On a windy Sunday afternoon at the Sacramento Zoo, emergency radios carried by animal care staffers suddenly began crackling.
An endangered bongo named Taylor Swift was on the run, and had made her way to a pedestrian pathway a few hundred yards from her enclosure.
For an institution charged with breeding and protecting animals facing extinction, the bongo’s escape was a major crisis. It could have been disastrous, if not for staff members who sprang into action to locate and corral a coveted hoofed animal named after a pop singer.
“It was a pretty big deal,” animal care director Matt McKim said. “You never want an animal to breach its enclosure. We’re all about saving wild animals. Everything we do is focused on that.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Some 600 visitors were roaming the Land Park campus last Sunday when word of Taylor’s escape surfaced at about 3:30 p.m. Staffers received several reports that a horned creature had bolted its enclosure.
Just a minute or two later, they confirmed that “the bongo named Taylor Swift was on a public pathway,” McKim said.
Bongos, large antelopes found in rain forests across tropical Africa, are in danger of disappearing in the wild. The Sacramento Zoo is involved in a conservation program for the animals, part of the institution’s participation in the Species Survival Program. Taylor Swift, so named because she quickly jumped to her feet as a baby, was born at the zoo last year and lives in an enclosure with her mother. Today she weighs about 300 pounds, and stands about 4 feet tall.
Escapes at the zoo are rare, with only a handful during the past decade, McKim said. Two of those previous cases also involved bongos, which are known for their striking white-striped reddish coats and their leaping ability.
About 17 animal care staff members were working at the time of Taylor’s escape, McKim said, and they quickly mobilized to locate and corral her.
They found her a few hundred feet from her enclosure, which is west of the main entrance near the orangutans and zebras. She was making her way to the back of the zoo, past the aardvarks and toward the administrative offices.
In accordance with emergency procedures, staffers notified the supervisor in charge that Taylor was on the lam and that they had eyes on her. The supervisor instructed staffers to move zoo visitors away from the area and toward the gift shop. The zoo closed its main entrance.
At the same time, animal specialists quietly grabbed boards, folding tables and hand tools and formed a circle around Taylor. They kept their distance at first so she would not feel trapped or cornered, and spoke calmly to the animal. Then, still maintaining a perimeter around her, they used the tools in their hands to gently guide her along the public pathway past the giraffe exhibit and into the back of her enclosure.
The entire drama played out in about 13 minutes, McKim said.
“I couldn’t be prouder or happier about the way my staff handled it,” he said. “They did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
Other than some superficial scrapes to her face, Taylor survived her ordeal unscathed. She was kept off exhibit for a few days and underwent a veterinary examination, but is on public display again.
“She’s settled down pretty well,” McKim said.
Zoo officials are uncertain how the antelope escaped, as no staffers observed the incident and it was not captured on security camera. But based on a subsequent investigation that included reports from visitors, they believe she jumped a pair of fences surrounding her enclosure, possibly after being startled by the wind, a falling branch or a loud noise.
“It was a very windy day, and we’re trying to figure out if she was spooked,” said McKim. “We did find loose branches and leaves in her exhibit, so the wind may have played a role.
“Maybe she heard a siren from an emergency vehicle along Sutterville Road, though most of our animals adapt to those sounds. There was a yellowjacket nest in the area as well. We’re not 100 percent sure what startled her, and we may never know.”
In the aftermath of Taylor’s escape, the zoo reinforced and added height to the 6-foot to 8-foot fences surrounding the bongo exhibit. McKim said officials will continue to investigate the matter and may install other deterrents.
The zoo recently received a mixed review from its accreditation agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The report deemed the institution’s animals healthy but said many exhibits are too small and outdated, and highlighted issues that could threaten future accreditation of the facility. It got mostly high marks for its safety and security measures, though the report did note that animal enclosure locks in its interpretive center are left open when staff is present, posing a risk of animal escape. That matter has been corrected, investigators said.
Zoo director Jason Jacobs has announced that he wants to move the zoo to more spacious, updated digs in another neighborhood, but the plan is still under discussion.
Meanwhile, news of Taylor Swift’s bolt from her enclosure provided the zoo with a brush with fame.
The story of her brief escape went viral, spurred by the musician and her “Swiftie” fan base. The zoo estimates that the story, published and broadcast widely across the United States and beyond, reached at least 270 million people.
“Taylor Swift herself posted something about it, and she has 112 million followers” on Instagram, said zoo spokeswoman Laurel Vincent. “The response has been absolutely crazy.”
Luckily, McKim said, the story had a happy ending.
“The end result is that the animal is secure, and zoo staff and the public are safe,” he said. “We’re going to work very hard to make sure that something like this never happens again.”