Bizarre Things That Actually Happened At Zoos

Zoos feel like nature films set in cages. Audiences ogle alligators, laugh at hyenas, and watch camels hump in contrived environments. But beneath the joy and voyeurism lies a moral quagmire. While zoos encourage conservation and actively shelter endangered species, they also harm their own inhabitants. Constant confinement saps the animals' sanity, leaving them unhinged and unhappy. In short, zoos are sanctuaries that often become sad madhouses.

The manmade madness doesn't end there, though. When visiting zoos some people simply do the darnedest, dumbest, most dumbfounding things imaginable. Sometimes zoos themselves breed bedlam by embracing ideas that backfire wackily. And occasionally insanity inserts itself randomly. Zoos might be unnatural habitats, but they're natural metaphors for disorder. And as you'll soon see, the wildlife is far from the wildest thing about them.

Donkey intercourse sparked political protests

Humans view The Act as a yucky, yummy, sacred, scummy thing you should only perform in private unless somebody pays you to do it on camera. Learned norms inform how, where, and with whom we knock boots. Zoo animals, by contrast, live in a nonhuman Truman Show (Zooman Show?) where their mates are picked by people and hoof-knocking happens in front of gaggles of giggling visitors. That's a screwy way to copulate. Even odder is when politics penetrates the animal relations. Enter lovey-dovey donkeys Napoleon and Antosia.

Napoleon and Antosia resided at a zoo in Poznan, Poland. Per the Associated Press, the donkeys had a decade-long relationship and often did what doting couples do: each other. However, in 2014 a group of incensed mothers intervened. They refused to stand by while children watched randy animals play "Pass the Polish Sausage." The women couldn't (or wouldn't) ask the donkeys to hold their horses until kids weren't around, so they enlisted the aid of local politician Lydia Dudziak. Dudziak induced the zoo's director to place the mates in different pens. Things looked glum for donkey love.

Antosia and Napoleon's plight made national headlines, and those headlines made people upset. A petition to rejoin the animals amassed almost 7,000 signatures. Facebook pages featured pictures of the donkeys getting naughty. Experts warned that parting the partners could harm them psychologically. Much of the public was firmly behind the burros, so the zoo relented and let nature take its intercourse. 

Australia's most wanted fugitive evaded capture

In 2016, 3-year-old Ollie Augustus visited Victoria, Australia's Healesville Sanctuary and concluded that zoos are essentially jails that hold innocent animals. Obviously, that's nonsensical because zoos seem more like penitentiaries. Captive animals get segregated like prison gangs to prevent predation and other unwanted situations. Zoo "inmates" also have set visitation hours and scheduled meals. The zebras even wear prison stripes. However, one creature's Alcatraz is another's refuge. For instance, multiple-murderer Malcolm Naden (shown above) hid in an animal jail to avoid becoming a jailbird.

According to the New Zealand Herald, Naden became Australia's most wanted man in 2005 after killing his cousin and his cousin's girlfriend. In a bid to buck capture he used the Taronga Western Plains Zoo as a temporary hideout. While there the fugitive "stole bananas from elephants, slept in the roof space of a zoo manager's hut and cooked himself meals on a coin-fed barbecue." At one point he purportedly "ripped the head off one tortoise and sucked its guts out." In his hungry haste, Naden discarded food wrappers in strange places and left other clues of intrusion.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the staff suspected they had a homeless man on their hands. The zoo then invested in an investigator who identified the phantom banana bandit as Naden. Police employed five dozen officers and a helicopter to scour the premises, but the murderer managed to vanish. The fugitive remained free for seven years before the cops finally caught him.

A zookeeper managed a cannabis plantation

The saying, "the grass is always greener on the other side," has nothing to do with marijuana, but it totally should. Selling grass makes your wallet greener, and it also puts you on the opposite side of the law in many circumstances. Alternatively, the maxim could mean that if you want to run a profitable pot business you should grow your grass on the other side of a barrier, thus making it hard to spot. That ploy certainly worked for a wily zookeeper.

Per Der Spiegel, a 59-year-old employee of Austria's Salzburg Zoo covertly converted a rhino enclosure into a cannabis farm. His planted pot went unnoticed for years, which makes sense (and made cents). Who would expect find a substance associated with affable laziness and binge-snacking in the same place as tank-like, cantankerous animals? Moreover, who would want to get close enough to those animals to discover it? The ruse was fairly airtight.

The operation unraveled in 2010 when an unnamed "drug user" tattled to law enforcement. Police uncovered 33 pot plants and zero high rhinoceri. Horrified zoo officials canned the cannabis-dealing zookeeper and derided his deception as "appalling." He had not only broken the law but sullied the zoo's family-friendly atmosphere with plants that visitors weren't aware of. Of course, the rhinos may be the true victims in this tale. They spent all that time unwittingly guarding weed and didn't get to sample it once. 

A raccoon became obsessed with women's breasts

At petting zoos, animals double as hand magnets. Their existence largely consists of getting rubbed by strangers. Does all the petting peeve them? A study cited by Scientific American says no, but maybe the animals merely acquiesce to being touched because they can't sue zoos. If the roles were reversed and humans became involuntary paw fodder for animals, lawyers would fall from the sky. And that scenario sort of happened in Russia.

In 2017 the Moscow-based petting zoo Animals Aren't Toys filed a lawsuit after one its animals -– a cuddly raccoon named Tomas (above) –- got way too grabby with women's mammaries. The zoo didn't sue the raccoon but instead unleashed its litigious ire on a company called Art-Msk. As The Telegraph explained, Art-Msk had rented Tomas for a commercial in which a raccoon runs off with a woman's bra. The firm also shot photos of the woman cradling the critter against her bare bosom. Tomas returned from the shoot a changed raccoon. According to the zoo he became a grumpy Gus who sat in the corner and went for women's chests.

Animals Aren't Toys alleged that the company "lured [Tomas] onto the actress' chest with treats" and effectively turned him into a furry grabber. (He has since recovered, according to the zoo.) It also argued that by posting such steamy photos of Tomas with an unclothed woman, Art-Msk was sullying the reputations of raccoons everywhere. As of this writing, no resolution has been reported, but Art-Msk reportedly called the lawsuit "absurd."

A man tried to feed himself to tigers

Don't you hate when your brain has a mind of its own? Like when you're trying ask someone out but you spontaneously run away instead? It sucks. But it's probably not as bad as what Yang Jinhai endured. Citing Chengdu Business Daily in 2014, the Independent reported that Yang struggled with unspecified psychological issues. In 2014 those mental maladies drove him over the edge and into the Bengal tiger enclosure at China's Chengdu Zoo.

Carrying a rice-filled backpack, Yang climbed into a tiger enclosure in search of a fanged mangling. There he found two Bengal tigers. Yang later told Chengdu Business Daily (via The Telegraph): "I asked them to bite me and let them eat my meat, and so I did not fight back." But much to his dismay, the big cats also declined to fight. One simply ran away while the other uneasily eyed Yang. Evidently, oddity is unappetizing. Also, the tigers had recently eaten.

Determined to turn himself into chow, Yang spent 20 minutes taunting the cautious carnivores. He made faces and gesticulated until one of the tigers tired of him. Even then the beast wouldn't eat him, opting to maul the would-be meal instead. Employees raced to save Yang. They hosed down the ticked-off tiger and tranquilized both big cats in the enclosure. Before getting yanked from the enclosure, Yang performed one more morbid gesture. He painted streaks of pink ink down the exhibit's glass viewing panel. Rose-colored glasses never looked so grim.

A man attempted to save lions' souls

Yang Jinhai's failed attempt to die is almost an inversion of an event from Christian scripture. According to the Bible's Book of Daniel, long ago some royal dude named Darius condemned Daniel to death by lion to punish him for praying. Luckily, God did Daniel a solid by stopping a den of lions from wolfing him down. As a bonus, Daniel's impious enemies got fed to the frightening felines alongside their wives and children. The moral of the story: Faith will save you. Unbelievably, a man named Chen tried to prove this again by proselytizing to lions.

The unofficial sequel to Daniel's story (tentatively titled Chen in the Den) took place at Taiwan's Taipei Zoo in 2004. Like the setting, the plot departed significantly from the original. Rather than being condemned to a den, Chen sneaked into the lions' exhibit to convert the cats to Christianity. Per The Telegraph, he yelled, "Jesus will save you!" at two lions relaxing under a tree. After getting their attention, Chen commanded the lions to bite him. Amazingly, the lions complied. They didn't seem sold on the Jesus bit, though.

Chen needed an intervention, divine or otherwise. As he recalled in the above YouTube clip, he used to do lots of drinking and drugs and was higher than Everest when he approached the massive cats. Fortunately, fast-acting zookeepers kept the lions from converting him into a holy ghost. He later kicked his drug habit. 

A gorilla got hold of a knife

The photo above is completely real. It depicts a real gorilla with a real knife looking really scary. Of the thousand words this picture speaks, 999 are assuredly obscenities. The 1,000th is "Canada," which is where the freaky photo was taken. The Globe and Mail detailed how it all happened.

In 2009 a zookeeper at the Calgary Zoo made a booboo. After preparing some gorilla grub, he exited the apes' enclosure without his paring knife. Had he frisked himself, he would have known the knife had fallen from his pocket. Instead a lady gorilla named Barika found it. The great ape took great interest in the knife and carefully inspected it. A second gorilla, Zuri, tried to have a look, but Barika wasn't having it. In a moment best described as "too stabby for comfort," she brandished the blade like a hairy Norman Bates.

Spouses Joe and Heike Scheffler (the latter of whom snapped the above photo) saw the unsettling scene. In an interview with CBC News, Joe speculated that Zuri asked Barika for the blade and got rebuffed. The latter pounded her chest, prompting Zuri to back off. Seemingly satisfied, Barika then sat the knife down. Soon thereafter, a zookeeper retrieved it. The incident was over in an instant but it left a lasting, ominous impression along with equally disquieting images. In an attempt at damage control, zoo officials claimed gorillas can't conceive of "tools as weapons." But some scientific evidence suggests otherwise. 

A panda viewed explicit flicks

Giant pandas look like unevenly burnt marshmallows. Their love lives, conversely, seem severely underdone. As the Smithsonian notes, the animals can breed only a few days each year. This wouldn't pose a problem if Earth had a giant island full of giant pandas that could reproduce asexually. But it doesn't. And since these bears are a dying breed, it's crucial they breed whenever feasible. But what if prospective panda parents don't dig each other? How do you get those unaffectionate marshmallows to make carnal s'mores?

Officials at Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo were faced with this predicament in 2006. The facility's giant pandas, Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui (pictured above), seemingly had no desire to bump their cuddly uglies together. In fairness, they did try once, but they quickly decided it wasn't worth another go. Zoo staff surmised that the male, Chuang Chuang, was carnally clueless. Their solution: education via video. Perhaps showing Chuang Chuang footage of hot and heavy bear hugs would put him on the path to Baby Town.

Much like Chuang Chuang's lovemaking, the bawdy panda project failed to deliver. The bears eventually got busy, but lust soon lost its luster. Per NBC, Chuang Chuang got "too fat for sex." Translation: He got too fat for Lin Hui. Perhaps he needed to watch panda workout tapes. However, the zoo opted to artificially inseminate Lin Hui. According to the BBC, she finally had a baby in 2009. 

A visitor saved a drowning chimp

The only people who should ever set foot in zoo exhibits are people who keep zoos and people who zoo for keeps. If you don't belong to one of those categories but insist on entering an animal enclosure, you'd better have an exceptional reason, such as wanting to fart on a skunk or high-five a python. Emergencies are also good excuses. For example, if an animal sinks helplessly underwater, no one will object if you pull a Bay Watch rather than a Baywatch. Just ask Rick Swope.

If you asked Rick Swope (or watched the above Animal Planet video), you now know that people actually did object when he sought to save drowning animal. Per the Chicago Tribune, in 1990 Swope visited the Detroit Zoo with his wife and three children. While there they witnessed 18-year-old Jo-jo the chimp scurry toward a moat to escape another ape. Unfortunately, gravity sabotaged his scramble for survival and sent Jo-jo splashing into the water.

Since chimps can't swim and Jo-jo lacked a life jacket, the ape flailed futilely and sank. Fearing a fatal chimp attack, zookeepers warned against attempting a rescue. Nevertheless, Swope swooped in to drag Jo-jo to safety. He contemplated giving the chimp mouth-to-mouth but strangely decided against it. Thoughts of simian lip action gave way to panic when an aggressive chimp charged in Swope's direction. The hero now needed a hero. Nobody else was available, so Swope saved himself and got gone.

Drunken visitors went wild

Despite a wide assortment of sights, sounds, and stenches, zoos become boring after a while. Watching polar bears slam against glass in an effort to eat tasty toddlers won't amuse you forever. The radiant redness of a baboon's booty will one day strike you as dull and rash-like. It's as certain as sunset. Luckily for the London Zoo, the Sun never sets on the British Empire. Then again, Britain's no longer an empire, meaning zoo executives can't count on perpetual sunshine to attract visitors. To compensate, during the 2010s they attempted to tempt potential customers by letting them get sloshed.

As The Guardian described, the London Zoo began hosting so-called "Zoo Lates sessions." Touted as an "after party with the animals," Zoo Lates let guests drink themselves silly in a facility full of trapped animals. The results spoke for themselves. Wasted patrons banged on glass panels, purportedly punched birds, and sang obnoxiously while various creatures tried to sleep. In 2014 a drunken doofus attempted to swim with the penguins. That same year someone dumped beer on a tiger.

The zoo seemed like a scene from Animal House, but the public wasn't laughing. Thousands of people petitioned to put Zoo Lates to bed. Members of PETA, the RSPCA, and other groups denounced the parties as lame and dangerous. The Westminster zoo licensing authority launched an investigation. In response, the zoo nixed its booze-fueled parties in 2015, per The Guardian. By then, the animals probably needed a drink.