12th February 2019

Already this year, two animal escapes from Belfast Zoo have made headlines in the UK and beyond.

Zoos have the responsibility to protect their animals in their care, as well as the public, from harm. Animals that escape and not from this climate, are at risk of harm from disease or injury, or even death.

Unfortunately it seems that some UK zoos are unable to guarantee that their animals are completely safe. We have all seen the dreadful results of dangerous animals escaping from their enclosures, with Margaash the snow leopard, who was shot after escaping from her enclosure at Dudley Zoo last year. Even those which are highly unlikely to pose a risk to human life, like poor Lillith the lynx, who escaped from Borth Zoo in Mid Wales, have been shot after evading capture. The risk of death does not only come from being shot, however, as we have unfortunately seen in the case of Oscar the spider monkey, told below.

Belfast Zoo has a history of animal escapes. Most recently, several chimpanzees were filmed using wood from fallen trees in their enclosure to create a makeshift ladder and climb up the concrete wall of their enclosure. Luckily, they didn’t stray far and never left the zoo, but came close enough to some zoo visitors for the people to be ‘terrified’. Chimpanzees are large, potentially dangerous animals that have been known to attack humans in the past.

Here is a brief history of their animal escapes over the past few decades:

Amber the Red Panda

Only a few weeks ago, Amber the endangered Red Panda escaped from Belfast Zoo after a ‘power fault’ compromised the security of her enclosure. Staff only noticed that she was missing when a member of the public reported seeing her outside the zoo several hours later. A major search was sparked and she was eventually found the next day in a residential area nearby. Disappointingly, the zoo made light of the escape and failed to highlight the seriousness of the threat to Amber’s life.

Oscar the Spider Monkey

In June 2018, a spider monkey named Oscar escaped from the zoo and died after being hit by a car on the M2 motorway. It was not revealed how he had been able to escape from the ‘Monkey Island’ habitat. Calls were made by Belfast City Council officials for a review into the zoo housing and security, but only 7 months later, Amber and the chimpanzees made their escapes, too.

Rose and Zoid, the Lion-Tailed Macaques

In 2015, two Lion-Tailed Macaques escaped from the zoo. Zoid was found the next day, but Rose took 3 days to recapture. Shockingly, this was the second time this pair had escaped! In 2013, they escaped along with 4 others, leading to a huge search. The last monkey to be caught, named Roxy, had been roaming the streets and gardens of Belfast for 10 days before her capture.

White-nosed Coati

In 2010, a female white-nosed coati, a new introduction to Belfast zoo, escaped from the quarantine area in which she was being temporarily held.  She was missing for more than five weeks before she was found and returned to the zoo.

Mojo the Colobus Monkey

In 2005, a Colobus monkey named Mojo escaped from the monkey enclosure and then scaled a chain-link fence to escape from the zoo after a fight with his father. He evaded capture for a week and was later transferred to another zoo along with his brothers to avoid further conflict.

Phoebe the Chimpanzee

Unbelievably, the chimpanzees that made their escape using branches from a fallen tree were not the first to do this at Belfast Zoo. Just a few months after Mojo was recaptured in 2005, Phoebe the Chimpanzee used the exact same tactic to escape. Phoebe was recaptured after police fired warning shots into the air to scare her back into her enclosure. This was only reported in a lighthearted, jokingly-written piece in the Guardian however, which failed to consider the seriousness of the situation.

Ongoing safety issues at Belfast Zoo

Time and time again, it has been made clear that the security at Belfast Zoo that is intended to protect the animals and keep the public safe has been less than adequate. For some like Oscar, this failure meant he lost his life. The next escapee from Belfast Zoo may not be so lucky as Amber, or Roxy, or might not be so willing to return to their enclosure as the chimpanzees were this weekend. 

In relation to the deaths of 3 giraffes at Belfast Zoo last year, politician Chris McGimpsey commented on the state of the zoo, saying “”

“I have long wanted the zoo shut down and turned into a conservation centre... It is like a Victorian peep show, with animals, which we come to gawk at. Its time has passed and we need to realise that and have the courage to close it.”

It is clear that urgent action needs to be taken to resolve the serious security issues at the Zoo, as well as a review of their license to decide whether this really is a suitable place to keep wild animals.

Find out more about how zoos are bad for animals: Zoos