Hairy Houdini

On June 15, 1985, Ken Allen — the age 13 or 14 — was found walking around the San Diego Zoo unattended. Zoo workers managed to return Allen to his home, but only temporarily. Twice more that summer, on July 29th and again on August 13th, Allen went for a little walk around the zoo, looking around at the animals, all by his lonesome.  Zoo officials were, understandably, concerned.

But their concern stemmed not from Allen’s age. Allen was not a truant middle schooler. He was the zoo’s Bornean orangutan — one who kept breaking out of his “escape proof” habitat. 

Figuring out how Allen (seen above) escaped proved difficult for the zoo. After the first escape, zoo keepers first inspected his habitat in search of overlooked escape routes and, finding nothing, put Allen under surveillance. The primate was nobody’s fool. Demonstrating an awareness of those watching him — even when the zoo keepers were masqueraded as tourists — Allen remained in his enclosure when watched. But when opportunity struck, Allen made his way to freedom.  Each time, he was returned to his enclosure.  But don’t feel too bad — according to the zoo (per TIME), “[Allen] never seemed to mind being led back into his enclosure — he just seemed to enjoy the challenge of finding a new way out!”

The zoo, ultimately, hired a team of expert rock climbers — at the cost of $40,000 — to scour every square inch of the enclosure’s walls, looking for places where Allen could find a toehold or a grip.  Allen would not escape his enclosure after the summer of 1985; in 2000, he was euthanized after being diagnosed with cancer.


Bonus fact: Ken Allen’s escapes proved harmless, but they could have been very dangerous. Bornean orangutans are known to rape human women. In 1996, actress Julia Roberts was almost one such victim. She made her way to Borneo to shoot In the Wild, a documentary on these apes in their homeland.  While filming, an orangutan attacked the actress. As Salon reported, “[o]ne male took a shine to her and grabbed her as she walked along a path. Luckily, a film crew was present, though it took five men to free her from the ape’s grasp.”

From the ArchivesImperialist Monkeys: The dark side of the lives of chimpanzees.

Related: Season 1 of Animal Planet’s Orangutan Island. Five stars on 17 reviews.

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