For as long as humans have confined animals, unwilling captives have found ways to break free. Sometimes these escapes end harmlessly, with animals quickly and quietly returned, and sometimes they cause havoc. Some animals gain long-lasting freedom but occasionally, these animal jailbreaks end in tragedy. From leopards on the lam in China to zebras roaming free in the "savanna" of Maryland, here are 8 of the wildest animal escapes of 2021.
Leopards break out of Chinese zoo
In April, three leopards (Panthera pardus) escaped while their enclosure was cleaned at the Hangzhou Safari Park in eastern China. Handlers shot the first leopard with a tranquillizer two days later, the second leopard was caught with a wounded hind leg after being on the run for more than a month and the third leopard showed no intention of ever coming back. Chinese officials sent out 1,700 personnel and almost 1,000 drones to track the third leopard down to no avail, even releasing around 100 chickens as live bait.
Meanwhile, residents living near the park received a warning message: "Leopard tracks have been discovered near mountain villages. Police are searching. Everyone please securely close doors and windows and do not go out," The Guardian reported at the time. No news outlets reported whether the leopard was caught but it's unlikely to have survived, as it never learned to hunt for itself in the zoo.
Zebras run wild in Maryland
Three Zebras fled a Maryland exotic animal farm in August and spent months on the run, occasionally spotted by locals . In September, county officials found one of the zebras dead in an illegal snare trap. The other two zebras roamed free in Prince George's County until they were eventually caught in December, NPR reported.
County officials did not give details on how they rounded up the striped equines but their capture did not involve the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Prince George's County animal services. The zebras' owner was charged with three counts of animal cruelty in October, NPR reported.
Florida sharks escape toxic algae
In August, sharks in Florida had to flee their coastal waters to escape a toxic algal bloom. The sharks, which included bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo), blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus), nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris), moved into canals where local residents filmed them and shared the footage online.
Experts think the sharks took to the canals to avoid red tide — the common name for Karenia brevis, a type of algae along the Florida coast that releases a neurotoxin and is causing widespread damage to the marine ecosystem there.
Tiger in Houston neighborhood
In May, a widely shared video on social media showed a young tiger (Panthera tigris) prowling a neighborhood in Houston, Texas. The tiger wore a collar and was led back inside a house by his presumed owner, Victor Hugo Cuevas, who allegedly later fled the scene with the tiger as police arrived, ABC News reported. Hugo Cuevas was taken into custody the next day but there was no tiger to be found.
After being missing for nearly a week, the nine-month-old tiger named India was turned over to the police by Hugo Cuevas' wife, Giorgiana. Hugo Cuevas was on bail for a murder charge when India went missing. His lawyer denied that Hugo Cuevas was the owner but said he helped care for the big cat, BBC News reported. India the tiger found a new home at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Texas.
Camels on the streets
A camel ditched a nativity scene in Kansas in December and fled down a highway. The camel was safely captured by Bonner Springs Police Department and Animal Control officers, but not before they pursued the rogue camel across golf courses in golf carts, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported.
This was not the year's first camel escape. In November, eight camels and a llama managed to bolt from a circus in Italy. The camels and llama roamed the streets of Madrid until they were rounded up safely, The Independent, a British online newspaper, reported. The circus claimed the animals were released on purpose in an act of sabotage and pointed the finger at animal rights activists. Fun fact: a group of camels is called a "caravan," according to Insider.
A New Zealand district council issued a wanted message on Facebook on June 16 — for a ram. The sheep "pulled the wool" over their eyes after escaping from the council's animal pound in New Plymouth, according to the Facebook post.
The council initially captured the ram after complaints that he was trying to head butt walkers on a city path, the New Zealand media company Stuff reported. The ram was believed to be a pet named Duggy. Stuff published an update on the runaway ram on July 1. His whereabouts were unknown at the time and he has not since been recaptured by the district council.
Cow slides to freedom
A cow destined for the slaughterhouse escaped a Brazilian cattle ranch in November and found its way to a nearby waterpark, where it was filmed going down a water slide, the New York Post reported. The cow does not look comfortable or particularly stable on the water slide in the YouTube video released by Diário da Região, a Brazilian newspaper. However, the trip has saved the cow's life as the owner decided to keep it as a pet, according to the Orlando radio station 101.1 WJRR.
The Brazilian cow was one of several slaughterhouse-bound cattle to seekfreedom in 2021. A herd of cattle escaped from a slaughterhouse in Pico Rivera, California in June, the Los Angeles Times reported. Someone accidentally left the slaughterhouse gate open and the cattle ran free through the Pico Rivera streets before heading into a residential area. They were all captured except for one cow that was shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy after it charged at a family.
Cobra in North Carolina
A privately owned cobra snaked its way out of a house in Raleigh, North Carolina and went on the run (slither) for three days in July. Police began the search after they were called by a citizen who spotted the black and white snake on a porch. The snake was gone by the time the police arrived, but they identified it from photos and videos as a zebra cobra (Naja nigricincta nigricincta), a species of spitting cobra from southern Africa, The Washington Post reported. To the relief of local residents, officials captured the snake by using glue traps, or boards covered in glue. Experts then restrained and removed the striped serpent, ABC11 Eyewitness News reported.
Honorable mention: China's internet elephants
Perhaps the most famous animal adventure of 2021 is the story of the Yunnan elephants. Technically not an escape, the Asian elephants left their nature reserve in China, which they are free to do, but traveled an extraordinary distance of more than 310 miles (500 kilometers) across the Chinese province of Yunnan. Authorities monitored the elephants around the clock and they became an internet sensation in China, with millions of people tuning in to live streams to watch them.
Scientists aren't sure why the elephants left their nature reserve. Some experts suggest it is due to shrinking rainforest habitat while others think the herd simply got lost. The elephants eventually returned home in September after a journey that lasted about 18 months, China Daily, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, reported.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Patrick Pester is a freelance writer and previously a staff writer at Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master's degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K.