On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 20, a lion escaped from its cage at the Santa Barbara Zoo - or so visitors were told as they were ushered by staff into gift shops and whatever secure structures were nearby. About 30 minutes later, the “escape” was determined to be a false alarm, and guests were allowed to go back to their afternoon of animal spotting. Two weeks later, zoo officials are still unsure of what triggered the false escape alert.
“We’re not sure of the origin of the call, so it’s hard to speculate right now,” said assistant zoo director Alan Varsik, who was on-scene that day and said that whoever reported the escape seemed to know the zoo’s proper radio protocol. “We did an internal investigation, but that didn’t bring anything to light. Perhaps it was external.”
Even though an escape did not occur happen and “was no drill,” according to Varsik, the event turned out to be a good test for the staff, which is trained regularly on what to do if a dangerous animal escapes. “Even though it was a little nerve-wracking for everyone involved, I was really pleased that our drills really paid off,” said Varsik. “We got all of our guests into a secure situation rather quickly and responded as we were trained to do.”
Zoo-goer Teresa Robinson concurred that everything was handled well. She was visiting the zoo with her granddaughter at the time, and happened to be in the gift shop already. Over a staff member’s walkie-talkie, she heard, “A lion has escaped. Put everyone into the closest facility.” The staff member went outside and told everyone to get inside the gift shop.
“Everything was pretty calm,” said Robinson, who also heard the alert jump to a “code red.” When people began asking whether it was a drill, a zoo employee replied that it wasn’t and explained, “Sometimes it is a false alarm. We don’t know, but we’re gonna treat it as real.” Inside the gift store, the atmosphere was not panicked at all, explained Robinson, who said that the assembled kids happily played with toys and stuffed animals. About a half-hour later, Robinson and the other guests were told everything was fine. “It was over pretty quickly,” she said. She still figured it was some sort of drill, but was never told by anyone what had actually happened.
More shocking, however, was that it’s taken so long for the news media to hear. “I was really surprised that it didn’t show up somewhere in the news the night that it happened,” said Robinson.
For Varsik, who’s been in the zoo business for more than 25 years, it was one of the weirder days on the job. “It seemed very odd,” he explained. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before in any situation I’ve worked in. I’ve been here at the Santa Barbara Zoo about 10 years, and we’ve never had anything like that.”