For staff at the San Diego Zoo, Trudy the tapir was synonymous with trouble. To the casual observer, she appeared attractive yet innocuous, but for her keepers, it was another story.
  • 1930s
  • 1950s

As Ken Stott, Jr., then associate editor of ZOONOOZ, wrote about the infamous Malayan tapir, “Many an old acquaintance of hers may yet find it difficult to speak her name without a shudder.” You see, Trudy was a talented escape artist. On her first day at the Zoo, she managed to squeeze out of her pen, only to find herself in the next exhibit with two very displeased hippos. A keeper managed to distract the two charging behemoths long enough for Trudy to get to safety. That scare might have been enough to deter most tapirs from wandering—but not Trudy.

Late one night, Zoo Director Belle Benchley’s phone rang with the news that Trudy had disappeared. A flashlight hunt in the Zoo that night and search of the Balboa Park area at daybreak turned up nothing. Two days passed, with no word about Trudy’s whereabouts. Then a frantic phone call came in, with a hysterical voice screaming that there was a rhinoceros in the sewer, and what was the Zoo going to do about it?

Rushing downtown, Zoo staff found a crowd surrounding an opening into the street that led to a subterranean passage for rainwater. Apparently a city worker had gone in and had been confronted by a “rhinoceros.” He had flung his tools and run for his life to the nearest manhole. The Zoo’s keepers went down, and it was, indeed, Trudy. They herded her to a larger opening, where she emerged to flashbulbs going off as the press took her photo for the newspapers.

Staff went to work reinforcing her enclosure. As Ken wrote, “Such a ridiculous occurrence could not be repeated.” But Trudy had other ideas. One day, she managed to snap the lock on her door and headed out for yet another adventure. She was discovered rather quickly, though, as “An indignant woman informed us that there was a wild animal in her backyard. She didn’t like it and would we come out immediately and take it away.”

This time, staff reinforced Trudy’s enclosure as if it were Fort Knox. Trudy tried, but she was unable to get through the defenses again. After her initial notoriety, she settled into respectability—but, as Ken hastened to add, “not by choice, mind you!”

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