Orangutan returns to enclosure at Sedgwick Co. Zoo after brief escape

WICHITA, Kan. A Wichita couple was among the first people to discover an orangutan on the loose at the Sedgwick County Zoo Tuesday.

The zoo went into lockdown and within minutes, the great ape returned to her enclosure on her own. Tuesday night, officials say the orangutans are off exhibit while keepers inspect their enclosure from top to bottom.

Tuesday morning, there was an unusual 911 call from the zoo. The report of an orangutan out of its enclosure was one the dispatcher double-checked to make sure was true.

Wichita couple Matt and Tara Crippen say they were the ones who first saw Tao on the loose, and they had the same reaction.

"It was pretty surreal," Matt says.

The Crippens are zoo members who visit regularly. Tuesday morning, out for a run at the zoo, they ran into Tao, outside her enclosure. They saw the orangutan was calm.

"Yeah, just standing there, holding on to the bamboo and just chilling basically, just on the other side of the path," Tara says.

It took just minutes for the zoo to go into lockdown, sending visitors to other exhibits and nearby restrooms.

The Crippens say they weren't afraid for themselves, so much as for Tao.

"It was kind of scary because we didn't want to spook it or anything like that, you know?" Tara says.

Tuesday, Eyewitness News spoke with an expert on zookeeping about what happened with Tao's escape. Dr. Patrick Matthews, part of the Zoo Science program at Friends University, says there are some safety concerns with any apes. That's because they can be very strong and their strength is not always obvious.

Compared to a chimpanzee, Matthews says orangutans are more mellow.

"An orangutan is usually much more laid back than an average chimpanzee, but every individual has its own personality, and so it really depends on that individual and what they've been habituated to in the past, what they've experienced in their lives up to that point," Matthews says.

He says the type of experience with the escaped orangutan at the Sedgwick County Zoo Tuesday is different than a big cat getting out He believes the ordeal was probably more scary for Tao than it was for the visitors.

You can follow developments from Tuesday's events at the Sedgwick County Zoo through the updates below:

Update: (10/25/16,12:30 p.m.): An orangutan is back in her enclosure at the Sedgwick County Zoo after getting loose Tuesday morning.

Deputy Director Ryan Gulker, with the zoo, said Tao, an 11-year-old Sumatran orangutan, got out through a small hole found in the woven mesh of the outdoor exhibit. He said the hole is about the size of a volleyball.

Gulker said he was surprised Tao was able to fit through the hole, but said orangutans are agile.

When Tao got out, she went through some bamboo around the habitat then out of the hole.

"She went out, went for a little bit of a walkabout. Went to the chimpanzees," said Gulker.

Gulker said said zoo workers check animal exhibits every day. He said the hole was so small, they will have to investigate before determining how or why it was missed.

Gulker said orangutans are considered a potentially dangerous animal. Great apes are treated like lions, tigers or elephants if they escape. He said the zoo drills for dangerous animal escapes regularly.

On Tuesday, he said zoo workers were prepared for the incident and responded as required. Guests were transported to safety and 911 was called.

As part of the response team, veterinarians also have a recapture protocol which includes dart guns to immobilize animals if need be.

"Everything went as it should have," he said.

Gulker said Tao is mild-mannered orangutan. She came to the Sedgwick County Zoo from Germany on Aug. 5. She was integrated into the group and has been getting along well with the group.

The indoor orangutan exhibit re-open to visitors on Tuesday. No date was given on when the outdoor exhibit will re-open.

-----
Update (10/25/16, 11:40 a.m.): The Sedgwick County Zoo just released the statement detailing an orangutan's escape at the zoo Tuesday morning:

At approximately 10:00 a.m. this morning a report came in from a guest of a possible orangutan escape. Zoo staff quickly treated the situation as such until it could be confirmed. Guests were escorted to places of safety and the Zoo was secured.

It was confirmed that Tao, 11-year-old Sumatran orangutan, had escaped and was in a public area. Within 11 minutes, all orangutans were secured indoors. The orangutan went back into the enclosure on her own. Guests were then released from places of safety. No guests, staff or animals were harmed in this incident.

At this time, it appears that Tao found a weakness in the wire mesh and may have unwoven it enough to be able to exit through the hole. The entire outdoor area will be evaluated and repairs will be made to secure the area.

The orangutans will remain indoors and the outdoor area will be closed until further notice so that the area can be fully evaluated and secured.

-----
The Sedgwick County Zoo was placed on lockdown Tuesday morning after an orangutan escaped its enclosure.

Dispatchers confirmed the orangutan was back "in custody" about 10 minutes after it was reported to be out. Zoo officials say a new female to the orangutan exhibit named Tao found a way out of the enclosure and returned on her own.

The zoo was not evacuated, but officials say people were directed to safe zones until the situation was under control.

Officials say Tao is one of four orangutans at the zoo. The exhibit includes two females and two males. The exhibit is closed as officials work to repair the flaw that allowed Tao to escape.