Great Escape

The Problem with Better Zoos

More humane zoos made for smarter, healthier animals — which have gotten really good at escaping from zoos.

chris sweeney
Published in
11 min readAug 9, 2018
Illustration: Jason Raish

OOne day in 1979, Jon Coe was perched at his drawing board inside the Seattle offices of Jones and Jones Architecture when the phone rang. Coe answered and was greeted by a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who wanted to know if Coe had designed the new gorilla exhibit at the city’s Woodland Park Zoo.

For decades, it was standard practice to house gorillas under lock and key, often in laboratory-like enclosures that were easy to clean. But at Woodland Park, gorillas were now roaming outdoors among vegetation on terrain that mimicked their native habitat. Strategically placed moats kept the exhibit free of imposing visual barriers, and there were burly trees for the gorillas to climb — an idea that for years had been written off as too risky.

Eager to extoll the many merits of the exhibit, Coe said that he and his associates were indeed the visionaries behind it.

“Then what do you think of the gorilla escape?” the reporter asked.

Unbeknownst to him, a 468-pound silverback gorilla named Kiki used a tree limb as a makeshift ladder to scale one of the dry moats and escape. A grounds crew first spotted Kiki at the polar bear exhibit, where he seemed to be sitting in peace. Next, he went to the Nocturnal House, where he broke into the kitchen, feasted on a stash of papaya and blueberries, and then checked out some Australian potoroos.

Word of the escape got out, and police and local news crews soon swarmed. Between ushering guests to safety and monitoring Kiki’s whereabouts, zoo staff had to lobby a local news station to keep its “Eye on the Sky” chopper away from the scene for fear of spooking the nearly quarter-ton animal.

The lead veterinarian tried to lure Kiki to safety with bananas and sliced apples, but when he ran out of cards to play, the vet shot the gorilla full of tranquilizers.

Coe was relieved to learn that neither man nor beast was hurt. He stressed to the reporter that Kiki wasn’t so much escaping as he was exploring. “Kiki wanted to expand his horizons, to…



chris sweeney
Writer for

Chris Sweeney is a magazine writer living near Boston. His work has appeared in Audubon, Men's Journal, Popular Science, and Boston Magazine, among others.