Zoo Sleepover Goes Awry as 5 Escaped Lions Force Families to Flee

Taronga Zoo went into emergency lockdown and visitors were told to hide in bathroom blocks after the apex predators were found outside their exhibit.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
sydney taronga zoo lions
It remains unclear how a male adult lion and four of his five adolescent cubs (pictured) escaped their enclosure. Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Dominique and Magnus Perri could hear the lions when they woke in their tents at 4 a.m. on Wednesday. 

The Sydney couple and their two children were among dozens of people who had opted to spend the night inside Taronga Zoo as part of its “Roar and Snore” program, where guests pay anywhere from $525 AUD to $1,240 AUD ($337 to $795) per person to sleep just 100 metres from the African lion enclosure.


Those willing to fork out are promised an “unforgettable overnight experience featuring intimate animal encounters.” And the Perris got what they paid for.

At 6:40 a.m., the family was awoken by zookeepers rushing to their tent. 

“They came running into the tent area saying, ‘this is a Code One, get out of your tent and run, come now and leave your belongings’,” Magnus was quoted as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday. Initially, he said, he thought the whole thing was a drill. 

“But then we heard on the radio, ‘They are still outside,’ so we realised something was out there,” he continued. “And they said, ‘It’s the lions.’”

Four of Taronga Zoo’s five lion cubs—which, at a little over a year old, are approaching adult size—and their father Ato, were discovered outside the perimeter of their exhibit at about 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Their escape prompted zookeepers to declare a Code One—that is, an incident involving a dangerous animal—and plunge the zoo into lockdown. 

The lions were spotted in a small area next to the main exhibit, where a six-foot fence separated them from the rest of the zoo. By 9 a.m. all but one of them had “calmly” reentered their enclosure, according to Taronga Zoo executive director Simon Duffy. The remaining rogue lion cub was tranquilised by the zoo’s vets.


After waking them in their tents, zookeepers escorted the Perri family to a bathroom block, where they sheltered alongside about 30 guests until the crisis was averted.

“They opened the door, everyone got in, they counted us, and they locked the door, and we were staying inside the building,” Magnus told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In a statement, Taronga Zoo said its staff had reviewed video footage and “confirmed it was less than 10 minutes between the lions exiting the main exhibit, and the emergency response being enacted.” It remains unclear how the apex predators escaped in the first place, though—and while no injuries were reported, the zoo has since announced that it will undertake a review of the incident, as well as the exhibit, to ensure that it is, in Duffy’s words, “100 percent safe.”

“This is a significant incident and a full review is now under way to confirm exactly how the lions were able to exit their main exhibit,” he said.

This is not the first incident of its kind at Taronga Zoo, which attracts as many as 1.58 million visitors per year. In January last year, an emergency response unit was called after a chimpanzee escaped its enclosure and was spotted sitting outside its exhibit. The rogue ape returned to its enclosure without intervention—and Taronga announced a full investigation into how it managed to get out.

“Taronga has strict safety protocols in place for such an incident. All people on site were immediately directed to enter secure areas until the situation was resolved,” the zoo said in a statement at the time. “Taronga is pleased to report that all people and animals, including the adventurous chimp, are all safe.”

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