story," he said.

Little Joe returned to public view last February, settling into his $2.3 million exhibit space, which has triple-layered glass and a steel mesh roof. After entering his new home, the imposing 14-year-old eyed the people watching through a new glass viewing wall and ran about 30 feet to slam his 400-pound frame against the glass. Zoo officials said such behavior signaled Joe was glad to be back.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

The Observer
Looking for Little Joe
Finding education, dedication at Franklin Park Zoo

By Sam Allis, Globe Columnist | September 30, 2007

I'm looking through triple-pane glass at Little Joe. He was born in captivity, like virtually all zoo animals today, but I'm convinced he gets subliminal bursts of something more. Some vast somewhere he can't quite see. Call it a nostalgia for something that never was.

Joe sits inert, then lopes slowly across to another spot in the gorilla quarters. Chews on a piece of straw. Lies on his back and holds his ankles and stares up at the new roof and beyond. Locks eyes with you to take your measure and make you ponder, ever so briefly, the whole concept of zoos.

You know zoos are invaluable tools to educate us about the richness of life on earth. You see the delight of kids taking a gander at their first camel, which remains one of the damnedest looking things I've ever seen.

But despite the best efforts of excellent staff at the Franklin Park Zoo to provide a great environment for these guys, you can't miss the claustrophobia of it all for a great ape. Little Joe, remember, flew the coop because he wanted breathing room. He wanted more.

We're not talking crustacean here. More than 98 percent of Little Joe's DNA is the same as mine. Fred Basilico, a top cardiologist at New England Baptist, treats Joe and the other six gorillas there. John Linehan, president and chief executive officer of Zoo New England, was so impressed with how Basilico took care of the seven that he made him his own cardiologist.

(Zoo New England is the public/private partnership formed in 1992 that includes Franklin Park and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham.)

I hadn't thought of Little Joe when I showed up at Franklin Park last week. I went there because when the going gets tough, the tough go to the zoo. Nor had I thought about the litigation over the injuries sustained four years ago by a toddler named Nia Scott when Joe escaped from his digs and attacked her. (Two days after my visit, a jury awarded $175,000 to Nia's family for her pain and suffering.)

But once there, I realized I had to see the perpetrator of the crime. So off I went to the Tropical Forest Pavilion and its new, more secure gorilla habitat in search of Joe.

He and the others looked vacant, but that can be misleading. "You never put two big males together," explains Dave Lead Keeper, a top staff member in the Tropical Forest facility. (His badge read "Dave Lead Keeper" but he didn't want to give his last name, so I call him Dave Lead Keeper.)

A big male, Kitombe, is already separated from Joe and his pal Okpara. Kitombe hung out above ground the day I was there while the rest remained below. Kitombe, explains Dave, would go after Little Joe and Okpara in a heartbeat given the chance. It's not all testosterone, by the way. You wouldn't want to catch 35-year-old Gigi on a bad hair day either.

Joe and Okpara, both 14, are considered teenagers. Raised as brothers, without a blood connection, they have yet to reach the point where they must be separated, as male gorillas inevitably are to avoid serious mayhem. Their air sacs are still developing too, which means it will be awhile before their chest-thumping roar reaches basso profundo.

Beyond this building, the zoo looks ragged. Some buildings are dirty, some exhibits are closed, others in sketchy shape. The glare from the floor in the Little Critters building makes it almost impossible to see anything there. I tried desperately to glimpse the prehensile-tailed skink without luck.

Linehan, 48, acknowledges the situation and is doing something about it. He is spearheading a 10-year plan that should be finished by the end of this year to chart the future of both zoos, and he's starting work on a shorter project to spiff them up.

You root for him and his staff because you know they're trying like hell with limited resources. With years of underfunding and management chaos, you assume they're holding on by their teeth. Wrong.

Despite its manifest problems, Zoo New England is actually on the way up. It has been in the black for the past four years in a row, a record. It enjoyed record attendance last year. Record membership, too. Where the annual budget dropped below $3 million in the early '90s, it's at $10.4 million now, one-fifth of which goes to the Stone. About 60 percent comes from the state.

I like Linehan for a couple of reasons. First, he has spent 26 years at the zoo - more than half his life - and he knows what he's talking about. Second, he speaks plainly.

"Fifteen years ago it was a dismal place," he says. "We literally went years without paying our utility bills. In the '80s, I could close it for a day and no one would notice. The zoo has been underfunded pretty much since the end of World War II."

Last week I noticed new fauna at the zoo - species of suburban women with strollers from exotic places like Needham and Brookline. Ten years ago they'd have never gotten near the place. Too scary. You still hear the sirens along Blue Hill Avenue, but the women's comfort level has risen.

So I say, to paraphrase the E.E. Cummings line about the circus, "Damn everything but the zoo!"

Sam Allis's e-mail address is
Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.



I (JL) recently visited the Franklin Park zoo (2/2009) and found the gorilla inmates apparently quite happy. Little Joe was still being a brute, while the nursing Kiki was flirting with her audience and a juvenile played with its blankey while Joe watched from a distance.