Bimbo’s Great Escape at London Airport.

In 1966 a rhesus monkey destined for research performed a great escape at London Airport gaining her worldwide fame during her 204 days of freedom.

Macaque monkey

On August 9th. 1966 a female rhesus monkey made a great escape at London Airport and in the process became the darling of the worldwide press and public who were enthralled by her talent for outwitting her human chasers. She spent six months and 21 days evading capture in a British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C) cargo warehouse on Heathrow Airport and had a whale of a time. She was christened Bimbo by the media and became a star.

It all began when she arrived at Heathrow on a Quantas flight, along with 99 others, in transit from Delhi to the USA destined for vivisection. While she sat in the cargo shed contemplating what her future might bring she decided she did not fancy the onward flight. Being an extremely intelligent lady, as this story illustrates, she carefully unpicked the wire of her cage and quietly said goodbye to her poor comrades and left them to their fate.

It was several hours before she was reported missing.

Then she found a hiding place up in the roof and surveyed her surroundings. It was a perfect environment, heated and air-conditioned and a metal jungle of girders, conduits and pipes to climb and swing on. There were also crates of tasty fruit and vegetables every day to break into and eat when no one was about. It was several hours before her absence was discovered and a search all over the airport commenced while she watched from 6o feet up in the roof.

Bimbo escaped macaque at Heathrow Sunday Mirror 19 feb 1967
Bimbo was quite at home in the cargo warehouse which was the size of a football pitch and 60 feet high with heating and air-conditioning. [Photo: Sunday Mirror 9 February 1967]

It was not long before she was spotted, and the chase was on. Her first would be capturers were the RSPCA who had a presence on the airport, and they set traps baited with tasty food every morning and evening, but Bimbo had already fallen for that trick back home which had got her into this predicament.

Bimbo outsmarts the experts.

There then followed weeks of futile attempts to capture her but at every turn she outsmarted everyone. While this went on the nation and the world eagerly followed her antics through hundreds of regular newspaper and media reports. She had thousands of supporters and well wishers and many confederates amongst the staff of the warehouse, except for the cleaners. At one point they refused to clear up after her and the airline had to employ a specialist firm which they were not happy about.

Every method was tried including drugging food, trying to shoot her with a drugged dart, setting up nets and barricades and even playing the sounds of a male of her species to attract her. Everyone wanted to have a go at catching her including scientists, zoo-keepers, pet owners, safari operators and even an American trapeze woman who wanted to live in the roof with Bimbo for two weeks to befriend her. It became literally a circus. None of it worked.

Four months later……

Four months later in December, BOAC were getting fed up and declared her a health hazard and a danger to staff and threatened to have her shot, but she was left in peace over the Christmas and New year period. The local authority stepped in and forced the airline not to store food in the warehouse under health and hygiene regulations which involved the airline having to make other costly arrangements.

This was the final straw for them, but they had a public relations problem because Bimbo was now so popular it was difficult for them to contemplate the final solution of killing her for fear of attracting adverse publicity.

Bimbo’s luck runs out….

The standoff continued into February and the local authorities told the airline that it had to end and they made an announcement that they had hired a marksman to shoot Bimbo. His identity was kept secret for fear of reprisals, and he visited the warehouse at 2230 and 0230 every night when she was most active, but for some reason he never fired a shot.

Finally, on the 3rd. March, 1967 to everyone’s disappointment, Bimbo’s 204 days of luck ran out when three pest controllers  trapped her in a ventilation shaft, then smashed holes in it to get a net around her. She was removed to the RSPCA Airport Hostel, who cared for her until she was offered a home by Chessington Zoo.

Bimbo’s bid for freedom comes to an end -or did it…… [Picture: Daily Mirror]

The reluctant captive – Bimbo escapes again.

But it was not the end of Bimbo’s notoriety. In true Steve McQueen great escape fashion she spent a few weeks contemplating escape plans and decided to try the wire route again not a tunnel. On the 13th. June she carefully unpicked the wire of her cage and bolted along with four of her inmates, but not far.

For two days she put on an extra show for the zoo visitors by eluding all attempts by her keepers to recapture her just as she had at Heathrow and she hit the headlines again. The newspapers dubbed her the “artful dodger”, causing embarrassment for the zoo professionals. But eventually it was game over for Bimbo when she was corralled again and an escape proof cage was constructed. But was it?

And again….

Two days later while being transferred into this new cage she made what was her final bid for freedom and slipped out of the keepers grasp and was on the run again. It was short lived though and she was soon caught again and remained at the zoo for the rest of her life, probably still planning yet another escapade. Bimbo still holds the record for the longest fugitive at Heathrow. Another female rhesus which the media named Jennifer managed six weeks in 1961 rampaging round the village of West Drayton beside the airport before being caught.

Escaped monkeys at the airport were a regular occurrence in the 1950’s and into the 1970’s. During this period an average 120,000 monkeys a year passed through the airport for research and pets in a sickening trade which caused terrible suffering and thousands of deaths during capture and transport even before what they had to endure at their destination. Monkeys are still transported around the globe but thankfully not in such large numbers.

Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.

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