The real stories behind scary zoo encounters

With a few exceptions here and there, most people love going to the zoo. After all, zoos give us the chance to see amazing animals up close. Of course, if you put a bunch of humans next to a bunch of lions, tigers, and bears, sooner or later, you're going to have some pretty scary encounters ... and oh my, somebody is going to get hurt.

Santino, the rock-throwing chimp

Despite what Planet of the Apes might lead you to think, chimpanzees are pretty devious monsters. They make weapons, cannibalize each other, and declare war on rival groups. In other words, they're a lot like people. And like many people, some chimps don't appreciate being stared at. Take Santino, for example. This ultra-aggressive ape lives in Sweden's Furuvik Zoo, and whenever guests show up at his exhibit, he begins hurling rocks in their direction. Fortunately, the crowds are protected by a five-foot-tall fence, a 30-foot gap, and a watery moat. Still, Santino is the primate version of Randy Johnson, and he occasionally wings a guest or two.

But his rock-throwing skills aren't what makes Santino super-scary. Instead, it's his unsettling ability to plan ahead. In 2009, researchers revealed that Santino woke up each morning to fish stones out of the moat surrounding his enclosure. He would then build little rock piles near the water and wait for guests to arrive. Then, at around 11:00 AM each day, he'd grab the stockpiled stones and start chunking them at the nearby crowd. While guests were traumatized (and occasionally bruised) by Santino's aggression, researchers were shocked at his ability to map out attacks in advance. They also noted that Santino was trying to upgrade his weaponry by making throwing discs out of concrete in his enclosure.

Hoping Santino would chill out a bit, zookeepers castrated the chimp. But that doesn't seem to have stopped him. In 2012, researchers noticed that Santino was now hiding his rocks under logs and piles of hay, hoping to fool guests into dropping their guard before launching a sneak attack. To be fair, castration wouldn't make us very happy, either.

Gu Gu the biting panda

Pandas are often described as "cute" and "cuddly," and while they certainly look like adorable fuzzballs, they don't really like it when people try to give them hugs. That's especially true for Gu Gu, the male panda who spends his days at the Beijing Zoo. In 2006, a 35-year-old drunk tourist wondered what it would be like to pet a panda, so he jumped into Gu Gu's pen to give his fur a tousle. Of course, when Gu Gu spotted the intruder, he took a big old bite out of both the guy's legs. The intruder retaliated by biting Gu Gu on the back, but he didn't do much damage because Gu Gu is a bear.

While that's a pretty comical story, things got a bit scarier in 2007 when a 15-year-old scrambled down into Gu Gu's cage. Just like before, the 240-pound bear went after the boy's legs. But this time, the bites were so deep that you could see the kid's bones. Fortunately, after three minutes of terror, zookeepers were able to call Gu Gu off.

Shockingly, Gu Gu went on the attack yet again just a few years later. In 2009, a 28-year-old dad was playing catch with his son, tossing a panda doll back and forth. During their game, the father accidentally tumbled into Gu Gu's pen. By this point, the panda had its attack strategy down to a science, and it did some pretty serious damage to—you guessed it—the man's legs. Luckily, all three victims survived their close encounters, and Gu Gu was unpunished for his actions.

The Komodo dragon that attacked Sharon Stone's husband

In 2001, actress Sharon Stone wanted to give her then-husband Phil Bronstein, editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, the surprise of his life. Bronstein had always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close, so the actress arranged a private tour of the Los Angeles Zoo. Once the couple arrived, Bronstein was escorted into the dragon's pen, where he was introduced to a seven-foot-long lizard named Komo.

Before stepping inside the enclosure, Bronstein was required to remove his white shoes so the lizard wouldn't mistake them for its daily meal of white mice. Unfortunately, the dragon still thought Bronstein looked pretty tasty, and it latched onto the editor's foot. Thinking on his, well, feet, Bronstein allegedly pinned the lizard's head by stepping down hard on the ground. But that didn't stop the dragon from thrashing back and forth, ripping off the top of Bronstein's foot and severely damaging the man's toe.

What happened next is up for debate. Bronstein claims he pried the dragon off, while the zookeeper says he forced Komo to let the man go. Either way, Bronstein dragged himself out the feeding door, although the lizard took a few swipes at the editor's back before escaping the pen. Once Bronstein was outside, Stone went into action, turning a sock into a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Bronstein was rushed to the hospital, where doctors got busy reattaching tendons and trying to save the editor's toe. At the time, people were also worried about the dragon's saliva, thinking it was full of dangerous bacteria. While research has since disproved that theory, Komodo dragons are venomous, so Bronstein had to deal with deadly toxins even though no one knew it at the time.

Fortunately, Bronstein made it through the incident and decided not to press charges against the zoo. And it's probably safe to assume he never tried getting close to another Komodo dragon again.

The terrors of the Shoushan Zoo

There are some zoos with absolutely impeccable reputations like the Singapore Zoo or the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, where the animals are treated like royalty, the educators are incredibly knowledgeable, and professionals do important research. Then, there are the less-than-stellar zoos where creatures are kept in small cages, staff members have no idea what they're doing, and sloppy management sometimes leads to horrible accidents.

Once such place is the Shoushan Zoo, a facility that's been criticized as the worst government-run zoo in Taiwan. In April 2007, the zoo made international headlines when a veterinarian tried to anesthetize a saltwater crocodile. After sticking his hand inside the reptile's enclosure, the croc whipped around and ripped off the vet's arm. Zoo workers shot the crocodile in the neck, and while the bullets didn't pierce the skin, they did force the animal to drop the arm. Thankfully for the vet, doctors managed to stitch him back together.

But one month later, the Shoushan Zoo experienced another crisis when an angry orangutan escaped from its cage. Experts theorize the ape had been testing all the bars, and when it found a weak one, it spent months wiggling the bar back and forth until it was able to twist it out. The 400-pound primate then escaped its cage and turned into the Hulk, charging at tourists, trashing the zoo's cafe, and flipping over scooters before it was finally tranquilized.

The orangutan was then shipped off to the Taipei Zoo, but the two back-to-back incidents focused the spotlight on the Shoushan Zoo, and soon critics were pointing to a long list of the zoo's embarrassing missteps and outrageous oversights. Here's hoping the place has cleaned up its act since 2007.

Attack of the tapirs

At first glance, tapirs look like the result of some insane experiment where a mad scientist crossbred a pig and an anteater. In other words, tapirs are really ugly. But while they appear more silly than scary, these mammals can be incredibly dangerous if provoked. After all, they can weigh up to 600 pounds, and they pack a nasty set of teeth. Mother tapirs are especially aggressive if you get near their young, a fact Lisa Morehead found out the hard way.

In 1998, Morehead was an animal keeper at the Oklahoma City Zoo. One November day, she was going about her business, when it came time to feed a Malayan tapir named Melody. Morehead slid Melody's food through a two-foot-wide door, but as she reached through, she got too close to Melody's two-month-old calf. Mama panicked and went after the keeper, dragging her into the cage and biting her arm in two at the bicep. While Morehead managed to escape thanks to her coworkers, doctors weren't able to save her arm.

Unfortunately, a similar tapir attacked occurred at the Dublin Zoo in Ireland. A two-year-old girl was allowed to enter the zoo's tapir enclosure, even though the animal had a baby. For some reason, the little girl "let out a screech," and the female tapir reacted defensively. It picked the girl up in its jaws, puncturing her stomach and "degloving" her hand and arm. Local surgeons were fortunately able to help the little girl — as for the Dublin Zoo, officials would eventually plead guilty to violating health and safety regulations by letting the child inside the enclosure.

Missionaries versus lions

Paul Oakley was a 20-year-old Mormon missionary, spreading his faith in Guatemala City. Of course, even saints need a work break, so in July 2011, Oakley and his fellow missionaries decided to check out a zoo in the nearby town of Esquipulas. When the group arrived, Oakley decided to get a cool photo of his friends near the lions, so he positioned himself on a concrete wall near their cage.

And that's when the cats went into attack mode. Without any warning, one of the lions reached through the cage and grabbed Oakley's right leg, sinking its jaws into his calf. Suddenly, the second lion bit down hard on his left bicep, and the cats began tearing Oakley apart. As he frantically screamed for help, Oakley began punching the lions and gouging one of their eyes with his thumb. Soon, a missionary pal arrived with a pole, using it as a crowbar to detach the lion from Oakley's arm. All the while, a zookeeper was firing a pistol into the air, hoping to frighten the cats away.

Finally, Oakley managed to escape, but not after losing 60% of his blood. Fortunately, his fellow Latter-Day Saints donated enough blood for several transfusions. But while doctors managed to save Oakley's life, they weren't able to repair his arm, so the missionary opted to have it amputated. That way, he could replace his useless limb with a more efficient prosthetic. Best of all, despite his injuries, Oakley has retained a positive outlook on life, and hopes his story can provide encouragement for people who've suffered similar injuries.

The Independence Day lion incident

The 4th of July is one of America's biggest holidays, and in 1970, three young Portlanders named Roger Adams, Ken Bowers, and Michael Gaskell chose to celebrate by getting drunk and picking up girls. They failed at the latter, but excelled at the former, and since they couldn't get any girlfriends, they decided to liven things up by breaking into the Washington Park Zoo (today the Oregon Zoo).

Once inside, the young men began pulling some crazy stunts, such as Adams sitting at the edge of the grizzly bear enclosure, taunting the animals. Emboldened by his success, Adams went over to the lion pen and lowered himself into the exhibit, swinging his legs midair. This proved to be a fatal mistake. As quick as a flash, a lioness dragged Adams into the pit. Soon, another cat showed up, and the two lions began tearing Adams to pieces. Desperate, Bowers and Gaskell threw a bottle of wine at the predators. When that didn't work, they went for help. Unfortunately, they weren't able to find anyone in time, and Adams was soon mauled to death.

The horrible story made the papers, but this wasn't the end of the tale. Just a few hours after Adams' death, Bowers returned to the zoo in the middle of the night. This time, he was armed with a hunting rifle, and he ultimately killed both creatures. He managed to elude authorities for two years, and eventually arrested in 1972 on unrelated charges. According to writer John Marr, the young man took the opportunity to confess to his cat-killing crimes — as a result, Bowers was sentenced to three years of probation and was ordered to pay a $1,200 fine.

The Pittsburgh Zoo tragedy

When people think of African predators, they generally imagine leopards, cheetahs, or even hyenas. Very seldom does anyone remember the African wild dog (aka the painted dog). These strangely spotted creatures hunt in packs, and they can weigh up to 80 pounds. While they're generally not dangerous to humans, they're wild canines and will attack if provoked ... which is what tragically happened in November 2012 at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

The victim was a two-year-old named Maddox Derkosh. The boy and his mother were visiting the wild dog exhibit when the mom put her son on the railing surrounding the enclosure. Obviously, zoos discourage this kind of behavior because it puts children at risk — in fact, the Pittsburgh Zoo had even designed their railings to slant at a 45-degree angle, to prevent parents from putting their kids at risk. Nevertheless, the mother wanted her two-year-old to get a good view of the dogs, so she placed Derkosh on top of the railing.

And that's when tragedy struck. Somehow, the two-year-old lost his balance and tumbled into the exhibit. Within seconds, Derkosh was swarmed by 11 painted dogs. Zoo employees and police officers rushed to the scene and managed to call off most of the canines. Three more were lured away, but the final dog wouldn't budge, forcing officers to pull their guns and kill the creature. It was too late for Maddox, who passed away from the attack.

The terrible incident made headlines, and afterward, the boy's parents reached a "confidential" settlement with zoo officials. Really, the whole unfortunate incident is a grim reminder that even at a zoo, people still have to respect the power of nature.

Tatiana the tiger

Tatiana was a 300-pound Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo. Like any big predator, she demanded respect. Let your guard down for a second, and Tatiana would pounce. That's what happened in February 2001 when the cat sliced up a zookeeper's arm.

However, that was nothing compared to what occurred on December 25, 2007, when 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. visited the zoo with two friends, Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal. It's not clear exactly what happened that Christmas Day, but investigators believe the trio provoked Tatiana into attacking. Reports indicate they'd been drinking and smoking marijuana and, after arriving at the tiger grotto, the three allegedly stood on the railing near Tatiana's exhibit and began yelling at the cat. Some believe they even threw sticks at the tiger.

Whatever happened, Tatiana was furious, and she leapt from her enclosure and climbed over the dividing wall (which was lower than mandated by federal law). The tiger then went after 23-year-old Kulbir, but Sousa didn't abandon his friend. He screamed to get the tiger's attention, but unfortunately, the big cat slashed Sousa's throat, killing the teenager. The Dhaliwal brothers escaped to a cafe about 300 feet away, but soon the tiger was on their trail. When Tatiana caught up with the brothers, she began to maul Kulbir. Fortunately, at least four police officers arrived on the scene. Worried they might hit the brothers if they opened fire, the cops initially tried distracting the cat by shouting and shining bright lights. Eventually, Tatiana made a move at the officers, but before she could strike, the police shot the tiger to death.

After the incident, the San Francisco Zoo made dramatic changes to the tiger enclosure, making it much more secure. The zoo was also ordered to pay $900,000 to the Dhaliwal brothers, as well as an undisclosed amount to Carlos Sousa's family.

Juan Perez and the polar bears

On May 19, 1987, 11-year-old Juan Perez and two friends took a trip to Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo. However, this wasn't your typical boyhood excursion. The kids waited until the gates were closed and then clambered over the zoo fence. The boys were planning on swimming in the seal enclosure, but before they reached their destination, one of the boys dared the others to take a dip in the polar bear exhibit. At the time, the Prospect Park Zoo was home to two polar bears: 900-pound Lucy and 1,400-pound Teddy. On this particular evening, the polar bears were still on exhibit, but it appeared they were fast asleep. Once the boys arrived outside the pen, they quickly took off their clothes, and Juan and one friend scrambled down into the moat surrounding the bears' exhibit. Tragically, one of the animals woke up and saw Juan in the water — in a matter of seconds, the bear had the boy in his jaws and was dragging him into its cave.

After receiving reports of screaming from inside the zoo, the New York City cops arrived to see the bears mauling Perez's dead body. However, they also saw all the clothes lying around — afraid the other boys might be hurt and trapped in the pen, the police unloaded 20 shotgun blasts and six .38 caliber bullets into the animals, killing the carnivores. As it turns out, the boys had already escaped before the police had arrived, but regardless, the tragedy reminded people around the world that bears aren't at all the cuddly creatures we so often see on TV.