Dec 07, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Monsters on the Run: Zoo Escapees and Myth Versus Reality

One of the most enduring explanations put forth to explain sightings of anomalous apes is that they are not unknown animals, but actually escapees from zoos and menageries. If there was just one or two cases on record, we might be inclined to suggest the stories possess a degree of merit. That there are, however, dozens of such stories, is a good indication they are a relatively modern day myth that has a habit of taking hold and perpetuating. In 2009, paranormal expert and author Mike Dash was leafing through a copy of the December 8, 1878 edition of England’s Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette, and came across a fascinating story in its pages that sat below the eye-opening headline of: "Capturing a Gorilla in Shropshire." The article began in an appropriately controversial fashion: “For a fortnight past the district around Madeley Wood, Salop, has been in a state of intense excitement, by the alleged depredations committed by a gorilla, which is said to have escaped from a wild beast menagerie travelling to Bridgnorth. The animal was stated to have first made his appearance in the neighborhood of that town, where in the darkness of the night it was severally seen by a clergyman and a policeman, both of whom fled. It is also said to have appeared at several places in the immediate neighborhood.”

(Nick Redfern) The lair of the U.K.'s Man-Monkey - a gorilla that escaped from a zoo? Almost certainly the answer is "No!"

If the story was true, then it seems to have led to a spectacular case of mistaken identity, and near-tragedy, too, as the Gazette’s writer noted: “A few evenings since the occupier of a house in Madeley Wood went to bed at a reasonable hour, with the greater portion of his family, leaving his ‘gude wife’ up, who took the opportunity to visit a neighbor, leaving the door open and a candle burning. “Returning in a short time, she was horrified at seeing a bent form, with a goodly array of gray hair around its face, crouching over the expiring embers of the fire, apparently warming itself, the light having gone out. Too frightened to shriek, she ran to her neighbors, who quickly armed themselves with pokers, iron bars, guns, and pitchforks and other instruments of a similar character, and marched in a body to capture the gorilla.” The “gorilla” – on this occasion, anyway – turned out to be nothing of the sort, as the article made clear to one and all: “The form was seen sitting at the fire, but evidently aroused by the approaching body, rose to its full height and revealed the figure of an eccentric character well known in the neighborhood as ‘Old Johnny,’ who seeing the door open had quietly walked in to light his pipe, accidentally “puffed” the candle out, and was very near being captured, if not exterminated, in mistake for an escaped gorilla.” 

The reason I mention all of the above, is because the location is only a stone’s throw from Bridge 39, on the Shropshire Union Canal, England, where the legendary Man-Monkey was seen, just a few weeks after the article was published. While I don’t personally think that the following case is a provable example of the escape of some form of ape from a British zoo, the fact that it occurred right in the vicinity of just such a place, and one that happens to house the second largest collection of primates in the entire world, is admittedly, somewhat intriguing, and not a matter that can be wholly ignored. The story comes from one James Cowick, who told me that, back in 1992, when he was fifteen, he and several of his friends had a curious experience at Norton Juxta Twycross, Leicestershire. A very little village is bounded on its east side by the Ashby Canal and is situated only a very brief distance from England’s famous Twycross Zoo - an 80-acre facility, which was founded in 1963 by Mollie Badham and Natalie Evans. Cowick recalls the distinctly strange affair: “There was a church in this village [Note: A 12th Century structure, the Holy Trinity Church], and behind the church was a small wooded area and fields, where we used to generally mess about and have a sneaky beer or two. One sunny day though myself and two friends were messing about having a laugh as teenagers do when one of my friends shouted that he had suddenly seen something move through the undergrowth."

The story continued: “He was genuinely shocked by what he saw as he claimed it was very tall, moving on two legs and covered in thick hair. On hearing my friend shout, I spun round as I had my back to him, I recall, and I too caught sight of something truly strange. It was only a glimpse, however, but I do remember seeing something through the leaves which was tall with scraggy brown fur. All I can remember is that immediately after the sighting I was shocked and so was my friend. We were quite scared and also perplexed because whatever we saw vanished after making its appearance. What is also worth noting is that my other friend saw nothing at all, very odd.” That the beast was described by Cowick as being of significant height, effectively rules out some wandering, escaped little monkey from Twycross Zoo as being the cause of all the commotion. And surely something of much bigger proportions would not have gone unnoticed by the zoo’s personnel. Nevertheless, it is worth noting the words of the staff of the zoo itself: “We have the largest collection of primate species of any zoo in the world, outside Japan. Twycross was the only U.K. zoo to hold all four species of great ape, including bonobos [Author’s Note: Also called pygmy chimpanzees]. We also have a very successful breeding record and many of our primates can be observed in breeding groups with individuals of various ages and stages of development.” Did one of the zoo’s many primates briefly escape into the small woods around Norton, only to be quickly captured and the whole thing covered up? Or was the beast seen by Cowick and his friends something far stranger? Two decades later, I suspect neither we nor Cowick will ever have solid answers for those questions.

(Nick Redfern) Tall tales of missing and strange apes

Taking a trip across the Atlantic, there is the Beaman Monster of Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Close to Beaman is the city of Sedalia, where, allegedly, in 1904, a train crashed in the vicinity, and which just happened to be carrying a large number of circus animals, including a mighty gorilla that stood twelve feet tall! That gorillas don’t grow anywhere near twelve feet in height did not stop the legend from developing suggesting they do exactly that! The descendants of this Goliath-like animal (and, presumably, a similar escapee of the opposite sex and size) are, locals conclude, today’s man-monsters of Beaman. Then, on January 28, 1921, an article, titled "Chase Gorilla to Mountains," appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Times. In part, it stated: “‘Gorilla’ warfare which was started last week in the vicinity of Idaville, when Adams County residents, well armed, pursued what is believed to be an animal that escaped from a circus car when it was wrecked, not long ago, was renewed by citizens of Rouzerville Wednesday night when an armed posse scoured the Blue Ridge slopes in the hope of getting a shot at the beast.” No-one, by now, should be surprised to learn that the beast of Idaville – just like so many other cryptid apes in this book - seemed to be wholly impervious to bullets, skillfully evaded each and every pursuer on each and every occasion, and finally made good its escape, forever.

Said to lurk deep in the swamps of Louisiana, USA, the Honey Island Swamp Monster, as it has become infamously known, has been reported roaming the area since the early 1960s. Local folklore tells of the crash of a train in the area during the early years of the 20th Century. And guess what? The train was supposedly transporting a variety of animals on behalf of a travelling circus, which included a number of chimpanzees that made a quick and spectacular bid for freedom in the wake of the crash. The result: The now free chimps bred with the local alligator population (yes, you did read that right!), and spawned the nightmarish monster of the swamps. And, the above stories of apes having escaped from circuses – and, in the process, provoking monster legends – are just a handful of dozens. The unlikely list goes, quite literally, on and on. And, now we get to the most well-known story of all these "escaped apes" kinds.

It was a story that surfaced in 1884; a story which, if true, suggested something deeply strange was afoot in Yale, British Columbia. On Independence Day 1884, the Colonist newspaper published a story titled: "What is it? A strange creature captured above Yale. A British Columbia Gorilla." Supposedly, the curious creature had been caught on June 30 and held in a nearby jail. The startling saga began: “In the immediate vicinity of No. 4 tunnel, situated some twenty miles above this village, are bluffs of rock which have hitherto been unsurmountable, but on Monday morning last were successfully scaled by Mr. Onderdonk’s employees on the regular train from Lytton. Assisted by Mr. Costerton, the British Columbia Express Company’s messenger, and a number of gentlemen from Lytton and points east of that place who, after considerable trouble and perilous climbing, succeeded in capturing a creature which may truly be called half man and half beast.” The story continued: “Ned Austin, the engineer, on coming in sight of the bluff at the eastern end of the No. 4 tunnel saw what he supposed to be a man lying asleep in close proximity to the track, and as quick as thought blew the signal to apply the brakes. The brakes were instantly applied, and in a few seconds the train was brought to a standstill. At this moment the supposed man sprang up, and uttering a sharp quick bark began to climb the steep bluff. 

“Conductor R.J. Craig and Express Messenger Costerton, followed by the baggage man and brakemen, jumped from the train and knowing they were some twenty minutes ahead of time immediately gave chase. After five minutes of perilous climbing the then supposed demented Indian was corralled on a projecting shelf of rock where he could neither ascend nor descend. The query now was how to capture him alive, which was quickly decided by Mr. Craig, who crawled on his hands and knees until he was about forty feet above the creature. Taking a small piece of loose rock he let it fall and it had the desired effect of rendering poor Jacko incapable of resistance for a time at least.” The beast was quickly named Jacko and a legend was born. The newspaper told its no doubt amazed readers that Jacko “…has long, black, strong hair and resembles a human being with one exception, his entire body, excepting his hands, (or paws) and feet are covered with glossy hair about an inch long. His fore arm is much longer than a man’s fore arm, and he possesses extraordinary strength, as he will take hold of a stick and break it by wrenching or twisting it, which no man living could break in the same way.

(Nick Redfern) Stories of unknown apes that change and grow and grow

“Since his capture he is very reticent, only occasionally uttering a noise which is half bark and half growl. He is, however, becoming daily more attached to his keeper, Mr. George Telbury, of this place, who proposes shortly starting for London, England, to exhibit him. His favorite food so far is berries, and he drinks fresh milk with evident relish. By advice of Dr. Hannington raw meats have been withheld from Jacko, as the doctor thinks it would have a tendency to make him savage.” The Daily Colonist concluded: “The question naturally arises, how came the creature where it was first seen by Mr. Austin? From bruises about its head and body, and apparent soreness since its capture, it is supposed that Jacko ventured too near the edge of the bluff, slipped, fell and lay where found until the sound of the rushing train aroused him. 

“Mr. Thos. white and Mr. Gouin, C.E., as well as Mr. Major, who kept a small store about half a mile west of the tunnel during the past two years, have mentioned having seen a curious creature at different points between Camps 13 and 17, but no attention was paid to their remarks as people came to the conclusion that they had either seen a bear or stray Indian dog. Who can unravel the mystery that now surrounds Jacko! Does he belong to a species hitherto unknown in this part of the continent, or is he really what the train men first thought he was, a crazy Indian!” Five days later, the article was denounced by the British Columbian newspaper. Its staff was very vocal about how the Daily Colonist could have fallen for such a tall tale. The Mainland Guardian had similar, sharp words for the Daily Colonist’s story, too: “The ‘What Is It’ is the subject of conversation in town. How the story originated, and by whom, is hard for one to conjecture. Absurdity is written on the face of it. The fact of the matter is, that no such animal was caught, and how the Colonist was duped in such a manner, and by such a strange story, is strange.”

If the story did have any truth to it, unless the beast was a juvenile Bigfoot, then it was clearly something else entirely. Dr. Grover S. Krantz said of the animal dubbed “Jacko” that: “It was described as being wild, hair covered, long armed, and very strong. Reportedly it measured 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 127 pounds. It was captured on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, near Yale, B.C., while this line was still under construction…Very little additional information is available on it…Its fate is unknown, assuming that it ever existed at all.” Today, the case of Jacko is one that is still championed by a handful of Bigfoot researchers and wholly dismissed by many others. Some are situated somewhere between both camps, chiefly as a result of the fact that regardless of whether or not the Jacko story has merit, British Columbia has a long tradition of man-beast encounters of the Bigfoot variety.    

There's no doubt in my mind that many of these "escaped apes" stories are simple that: stories. And  to show how this phenomenon has infected others, consider this: Finally: In his classic title Cat Flaps, Andy Roberts discussed a wave of "big cat" sightings in the English county of Yorkshire in the 1980s. One particular series of encounters led a certain commentator to quietly inform Andy, in what sounded like a slightly conspiratorial fashion, that: "They all come from Knaresborough Zoo, you know." Of course, there was no evidence, at all, that the now-closed down zoo had lost any big cats; yet tales and theories along these very lines often spring up.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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