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Visitors shut in animal enclosures for cheetah escape drill at Port Lympne Animal Park

Port Lympne visitors took refuge in the gorilla enclosure when keepers told them a cheetah had escaped.

Concerned parents took to social media to share what was happening as they waited in safe houses – including the elephant’s barn – for the all clear.

Mum Toyah Atkins visited the park this afternoon.

She said: "One of the keepers came speeding up the road in his land rover shouting to everyone to go up to the cafe.

"He looked quite panicked. Everyone headed up there and all the doors were shut behind us with staff manning each door."

Cheetahs normally avoid humans but can be dangerous if cornered or defending cubs
Cheetahs normally avoid humans but can be dangerous if cornered or defending cubs

But thankfully all was not as it seemed. The escape was a very realistic drill, but only two members of staff were in on the subterfuge.

Animal director Adrian Harland explained: “We need to do four drills a year as part of our zoo licence.

“We played it for real – even our PR department thought it was a real escape. The guy who looks after the cheetahs deserves an Oscar. People were hearing things over the radio like ‘He’s jumped the fence’ or ‘I’m looking behind the bins with a rake’. He was very convincing.”

The park was clear in 12 minutes, which Mr Harland said was one of the fastest ever.

“This was the most efficient drill we’ve ever had, and we had a couple of school parties in today. I’ve been very very pleased with the results.”

Visitors shared the news of the 'escape' on social media
Visitors shared the news of the 'escape' on social media

The park runs drills to make sure different areas of the zoo can be evacuated quickly.

Each keeper covers an area of the zoo and when the call comes over the radio it is their responsibility to round up visitors and lead them to safety.

Some visitors even got an impromptu behind-the-scenes visit to the gorilla and elephant enclosures - the animals were shut outside - while others were shut in the café.

Mr Harland said: “We need to know what visitors will do in a real situation. Will they follow us? Will they stay in the safe areas or will they want to go out and take pictures?

“I was very impressed with the way people reacted. No one complained, no one got stroppy, everyone just followed the instructions from the keepers and the park was clear in 12 minutes.”

Cheetahs are smaller than the ‘big cats’ – lions, tigers and leopards – but still pose a danger to humans if cornered or angry, and keepers at other zoos have been mauled in the past.

So, what would happen if a cheetah escaped for real? The're not known for being easy to catch…

Mr Harland said: “A cheetah is unlikely to run off at top speed, they only do that when they’re hunting. We would be looking to dart it, but we would make sure the park was clear first, and there would be a firearm handler with the sights trained on it the whole time. The safety of visitors is our first priority.”

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