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Zoo zebra on the run

- Animal caged after two-and-a-half-hour chase
The zebra in an abandoned deer enclosure of Alipore zoo after escaping its enclosure unnoticed. Picture by Sanat Kr. Sinha

A zebra escaped from its enclosure at Alipore zoo on Wednesday morning and played catch-me-if-you-can with its handlers for more than two hours before the chase ended in an abandoned deer enclosure.

Officials said nobody saw the zebra slip out until it was scampering down the narrow passage between two enclosures around 8.4am, 15 minutes before the zoo was to open for the day.

Zoo director Kanai Lal Ghosh promised an investigation to find out if there had been any lapse, although there was little doubt that the zebra had escaped because someone left the gate to the enclosure open.

“One of handlers did not shut the gate properly. This is sheer negligence,” said a senior official who requested that he not be named.

The saving grace was that the zebra chose to test the zoo’s security on a weekday morning, when few would have strolled into the premises to be greeted by a wild animal on the loose. Officials said they quickly cordoned off the portion of the zoo to which the zebra had escaped.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said the guard who first spotted the zebra outside the iron barriers.

The guard said he was in front of the chimpanzee enclosure when he saw the six-year-old zebra, one of four brought from Israel in 2010, in the gap between two enclosures that the handlers use to reach the gates.

“The zebra ran towards the southern section of the garden,” the guard recounted.

He sounded an alert over his walkie-talkie, bringing most of the zoo staff on morning duty scurrying to cage the zebra. The chase continued for the next two-and-a-half hours.

“Fortunately for us, we had few visitors in the first couple of hours and those who were inside were restricted to the western side of the zoo. The keepers and guards cordoned off the area in a circular pattern to close in on the zebra,” an official said.

This strategy didn’t work for them as much as a tactical mistake by the zebra did.

The possibly frightened animal ran into an abandoned deer enclosure after taking the zoo staff for a tiring run over two hours. “Once the zebra walked into a cage within the enclosure we locked him in. It was 11.20am then,” the official said.

The zebra won’t be taken back to its enclosure until Thursday, when the zoo is closed to visitors.

While zebras are not known to attack humans, their kick can be lethal, especially if dealt to a person’s stomach or head. A few years ago, a female zebra at the zoo died after a fight with her partner.

The zoo currently has five zebras, including a foal born last year.

Experts said capturing the fugitive animal would have been a much more challenging task had it been a Royal Bengal Tiger rather than a zebra. Zoos worldwide, of course, take extra precautions when it comes to keeping big cats in captivity.

“The steel wire mesh used in the enclosures for tigers, lions and leopards are stronger. Extra care is taken to lock the gates to the enclosures of these animals,” an official said.

S.B. Mondal, a former chief wildlife warden, said the alleged negligence that allowed the zebra to escape on Wednesday morning should not be glossed over. “It could have been so much worse had a large carnivore escaped,” he said.