Most zoo visits happen without incident, but sometimes, things go wrong. Visitors scale enclosure walls, and chimpanzees lure people closer for bad reasons.
However, it is when zoos close for the day that things truly get weird. From strange thefts and maulings to bizarre drills, this behind-the-scenes strangeness cannot beat the time when three zoos stole a herd of elephants.
10 Kaln’s Egg
A sanctuary in Gloucester, England, rehabilitates wild species of birds rescued as pets or captive working individuals. For the past 23 years, the haven has taken care of a male eagle owl called Kaln.
In 2019, he laid an egg. The declaration of motherhood was unexpected because the staff never considered the owl as female. Even Kaln looked surprised by the egg.
The sanctuary cannot be faulted for mistaking the bird’s anatomy. Determining the gender of an owl is difficult. Males and females often look identical, and their chromosomes are similar enough to foil genetic tests.
The sanctuary has no interest in such tests. Their priority is not breeding but rehabilitation. Should a bird behave like a male or female, that is how it is viewed.
Kaln carried on like a guy. She tried to mate with everything and never laid the usual six eggs that female eagle owls deposit during the winter. These days, Kaln is seen as the sanctuary’s “tomboy.”
9 The Two Dads
The Sea Life Sydney Aquarium homes several penguins. Among them were Sphen and Magic. The gentoo penguins were inseparable. They courted and even built a nest together. They were also both male. Seeing that the birds were devoted to each other, the staff provided them with a fake egg.
They did such a good job that the aquarium gave them a real egg in 2018. Thinking that they were new dads, Sphen performed security patrols while Magic incubated. After a while, Magic guarded the nest while Sphen warmed the egg.
Their foster chick hatched on October 19, 2018. Weighing no more than an apple, little “Sphengic” was doted on by both of its fathers. When it comes to penguins, same-sex pairs are nothing new. However, it remains exceptionally unusual for them to raise a chick.
8 Santino’s Game
At the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, Santino is the dominant male of a group of chimpanzees. He developed the habit of pelting visitors with “ammunition.” The latter included stones from his enclosure’s moat and concrete lumps that he pilfered from an artificial island.
His stockpiles proved that chimps could plan a future event, something previously considered an exclusively human trait. Why Santino bombarded people was not a mystery. He likely tried to dominate them. Dominant males from other zoos have done the same.
However, in 2012, Santino did something unexpected. After a zoo guide removed a group of visitors from the chimp’s enclosure for safety reasons, he was left without admirers for hours. Santino decided to lure them back.
He hid his projectiles near the visitors’ area, and when the trusting humans returned, he resumed his rudeness. This was the first recorded instance of deception in chimps. The remarkable part was that Santino had made plans about people he could not see and also predicted their behavior.
7 The Valentine’s Day Offer
In 2019, the El Paso Zoo in Texas warmed the hearts of revenge-oriented people—more specifically, anyone who despised their ex and wanted to do something about it. The zoo asked for the first name and last initial of an ex. This title was then transferred to a cockroach. The insect was destined to be fed to a meerkat.
Those who submitted the names could watch the live-streamed event on Valentine’s Day. Called “Quit Bugging Me,” the stunt was a success. Soon after the project was announced, over 1,500 names were submitted, a little too much for the zoo’s meerkat population.
The bugs are rich in nutrients, and each mongoose received a single cockroach. To make up for the fact that most of the names would never end up inside a meerkat’s digestive system, the zoo revealed all the names on social media.
Other institutions followed suit. El Paso offered the name-a-cockroach service for free, but those who really wanted to see an ex consumed could pay between $2 and $15 for the privilege at three other zoos.
6 Zoo Jeans
A pair of jeans remains a fierce fashion choice, although few manufacturers can beat the wild way in which Zoo Jeans makes their pants. In 2014, Mineko Club needed a fundraiser idea for conservation.
The Japanese volunteer group came up with a solution that was both marketable and entertaining for zoo animals. They wrapped tires with denim material as toys for the Kamine Zoo in Hitachi City. The denim wheels were given to tigers, lions, and bears. The predators quickly took to the curious objects and started tearing away at the cloth.
It is no secret that torn jeans are hot favorites, but those mauled to shreds by dangerous creatures are even more so. After the material was rescued, it was sewn up as designer jeans. Buyers had a choice between the lion, tiger, or bear model. The fundraiser held an online auction, and jeans ravaged by a tiger received the best bid of $1,200.
5 Tilda’s Humanlike Calls
Orangutans utter a wide variety of sounds, but a female called Tilda does something unique. The Bornean orangutan lives at Germany’s Cologne Zoo. When she wants more food, Tilda calls for the menu in two different ways. The remarkable thing is that it resembles human vocalizations.
Researchers who analyzed the noises compared one call with clicking sounds used by the Bushmen of Africa. The second consisted of rapid grumbles that mimicked vowel sounds.
Tilda is the first orangutan born in the wild that learned to “speak human” to communicate her needs to people. How she did it remains unknown. But before the ape arrived at the zoo, she was in show business and perhaps was taught as part of an act.
The research might help to understand the origins of speech. If Tilda’s anatomy allows her to make vowel sounds and other humanlike noises, then so could the common ancestors of the great apes. Further investigation might one day pinpoint when and how the first words were spoken.
4 The Butt Slapper
Wanted: Man who slapped a hippo’s bottom. True story.
In 2018, a visitor to the Los Angeles Zoo went to the hippopotamus enclosure. Even though entering zoo enclosures is prohibited and punishable by law, the man clambered over a railing and approached the two hippos. He soundly smacked four-year-old Rosie on the butt.
She flinched, and the other hippo—her mother, Mara—was startled by the whole thing. Before Mara could experience parental rage, the man fled. The trespasser’s bizarre behavior was caught on film. Although it became widely circulated on social media and was shown to police, the slapper remains at large.
In a way, the incident was funny and at least the animals were not hurt. However, a hippo is capable of being exceptionally dangerous. In fact, they are one of Africa’s most lethal—and surprisingly nimble—animals. To take one by surprise, as the man did, is even more deadly.
3 The Monkey Cage Incident
John Owen Casford had a brilliant idea. To impress his girlfriend, he was going to give her a squirrel monkey. As one cannot purchase the tiny primates at Walmart, he decided to steal one.
In 2018, Casford strolled through an unguarded gate at a New Zealand zoo. He broke open two locks meant to secure the monkey cage and entered. After that, the details got hazy.
Things got violent at one point. Not only were the monkeys hurt and traumatized but Casford also had his own problems. The thief was found the next morning with fractured teeth, a twisted ankle, a bruised back, and a broken leg.
The 23-year-old was charged and sentenced to almost three years in prison. The verdict included punishment for prior crimes that summer, including several assaults on other people. Although Casford was man enough to plead guilty to the zoo incident and explained that he had broken his leg trying to get over a fence, nobody knows how he received the other injuries.
2 A Bizarre Escape Drill
Japanese zoos believe in being prepared. Every year, they hold drills for events like earthquakes and escaped animals. In 2019, the Tobe Zoo in Ehime decided to train its personnel to deal with a lion on the loose.
A local news station captured the training, and the video went viral. Not because the drill was good, but because it was so bizarre. Since Tobe Zoo could not use a real animal, a staff member dressed up as a lion. The giant puppet, looking more like a mascot than an object of serious training, wandered around the zoo.
At one point, keepers cornered it with nets. The lion-guy knocked several of them to the ground and ran away. The staff changed tactics and took off in hot pursuit in a vehicle.
As they drove by, the fake lion was shot with a fake tranquilizer. The cat keeled over, and the staff demonstrated how to correctly handle a sedated lion. Needless to say, the online community found the whole thing hilarious.
1 The Stolen Herd
In 2016, three US zoos absconded with a herd of elephants. The zoos expressed an interest in removing the animals, stating that the deteriorating conditions in Swaziland were a danger to them.
Indeed, there was a severe drought and removing the elephants would relieve the pressure of finding food for other animals, like rhinos. At worst, the zoos feared that the 18 elephants would be culled.
Animal rights activists took the zoo officials to court because the activists believed that the herd had to be relocated elsewhere in the African wilderness. A date was scheduled in US federal court, but the zoos decided to make their move anyway. During a daring mission, a large cargo plane touched down in Swaziland. The elephants were sedated, placed in crates, and loaded onto the plane.
When the news broke, the activists were not understanding. Some claimed that it was the most underhanded thing they had ever witnessed. Even so, the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided a permit to import the elephants legally. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums also sided with the zoos.