City Journal: Exit Strategy

Can years of planning and a $2.3 million upgrade keep an escape-happy gorilla in his place? We case Little Joe’s new digs.

You remember Little Joe, that not-so-little 300-pound gorilla who escaped from his pen at the Franklin Park Zoo not once, but twice, in the span of a few months back in 2003? On the second breakout, the liberated ape got into a scrape with a zoo employee, attacked a little girl (lawsuits are still pending), and headed off on a two-hour jaunt through town before getting shot up with tranquilizers. Not a good day for the zoo.

Since then, Joe’s been hanging out behind the scenes, where he’s taken up finger painting, shown a penchant for PBS, and put on 100-plus pounds. Meanwhile, zoo officials (enjoying considerably less leisure time) have puzzled over how to handle the runaway-prone primate. Zoo president John Linehan considered shipping Little Joe off, but, he says, “I didn’t want to set him up to fail by sending him someplace where they couldn’t contain him.”

So the zoo decided to create a better cage for Joe and his six compatriots. Officials wrangled $2.3 million from state coffers, private donations, and some leftover 2004 Democratic National Convention grant money, and built a new, bigger habitat fortified with steel, glass, metal wire, and concrete. The security improvements debuted late last month.

Will they work? Fingers are crossed. Before the zoo opened its original gorilla enclosure in the late 1980s, it gave a team of rock climbers a challenge: Try to get out. When they couldn’t, the zoo felt fairly satisfied. Little Joe was only a hobby climber; nonetheless, he found escape to be pretty easy. This time around, the zoo installed handwoven steel wire mesh over the top of the exhibit. The deep moats that used to separate the gorillas from visitors—moats that proved useless when Joe jumped one in his first sortie—were filled in, bringing people closer to the animals, who now sit behind a three-paned glass wall. But absent letting the 400-pound gorillas monkey around with their new space, Linehan admits, there’s not a lot of testing that can be done.

Despite the risks and the high costs—it takes up to $200,000 a year to house the gorillas—Linehan says they’re worth it. “Gorillas,” he says, “are one of those door openers.” Let’s hope that’s not entirely true.