Gorilla at Como Zoo. Photo: David & Becky/Flickr

Saint Paul’s iconic Como Zoo has long been a charming, peaceful place to enjoy creatures great and small. But on the morning of May 13, 1994, the zoo was anything but peaceful when it became the scene of “The Great Escape.”

I was working by the giraffes when a vendor came running toward me. Her words were a zookeeper’s worst nightmare: “You better come quick. One of the gorillas is out!” My initial reaction was disbelief—until I saw 400-pound Casey roaming in the bushes above his yard. And the only thing between him and the rest of the world was a short fence.

I radioed the staff and within minutes we were evacuating the zoo. At first, some visitors barely moved, while a few others took pictures. Fortunately, Casey calmly watched the exodus. If he had gone into the crowd, there could have been a panic.

It was hard to fathom how Casey, whom I remembered giving horsey-back rides when he was just a baby, got over a 15-foot wall. But he did, and our only concerns now were what he would do and how to contain him. An eerie quiet settled over the zoo as we watched and waited. But not for long. A huge hand emerged from the bushes and haltingly touched the fence, as if expecting to get a shock. And in a heartbeat, Casey was on the sidewalk and about to go where no gorilla had gone before.

Potential disaster loomed when Casey almost climbed into the kudu yard, which would have sent these skittish antelope into a frenzy. But he backed away and headed to the barn instead. Casey peered through the windows and pulled on the unlocked doors without success, much to the relief of the nervous visitors huddled inside, one of whom said it felt like being in a King Kong movie.

Perhaps realizing it was lunchtime, Casey ambled over to the concession stand and sat on a table. He looked around as if he wanted some service. Now what do you think a 400-pound gorilla would order? After a few minutes, Casey hopped off the table (he never did order anything) and began walking back to the gorilla yard, where keeper Steve Bridger was waiting with a tranquilizer rifle. He fired and the sting of the dart sent Casey bolting behind the primate building in high dudgeon.

But just when we feared he would get out of the zoo, Casey abruptly stopped. A man dressed in white was standing by the gate at the end of the driveway. Casey reared up as if he had seen a ghost—you could feel the ground shake as he thundered back around the corner, vaulted the fence and went down the wall into his yard.

Well, Casey didn’t see a ghost. The man in white was veterinarian Ralph Farnsworth, whom Casey undoubtedly associated with needles from when he had to be sedated for medical procedures. Hit with one dart already, the last person Casey wanted to see was Doc Farnsworth.

Considering all the bad things that could have happened, the improbable end to this surreal drama was truly miraculous. We later learned that the tranquilizer never injected, so if Casey hadn’t encountered Doc, and if he had gotten loose in public, it might have been a much different story. As to how he escaped, a visitor told us Casey was perched on a rock in the side of the yard when he suddenly lunged to the top of the wall and pulled himself over, a testament to his strength and agility. A barrier was erected afterward to prevent further escapes.

Why did he do it? Maybe Casey just wanted his fifteen minutes of fame. And he certainly got that, making news around the world.

Posted in: Memories, Places
Tagged: 1990s, Como Zoo