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Zoo boosts security; 4 probes begin

With recaptured gorilla Little Joe safely locked away in a holding pen, police yesterday demanded that Franklin Park Zoo officials quickly upgrade security at the popular gorilla exhibit and refused to rule out putting the restless primate to death in order to protect the public.

Four separate investigations were launched into zoo security and management following the startling escape of the 300-pound ape, who bolted out of the gorilla pavilion Sunday, attacked two people, ambled off the zoo grounds, and shocked residents by showing up at a bus stop on nearby Seaver Street.

Zoo officials sought to reassure the public that the zoo could be safely visited and future gorilla escapes averted. They announced that they would add security cameras in the gorilla area and hired independent zoo security consultants to conduct a review. State and city police officials must sign off on any new security plan.

Little Joe, who spent much of the day eating fruit and watching television yesterday, will remain locked up until the new security measures are in place, as will the other five gorillas that share the habitat with him, said zoo officials.

"He had a history of being a wonderful animal," said Zoo New England CEO John Linehan. "He's not a criminal of any sort. He's a gorilla."

Zoo officials said, in addition to new security cameras, they would consider motion sensors and higher barriers to protect the public.

Police, who spent two hours pursuing and capturing the gorilla Sunday, stressed that they must put public safety first and would consider euthanizing the gorilla if necessary. State Police are overseeing the investigation into the escape, and have ultimate jurisdiction over what actions to take to prevent another escape. Boston police are assisting State Police.

"If it comes down to that, we have to use whatever tools are necessary," said Rafael Ruiz, the Boston police deputy superintendent.

But zoo officials downplayed that possibility. Little Joe is a member of an endangered species, and Linehan said: "He's a great animal and we will work very hard at finding him a good home if we can't properly contain him."

Zoo officials were already contemplating shipping the adolescent gorilla out of Boston. They said they were considering moving him in about three years, to prevent him from mating with the zoo's females, who are related to him. Inbred offspring with genetic problems could result.

Yesterday, zoo officials said they are still piecing together all the details of the gorilla's escape over a moat, past an electrified wire, over a waist-high glass barrier, and out of the pavilion.

Little Joe fled his confines once before, last month, prompting zoo officials to add electricity-charged wires along the top of the moat that separates the public from the gorillas' habitat. The wires are designed to deliver a low-voltage charge of sharp pain to frighten the gorillas but not cause serious injury.

But on Sunday, Little Joe got past the 12-foot deep moat, firmly gripping the electric-shock cables on his way out, said an eyewitness. The eyewitness, one of the victims of the gorilla's attack, said it appeared to her the wires were turned off.

"He climbed on the wire that was set up so he couldn't get out," said Courtney Roberson, 18, a zoo employee who was thrown, bitten, and dragged several feet by Little Joe. Zoo officials, however, said the wire functioned all day Sunday, passing a morning check and another check conducted moments after Little Joe escaped.

The gorilla also struck and jumped on 2-year-old Nia Scott, who yesterday was discharged from Boston Medical Center with six stitches and several bruises. An independent security specialist will inspect the entire gorilla habitat to determine if certain rock formations within it helped Little Joe get past the moat.

Little Joe had not recently exhibited any behavior unusual for a gorilla surging into puberty, when the primates become sexually active and seek to assert themselves through belligerent posturing and physical challenges directed at other gorillas, said zoo officials. Rather, it was the gorilla's extraordinary physical gifts -- the strength of an adult with the agility of a child -- that appears to have enabled him to bound past a moat that can ably confine the vast majority of gorillas, they said.

Nonetheless, four separate investigations commenced yesterday. Zoo officials began their internal security review. State and local police launched an evaluation of public safety measures in the pavilion that houses the gorillas. The US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service started probing whether zoo conditions violated any federal animal welfare laws. And the National Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits zoos, planned an already scheduled accredition check that will now include extra scrutiny of gorilla security.

"We're checking their safety protocol, finding out how they operate here. Our main goal is public safety and to make sure this doesn't happen again," said State Police Commander Lieutenant Brian Greeley, who inspected the perimeter of the gorilla habitat yesterday.

Meanwhile, zoo attendance yesterday was heavy for a Monday, said zoo officials, as mothers curiously wheeled kids in strollers by the empty gorilla habitat and local middle school students peppered tour guides with questions about the ape escape. Though all six gorillas living at the zoo were quaratined, other denizens of the pavilion, like the warthog, contentedly sat in their pens.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, "There's always going to be that one chance in 1,000 that it could happen again. But I'm confident it'll be safe."

Gorilla experts said the Franklin Park Zoo's security measures were up to industry standards. The Central Park Zoo's Dan Wharton, who coordinates gorilla breeding at zoos nationwide, said numerous security upgrades were available.

"The list of remedies is so vast and so large. Euthanasia really shouldn't even need to come up," he said.

However, Roberson, one of Little Joe's victims, said yesterday: "They need to let me shoot him."

Little Joe, a western lowland gorilla native to central Africa, is classified as an endangered species by wildlife agencies. About 100,000 remain in Africa, threatened by rampant poaching, as well as logging and civil strife that have decimated much of their habitat.

He was born in captivity in 1993 at the Bronx Zoo. Zoo keepers call him "The Scientist" as well as "Don Juan," and he is considered among the most intelligent of the animals at Franklin Park.

The gorilla has delicately taken apart cameras accidentally dropped into the habitat, curiously arranging the tiny pieces before him. But he has also shown a fondness for blonde women, often blowing kisses or fluttering his eyes at blond female visitors and blond zoo volunteers.

He has shown particular tenderness with the youngest gorilla at the zoo, 4-year-old Kira, often holding and cuddling the smaller primate; he was specially trained by zoo keepers to handle infants. Zoo volunteers said he has never acted overly belligerent; when several other gorillas were given anti-depressant medication several years ago, well-adjusted Little Joe was exempt. Often, he could be found contentedly watching his favorite videos: footage of himself or the children's show "Teletubbies."

About two months ago, said zoo volunteers, the gorilla did, as expected, start acting more assertive. He beat his chest and often stood rigidly, part of every male gorilla's puberty habits. His physical prowess has allowed him to muscle aside 17-year-old Kitombe, until recently the zoo's dominant male.

"Puberty and testosterone has much to answer for in all this," said zoo volunteer Gail O'Malley.

Zoo officials say they may never allow him to breed: 37 of his family members live at US zoos, and gorilla experts, in their effort to maintain genetic diversity among the gorilla population, consider the family line too widespread. Zoo officials said Little Joe could therefore be sent to live out his days in a male-dominated colony or even isolated from from other families.

Staff writer Doug Belkin and correspondent Sasha Talcott contributed to this story. Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

Joe Little Joe at the Franklin Park Zoo. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)
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Map (Globe Staff Graphic / Alejandro Gonzalez)
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