Using just a 55-gallon barrel, three baboons liberated themselves from the confines of a biomedical research facility this weekend for about half an hour before they were captured and returned to incarceration.
Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) holds about 2,500 animals, including 1,100 baboons, which the facility uses to test vaccines and drug therapies. The baboons are contained in a large open pen filled with concrete tubes, climbing structures (literal monkey bars), and, until this week, blue 55-gallon barrels filled with grains so animals can roll them around to shake out food—an effort to mimic foraging.
This large open-air enclosure has inward-leaning walls, which have prevented animals from escaping since it was built about 35 years ago. But on Saturday one baboon learned to put a barrel upright and use it to get to the top of the wall. Then three other baboons monkey-saw and monkey-did.
Four baboons scaled the wall, but one returned on its own volition. The remaining three were apprehended by members of the animal care and animal capture team, which wore protective suits and masks. San Antonio news outlet KSAT reported that witnesses were concerned the baboons were carrying infectious disease. A news release from TBRI stated that the baboons weren’t infected.
TBRI Assistant Vice President for Communications Lisa Cruz confirmed to Gizmodo that the baboons were not being tested for medications that enhance intelligence. (Hey, we had to ask!)
“No, they are very smart animals,” Cruz said. In fact, these particular baboons were not being used for a study. “The baboons in the corral are in holding and are typically used for breeding or they’re holding until we know what type of study they may be used for,” she said.
This YouTube video from TBRI shows what the enclosure looks like:
The barrels were only introduced to the enclosure six to eight months ago. TBRI refers to them as “enrichment tools.”
“They were actually very useful enrichment items,” Cruz said. “We really don’t know how it got stood up, but somehow it got stood up and it happened to be in just the right spot close enough to the wall of the enclosure that the baboon was able to jump on top and then jump out. It’s their natural inclination to to get to the next highest spot to climb.”
But now these enrichment tools have been removed. Cruz said the baboons still have some climbing structures, but she’s unsure what the barrels will be replaced with. She said that TBRI is “always looking at ways that we can enhance our enrichment for the animals.”