This epic zoo escape story shows how fantastically smart orangutans can be.


Fu Manchu was on the loose.

Adult male orangutans grow big jowls, like this gentleman from a German zoo. Photo by Oliver Lang/AFP/Getty Images.

Fu was an adult male orangutan who lived in the Omaha Zoo way back in the 1960s.

Though he was named after the villainous mastermind in Sax Rohmer’s series of novels, Fu was anything but a villain. He was gentle and easy-going, the Omaha Zoo said in a flashback Facebook post.

“Fu, at a young age, would climb inside of the keeper’s parkas as they were wearing them, slide his arms into the sleeves and play with the keepers,” they wrote. “[Fu] even saved a curator who had slipped on a wet floor inside the exhibit.”

One day, though, Fu caused quite a commotion by escaping from his enclosure.

When zookeepers came near his enclosure, they were shocked to find Fu sitting in a tree. Orangutans love to climb trees, yes, but the tree was outside his enclosure, over near the elephant barn. And he hadn’t just escaped, he also brought his companion and three children along with him!

In the wild, orangutans often build bed-like nests in trees. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images.

The keepers were able to guide Fu back to his enclosure, where they found an open, unlocked maintenance door. Head keeper Jerry Stones, assuming it was the fault of one of the keepers, gave his team a tongue-lashing.

Stones was willing to let the incident go. But then it happened again.

Just a few days later, the Fu Manchu family was spotted basking in the sun on a nearby rooftop outside the enclosure. The keepers managed, again, to get Fu back into his home. But this time, Stones was furious.

“I was getting ready to fire someone,” he told Time magazine.

But a few days later, before anyone lost their job, one of Stones’ staff noticed something: Fu Manchu was behaving weirdly.

It turned out that Fu had MacGuyver’d his own escape device.

As the staff watched, Fu Manchu ambled over to the dry moat in his enclosure that contained the maintenance door and climbed down some air vents to get to the bottom. Then, as they all watched, he proceeded to jimmy the door’s latch with what looked like a homemade lock pick!

Keepers later found that the lock pick was a long piece of wire Fu had managed to find somewhere and bend into shape. Using it, he could unlatch the maintenance door from the outside.

What’s more, the reason that nobody had been able to find it before was that Fu kept this lock pick a secret. He’d do it by hiding it in between his bottom lip and his gums between escape attempts, only pulling it out when the time was ripe.

Orangutans are tool masters, and Fu Manchu isn’t the only orangutan who’s shocked us with their smarts.

Probing for goodies is only one of the many clever things we’ve seen orangutans do. Photo by Colin Knowles/Flickr.

Another big male, Ken Allen, lived at the San Diego Zoo in 1985 and kept finding new ways to scale the walls. The zoo ultimately had to hire a team of rock climbers to climb-proof his enclosure. He even inspired a song, “The Ballad of Ken Allen.”

Orangutans in the wild, meanwhile, have been seen using leaves as gloves, napkins, or megaphones. They build nests to sleep in every night. They’ve even been seen spearfishing.

For his efforts, Fu Manchu earned an honorary membership in the American Association of Locksmiths, according to The Seattle Times.

Fu passed away in 1992 and was survived by 20 children and 15 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The zoo still has orangutans today, although none have entered the history books quite like Fu and his ridiculous, amazing escape attempts.


Unfortunately, a lot of wild orangutans are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, making their protection paramount. To find out how to help keep orangutans like Fu safe, you can visit the Orangutan Foundation International.

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