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Sumatran orangutan Karta escapes her enclosure at Australia's Adelaide Zoo

May 11, 2009 | 10:00 am

Karta, the clever orangutan who escaped her enclosure at Australia's Adelaide Zoo

Zookeepers at Australia's Adelaide Zoo believe that Karta, a 27-year-old Sumatran orangutan, was driven to make an incredible escape attempt by grief at the loss of her longtime mate.

Karta's mate, 31-year-old Pusung, was known as the "gentle giant" of the Adelaide Zoo.  He died last month of a respiratory infection, and since his death Karta has been understandably out of sorts.  Keepers think that's why she used a stick to short-circuit an electric wire in the zoo's orangutan enclosure and escape, forcing the zoo to be evacuated Sunday.

"She climbed over those disabled hot wires, built up a mound of leaf litter and then used a branch to climb out of the exhibit and on to the surrounding wall of the exhibit," zoo spokesperson Emily Rice told the Australian

The brilliant move wasn't the first time Karta has impressed those close to her with her intelligence.  "We've had issues with Karta before, where she's tried to outsmart the keepers," curator Peter Whitehead said of the orangutan in an interview with the Guardian.  "She's an ingenious animal."  She's even shorted wires at the zoo in the past, but never in an escape attempt -- just to get food.

It seems, though, that Karta didn't quite know what to do once she'd made her escape. 

She sat peacefully for about 30 minutes before allowing zoo staff to return her to the enclosure.  From the Australian:

Ms. Rice said Karta was not aggressive and did not pose an immediate threat to the public.

"As soon as she realized she was in a foreign area, she was very uncomfortable and just wanted to get back in," she said.

"She was sitting on the enclosure fence and could have jumped down, but did not."

Zoo staff decided not to reopen yesterday afternoon as they tried to coax Karta into her night den and "clean up the damage she has done and reassess the exhibit."

While Karta didn't seem to pose a threat to zoo-goers and was never close enough to the public to do any harm, vets were on hand with tranquilizer guns just in case. 

Karta has lived at the Adelaide Zoo since 1992, but she's a native Southern Californian: She was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1982.  Sunday's incident was the first time an orangutan has escaped the enclosure, and the zoo says it will conduct a full review to ensure it will be the last.

For many years, scientists didn't think orangutans were particularly intelligent primates, according to PBS' "Nature."  But in the 1960s, researchers observed them using tools, like twigs to pry insects from trees.  (They were also seen using twigs to collect honey before eating them in much the same way a human would a lollipop.)

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Karta has lived at the Adelaide Zoo since 1992, but she's a native Southern Californian: She was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1982. Credit: Adelaide Zoo

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