Penscynor Wildlife Park: traumatic escape of chimpanzees remembered

By | September 15, 2023

Can you imagine three agitated male chimpanzees escaping from a zoo and heading straight for an elementary school?

Well, that’s exactly what happened in a South Wales village.

On February 5, 1992, the primates broke free from their enclosure at Penscynor Wildlife Park in Neath.

Two of them, named Robbie and Sebcoe, were shot dead by police shooters.

Howie Watkins, who later became famous as the presenter of the BBC’s The Really Wild Show, was working at the zoo at the time.

“It was a terrible, traumatic experience for everyone close to it – it’s something many of us have never gotten over,” he said.

‘The strength to detach your arms’

Howie was an education officer at the zoo, which last closed its gates 25 years ago this month.

“Unfortunately three adult males were fighting and in doing so found a design flaw in their enclosure and ran away,” Howie said.

Chimpanzees may have a reputation for being cute, but Howie says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“They are incredibly powerful animals, they have a bite that surpasses that of the hyena and the strength to rip your arms off if they want to,” said Howie, a biological sciences graduate.

Pandemonium ensued.

“I picked people up from the zoo, brought them to my apartment, took care of them and kept them safe,” Howie said.

“Some people took refuge in the bathrooms and it took us a while to find them, so they had a pretty unpleasant time.”

BBC Wales Today reported the incident at the time, with one resident telling them: “One jumped over a wall and chased me down the road… I just ran, I wasn’t joking, I was gone.”

Chimpanzees Robbie and Sebcoe were born in the park and were “like family” to Jon Quant, who grew up at the zoo after his grandfather, Idris Hale, opened it.

He said that once the chimpanzees left the zoo and headed for the nearby school, he had no choice but to involve armed police.

“As painful and traumatic as it was for us, I preferred that outcome to having to tell a parent why their child wasn’t coming home,” she said.

Cathryn Skerry, then nine, remembered an announcement made to her class at nearby Catwg Primary School.

“The teacher said we might not be able to leave school on time because there were chimpanzees on the loose in the village,” he said.

“I remember there was excited chatter among the children.”

Police called Penscynor the day the chimpanzees escaped

Police on scene after the chimpanzee escaped in February 1992

Rumors of alleged sightings spread quickly.

“I remember my older brother saying that from his science class he saw monkeys playing on the rugby field and swinging on the poles,” he said.

“I don’t think we were told they were shot, I just thought they were captured.”

Howie said the situation could have been much worse.

“Fortunately no one was killed”

“Being in the middle of this was terrifying, traumatic and we’re lucky no one was killed,” Howie said.

“Some of us [zoo staff] we had our own little self-help group where we would sit and talk about it over and over and over.

“Ask anyone who has been through a traumatic experience, you just need someone to talk to.”

The story of the escaped chimpanzees is one of the many fascinating tales of Penscynor Wildlife Park.

Despite the passage of time, people remain fond of the attraction. You can still buy Penscynor T-Shift, car stickers or join a Facebook group to remember.

Penscynor Wildlife Park owner Idris Hale holds a blue and gold macaw in November 1989

Idris Hale, who died in 2001, opened the zoo in 1971

The zoo began life in 1966 as Idris Hale’s private bird collection and eventually expanded, opening to the public in 1971.

In its heyday it attracted over 200,000 visitors a year.

Mr Hale’s nephew Jon, who would later take over the zoo, had a childhood that would be the envy of many.

“I was born at the zoo, I grew up at the zoo,” he said.

“It was a magical dream from start to finish.”

Jon said he would come home from school “and there would be a chimpanzee or two running around the kitchen at my grandmother’s house.”

“I would wake up in the middle of the night to feed the penguin chicks,” he added.

Penscynor Wildlife Park sign

In its heyday the zoo attracted around 200,000 visitors a year

Heather O’Shea, now 41, who grew up in nearby Cimla, remembers being stung on the bottom by a wasp while celebrating her birthday at the zoo.

“I was crying a lot, so the zookeeper gave me free ice cream,” she said.

He also remembers a parrot, who had apparently spent a lot of time listening to Radio 1, singing Kylie Minogue’s classic I Should Be So Lucky.

“But it’s entirely possible I imagined it,” he laughed.

Howie entertains the crowd at Penscynor

Howie entertains the crowd at Penscynor

Howie said the parrots were a favorite of many visiting children, “especially those who swore because on occasion we gave former pets a home.”

Like many local young people, Lucy Johnson-Brown had a summer job at the zoo, selling ice cream and drinks.

“You could try the alpine slide at the end of your shift,” he said.

“Everyone absolutely loved Penscynor.”

For Glenda Lewis, 68, of Crofty in Swansea, the park was a source of special memories of her late father.

He loves a photograph of him holding a chimpanzee who had moved to the zoo after starring in PG Tips ads.

“We all loved visiting Penscynor,” he said.

Howie Watkins gives Rob Brydon a live snake from Penscynor Wildlife Park in See you Sunday, March 29, 1992

Howie Watkins gives Rob Brydon a live snake from Penscynor Wildlife Park in See you Sunday, March 29, 1992

Years of expansion were followed by declining visitor numbers, and the zoo closed in September 1998.

Speaking to BBC Wales Today at the time, Mr Hale’s nephew Jon, who took over the running of the zoo in March 1996, said: “It was born out of one man’s dream and commitment to the conservation and education of future generations. But really, if it doesn’t pay for itself, then it has to go.”

Howie, who had left the zoo by then, was still in contact with many of the staff.

“There was no time to be sad because new homes had to be found for all the animals and so everyone worked very, very hard, until the end,” he said.

Jon said that after years of losses, a profit of £50,000 was expected in 1998.

However, time was not on their side, visitors stayed away and predicted figures were revised to a loss of £150,000.

A board meeting was called and the decision was made to permanently close the zoo.

“It was difficult. You have a lot of emotions, a lot of memories attached,” Jon said.

Left to right: Howie Watkins, Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan, taken for The Really Wild Show in January 1995

After leaving Penscynor, Howie went on to present the BBC show The Really Wild – pictured here in 1995 with Chris Packham (centre) and Michaela Strachan

Looking back, Howie said he was very happy to be a part of it.

“It allowed me to grow as an artist, it allowed me to grow as an educator, it allowed me to really make a little bit of a difference for the children and young people that I taught there,” he said.

Jon also looks back fondly.

“It was an incredible place to live and grow up and I think I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it over the years,” he said.

“I’m just happy to have brought so much happiness and so many great memories to a lot of people.”

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