Five lions broke out of their enclosure at Sydney’s Taronga zoo, forcing staff and visitors to hide in “safe zones” and triggering a review of zoo safety.
The lions – four cubs and one adult – were seen outside their enclosure about 6.30am on Wednesday. A “code one” alert soon after sent the zoo into lockdown. Police were called at 7.10am and the lions returned to their enclosure just before 9am.
A code one is the zoo’s most urgent alert, requiring an emergency response.
The zoo later on Wednesday said an “integrity issue” led to the lions escaping.
“An initial review of this morning’s incident has confirmed that an integrity issue with a containment fence enabled five lions to temporarily exit their main exhibit,” Taronga said.
The zoo said the lions were now in a “back-of-house holding area” and a full report would be prepared for the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.
Magnus Perri and his family were staying overnight at the zoo as part of its “roar and snore” program. He said he was awoken on Wednesday by staff telling them to run for safety.
“The alarm went off and the zookeepers came running down, screaming ‘code one, code one, everyone get out of the tents’,” Perri told Guardian Australia.
“We had to leave our belongings and they took us to a cabin to hide. We thought it was a drill until we heard on one of the staff’s radios that the lions had escaped. It was pretty shocking – imagine facing a lion – it was our worst nightmare.”
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The father of two said guests had to remain in the cabin for an hour and a half before being allowed to leave.
“In the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, what would have happened if that lion came to us? We would have been killed.
“But in the moment, we were not scared, the staff were great and the kids thought it was something out of Jurassic Park. We felt protected.
Simon Duffy, Taronga’s executive director of operations, earlier told reporters the lions were seen in a “small area adjacent to the main lion exhibit”.
“A six-foot fence separated them from the rest of the zoo,” he said. “The zoo has very strict safety protocols in place for such an incident and immediate action was taken.”
Duffy said one cub needed to be tranquillised but otherwise the lions “calmly made their way back” to their enclosure.
“All animals are now safe in their back-of-house exhibit and are being closely monitored. I would remind everyone that Taronga zoo itself has its own safety perimeter fence.
“So at no time did the lions exit that area or exit Taronga zoo.”
Duffy confirmed a review of the incident was under way, with the exhibit to undergo further inspection to ensure it is “100% safe”.
Police were called to the zoo as a precaution with no injuries reported. The zoo confirmed the area was safely secured shortly before 9am.
“An emergency situation occurred this morning at Taronga Zoo Sydney when five lions were located outside their enclosure,” the zoo said in a statement.
Aerial footage showed keepers patrolling the ground during the emergency.
“All persons on site were moved to safe zones and there are no injuries to guests or staff. All animals are now in their exhibit, where they are being closely monitored.”
The zoo escape comes nearly three years after a group of baboons escaped a research facility near Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred hospital.
Animal escapes are rare at Taronga, but keepers are reportedly ready for such events with a plan of action involving anaesthetic dart guns and nets.
In 2011 the former Taronga keeper Terry Boylan told Australian Geographic most animals were “very reluctant” to leave the security of their enclosures.
In 1946 a Bengal tiger escaped into zoo grounds. The visiting public were herded into an empty seal enclosure while the animal was hunted down by staff.
In 1972 a young female orangutan managed to climb on to the roof of the ape house after ripping up her cage’s floorboards.
In the mid-1950s former circus chimp Koko escaped and sprinted through the deserted zoo before leaping into the office manager’s car, where she was chloroformed by keepers.
A Himalayan mountain goat once bounded over its three-metre stone wall and made it as far as some Balmoral parkland.
And in 1967 an entellus langur monkey escaped its concrete pit and made it as far as nearby Bradleys Head, where it was shot by a zoo director.
In 2009 a lion escaped its enclosure at Mogo zoo on the NSW south coast.
• This article was amended on 2 November 2022 to correct the time the zoo made its code one alert and the number of adults versus cubs involved.