USA First Look

Ollie the bobcat is safely returned: How frequent are zoo escapes?

Ollie, a 25-pound female bobcat, was found on the property of the Washington Zoo three days after her escape.

This photo provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo shows Ollie, a female bobcat the the zoo, now safely returned to her enclosure three days after she escaped. Ollie was found to be missing Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, morning when she didn’t show up for breakfast.
Barbara Statas/Smithsonian's National Zoo/AP | Caption

After a brief taste of freedom, Ollie the bobcat is home safe and sound at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

Zookeepers found the 25-pound, 7-year old female bobcat on zoo property Wednesday, shortly after calling off a three-day search. Officials had planned to rely on tips from that point on, but such measures proved unnecessary because it turned out Ollie hadn’t strayed far from home.

The feline jailbird likely crawled through a hole in her mesh enclosure, spawning a search attempt that inspired a 1,000-follower parody account on Twitter and her fifteen minutes of fame. “I’ll take a picture so I can find her,” a 34-year-old visitor from Seattle told The Washington Post. She was discovered missing during breakfast on Monday.

Bobcats, which resemble lynxes, are native to Mexico and southern California and don’t pose a threat to humans. Nevertheless, Ollie’s disappearance cast a larger-than-life shadow over the community, causing local schools to cancel recess while she was at large, according to The Baltimore Sun.

While likely causing plenty of trouble for officials, the fame of Ollie’s great escape was also a silver lining for the zoo, a popular tourist destination of the US capitol. “Yeah, before she went missing, no one really bought the bobcat stuff,” a zoo gift shop employee said to The Washington Post. “Now all of the bobcat toys are selling out.”

Meanwhile, officials are on the lookout for an escaped red panda 200 miles away in Virginia. “I don't think I'd necessarily say that they're escape artists. They are very playful,” marketing manager at the Virginia Zoo Ashley Mars told NPR.

Such breakouts are uncommon, happening about five times per year in recent years, according to Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which represents 213 facilities in 47 states.

The culprits are often our relatives the primates. “Sometimes when they have nothing but time on their hands, they can do a lot of thinking and figure out ways to get out of things,” Kansas City Zoo director Randy Wisthoff told The Kansas City Star in 2014.  “They have thumbs,” he continued. “They have the ability to use – whether you want to give this credit or not – to use and make tools. Because of that, it becomes a constant vigil on our part to prevent that process from taking place.”

One such escape took place in Boston in 2003. A 300-pound gorilla named Little Joe made his way out of Franklin Park Zoo, was photographed waiting for the bus, and eventually recaptured at a nearby football stadium. Gorillas are more dangerous than bobcats, however, and two people were hurt.

Primates aren’t the only animals to show promise as escape artists. Pandas, snakes, penguins, leopards, hippos, and bears have all proved themselves to be Houdinis at various zoos around the world. Birds prove challenging to contain too, as even flightless varieties can gain unexpected height with the right gust of wind.

The vast majority of such cases end with the animal safely recovered using tranquilizers, often quite close to the scene of the crime, raising the question of why they break out in the first place.

In at least one case, the answer seems to have been for dessert. Silverback gorilla Kambuka somehow made his way through two unlocked doors, provoking an armed police response, only to be found indulging in five liters of undiluted blackcurrant squash kept next to his den.