DALLAS -- The scene at the Wilds of Africa exhibit was wilder than anything most zookeepers have witnessed in the jungle: A 340-pound gorilla breaks out of its enclosure and goes on a 40-minute rampage through a forest, snatching up a toddler with his teeth and attacking three other people before being shot by officers.
Federal regulators are investigating the Dallas Zoo over Thursday's escape, zoo officials are trying to figure out how the gorilla broke out, and animal welfare advocates are questioning whether officers had to kill the beast.
"Clearly, this is a zoo's worst nightmare," said Dan Wharton, director of New York's Central Park Zoo and chairman of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Gorilla Species Survival Plan.
The 13-year-old Jabari broke out of the enclosure as several families and children took in the jungle exhibit Thursday afternoon. After escaping, the gorilla darted in and out of the exhibit's thick bamboo and trees and attacked four people -- two women and two children.
Police were forced to evacuate an estimated 300 people from the zoo compound, while some guests hid inside a restaurant and in the monorail surrounding the Wilds of Africa exhibit.
Some youths had reportedly teased Jabari shortly before he escaped, but it was not known whether that was a factor in the 13-year-old gorilla's escape.
Rich Buickerood, zoo director, said the gorilla "had to have scaled" the enclosure's 15-foot concave wall. But some specialists doubt that could have happened.
"Virtually anybody who's worked with great apes has not been able to compute any way that a gorilla could get up a 15-foot wall," Wharton said. "When you boil it all down, at some level, one has to assume human error."
Only two gorillas, including one in Boston last year, have escaped in the past five years in North America, said Wharton, who coordinates the records for the 380 gorillas on the continent.
Little Joe escaped from Boston's Franklin Park Zoo last fall and injured an 18-year-old zoo employee and her 2-year-old niece. The zoo has yet to decide whether to keep the 300-pound gorilla or move him to a different zoo. Zoo New England officials say they do not have the funds -- estimated to be between $500,000 and $2 million -- to make the gorilla exhibit escape-proof. Zoo officials did not return telephone calls yesterday.
Federal regulators said their investigation will look at whether the Dallas zoo was in full compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
Darby Holladay, a spokesman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the zoo could face fines or have its license suspended or revoked if it is found not in compliance.
Police also are investigating, but they said officers were forced to shoot the charging gorilla after it came within 15 feet of them. "We did not go out there looking to kill an animal," said Senior Corporal Chris Gilliam, a Dallas police spokesman. "We went out there in response to a situation where three people had already been injured."
Dieter Steklis, chief scientist and vice president for the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, said police could have tried to contain the gorilla using rubber bullets or by cornering it with a wall of 15 to 20 people, preferably keepers the animal recognized.