ZSL London Zoo has been the subject of much interest and speculation over the last few days, after Kumbuka, our silverback gorilla, made headlines for escaping his enclosure for a short time.
As the first part of our investigation concludes, I’m keen to use this opportunity to clarify some things.
The results of this initial investigation have established that the gorilla dens are sound and fit for purpose. For a Zoological Director running a zoo responsible for thousands of animals and hundreds of staff, this kind of reassurance matters.
I can certainly tell you that there were no broken locks, Kumbuka did not smash any windows, he was never ‘on the loose’, and his normal gorilla posturing reported by visitors earlier in the day was unrelated to the incident.
What I will tell you is what happened, according to those who were actually there.
Kumbuka was called into his private night quarters for his dinner at around 5.10pm on Thursday 13th October. As a big silverback male with a matching appetite, he eats separately from the females - otherwise they wouldn’t get a look in.
Unfortunately the door to his den had not been properly secured and a secondary security door had not yet been locked.
We’ve since established that Kumbuka made an opportunistic escape from his unlocked den into the staff-only service corridor where a zookeeper was working.
Thanks to the incredibly close bond and relationship shared by the zookeeper and Kumbuka, the zookeeper was able to continually reassure Kumbuka, talking to him calmly and in the same light-hearted tone he would always use, as he removed himself from the area.
Staff raised the alarm that triggered our standard escape response, while Kumbuka briefly explored the zookeeper area next door to his den, where he opened and drank five litres of undiluted blackcurrant squash.
Kumbuka was immediately contained in the non-public area by quick-thinking zookeepers responding to the alarm, where he was tranquilised and moved back into his den.
Any breach of our security protocols is incredibly serious, but the incident itself was less dramatic than some would have you believe. Within two hours Kumbuka was back with his family, snacking on treats, and probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
The professional responses of our zookeepers, our security teams and the emergency services was exemplary and thanks to the zookeepers’ strong relationship with Kumbuka they were able to reassure him during the incident.
Now that the initial facts have been established, it’s our job to understand any contributing factors that allowed an experienced and highly trained zookeeper to make a mistake with the doors.
I myself started life as a volunteer zookeeper in 1980, caring for gorillas and chimpanzees.
Those of us who have had the privilege of caring for great apes become quickly aware of their individual characters and tailor our care to account for each of their personality traits. Kumbuka is the alpha male in our gorilla troop at ZSL London Zoo, an impressive male in both stature and character.
Kumbuka has fathered two infants and is a patient and protective father, who displays typical silverback behaviour, such as beating his chest and posturing. Gorilla Kingdom is his home and territory and as his family grows, so will Kumbuka’s naturally protective instincts.
I have the utmost respect for Kumbuka and the gorilla troop – a respect that I know is shared by all of my zookeeper colleagues, who also recognise the important responsibility they have in caring for them.
The magnitude of personal responsibility that zookeepers feel for the animals in their care, the colleagues they work with every day and the thousands of visitors to their zoo is indescribable.
It is this sense of responsibility that provides some of our strongest security measures. We know that humans sometimes make mistakes, but these are rare. We also know that automating every security system poses a greater risk of mechanical failure, and could lead to an over-reliance on technology that will create the kind of complacency that has no place here.
We will continue to work with our keeping teams to identify any adjustments or modifications that can help avoid any repeat mistake in future, but ultimately our trust in our people is not shaken.
Today, Kumbuka and his family are happily playing, eating and sleeping in Gorilla Kingdom. Gorillas invoke the most remarkable feelings of wonder from anyone who sees them and our visitors can continue to be assured that these animals are safe, secure and in the care of a team of dedicated zookeepers.
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