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Chicago’s animals gone wild

Fence-hopping sea lions, a chilled-out coyote, and more animal exploits from history

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ALISON POLSTON
  • Alison Polston

Chance the Snapper joins a long line of "exotic" animals that gained fame by running free in the city, including the most recent before him, the Roscoe Village cougar. The Chicago press took their exploits with great humor, although they sometimes also acknowledged the underlying pathos of a creature trying desperately to return home. Here is an incomplete list of animals gone wild in Chicago.

1880 Two sea lions from Lincoln Park Zoo hopped a wire fence. One sauntered over to Clark and Armitage, startling patrons of Madame Raggio's Restaurant. Zookeepers roped the escapee, which followed the light of their lanterns. Getting halfway back to the zoo, the sea lion angrily refused to go further. It was eventually lured with fish into a large wooden crate. The other sea lion headed toward a circus but eventually wandered back to the zoo.

1889 Sue and Lou, two elephants purchased by two Chicago lawyers looking to break into show business, eluded their keeper and roamed several miles through the north side, occasionally turning over vegetable carts and scaring horses along the way. After they were captured, they were housed with Duchess, the elephant at Lincoln Park Zoo.

1892 As zookeepers were leading Duchess from the animal house to her day quarters, she made a break across flower beds to Webster Avenue. Crushing through sidewalks made of wooden planks, she smashed the double doors of the Bartholomae & Leicht brewery at Sedgwick and Dickens. She also stuck her trunk through a nearby saloon, tipping over a barrel of beer. Zookeepers managed to tie Duchess to two trees, eventually leading her back to the zoo.

1897 The night watchman at Graceland Cemetery reported seeing a hyena. Soon after, Lincoln Park Zoo discovered that Jim the hyena was missing. The Inter-Ocean reassured readers that Jim was not doing anything untoward in the graveyard. Jim eluded capture in Lakeview, Edgewater, and Ravenswood. Although the Tribune initially portrayed the hyena as an ill-tempered beast, the Daily News praised Jim for mastering the "intricacies and dangers of the city at its leisure," claiming that Jim might "become a valued member of the community" in due time. Although he survived the city, Jim was gunned down on the grounds of the German Old People's Home in Forest Park a week after his escape.

1902 James Burke, a bridge ironworker, and Daniel McCarthy, a policeman, spotted an alligator in the Chicago River at what is now called Roosevelt Road. McCarthy shot four times at the two-and-a-half-foot gator, missing each time. Burke, who fell into the river trying to rope the alligator, managed to snag it from the river, placing it in a barrel of water.

1903 Big Ben, a California sea lion at Lincoln Park Zoo, cleared two iron fences the morning of November 16. The Chicago Daily News reported Big Ben trailed "his 600 pounds of clumsy flesh for several hundred feet and after nearly two years of loathsome confinement had regained his freedom with a glad splash into the waters of the outer lagoon."

The Tribune reported that Big Ben was spotted in South Chicago, his "joyous bark" heard near the Illinois Steel mill. Two miles offshore, Big Ben attempted to board a tugboat. The captain failed to lasso Big Ben. The Tribune implored the public to leave Big Ben alone. "It is the first impulse of many persons discovering a strange bird which has lost its way and become bewildered, or an animal which was escaped from captivity and is enjoying its freedom, to kill it," lamented the Tribune, which predicted that Big Ben would return to Lincoln Park Zoo on his own.

Over the next few months, Big Ben was sighted in Racine, Wisconsin, Saint Joseph, Michigan, and, bafflingly, Muscatine, Iowa. Although the remains of Big Ben were reportedly found near Bridgman, Michigan, in April 1904, fishermen in Galveston Bay in Texas claimed they netted the body of Big Ben in 1910.

1923 A monkey that had been recently acquired for scientific experiments escaped a hospital at Sheridan and Wilson after lab animals were taken to the roof for fresh air. On the run, the monkey "gibbered defiance at the police," reported the Tribune, taking refuge in the tower of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church. A priest blocked the cops from climbing the tower. "It's a wild animal," he said, "and it is entitled to protection." The monkey eventually left the tower for an undetermined location.

1979 The first nest of monk parakeets was spotted in Hyde Park. According to urban legend the parakeets escaped from a cage at O'Hare, but University of Chicago ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones believes it's more likely that Hyde Park parakeets were former pets released accidentally or, possibly, on purpose. (Monk parakeets can be screechy.)

Mayor Harold Washington, whose apartment overlooked a nesting spot, loved his noisy neighbors. "We are all pleased and grateful that these fine parrots have chosen to settle in the great city of Chicago," he told one journalist. "I think of them as an omen signifying better times ahead for the entire community."

In 1988, the USDA announced plans to wipe out the monk parakeet colony in Hyde Park out of fear that they might spread outside of the city and damage crops. Local opposition caused the plan to be shelved. The parakeet population in Hyde Park has dwindled substantially as birds have moved on to other neighborhoods. A large colony currently lives under the Skyway.

2007 A one-year-old coyote walked into a Quizno's at 37 E. Adams and plopped down next to a cooler full of soda. After the store calmly cleared out, Animal Care and Control picked up the mellow coyote. He was taken to Flint Creek Rehabilitation Center in Barrington, nine acres of woods where urban coyotes are allowed to roam free.  v

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