Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years work within zoos.
Around 48 years ago we had a Griffon Vulture escape from the zoo. It was a balmy Spring day and the bird quickly caught a thermal before soaring to great heights and drifting off over the Lincolnshire marshes. Working on the supposition that the bird would quickly tire we gave chase.
The first thing to give out was the road so pursuit continued on foot. This was no easy task over open country comprising in the main of freshly ploughed fields divided by deep drainage ditches. After some time I found myself alone, the others having being halted by the an extra large ditch which I had had to swim across an hour or so before. Wet and dirty I was encouraged to carry on by the sight of the bird landing about a half a mile away. Scarcely had I got within 12 feet of it did it take off again landing about 100 yards further on. It was tiring! But then so was I. This time I got closer before I made a leap and grabbed....nothing, just mud and dirt. The bird was again just 12 feet away. I shepherded it towards a patch of nettles and brambles and made another mighty tackle. Luckily I managed to get hold of a foot as I tumbled into the thicket. Promptly bitten I was stung and scratched into the bargain. I held on and managed to get the birds wings and body into a manageable position under my arm. I sat on the ground wet, covered in mud and blood to contemplate my next move.
Returning via the way I had come would be impossible. I was none too sure how Griffons could swim. Even without the water I doubted that I had the stamina to carry the wriggling bird back over what must be several miles of ploughed fields, hedges, ditches and fences. I struck out for the nearest road, none too sure what I would do when I got there. After a very difficult half hour I arrived. There was not any sign of habitation and only a few vehicles passing. I found myself in the awkward position of needing to hitch a lift whilst at the same time maintaining a steady grip on the vulture. I decided to hitch hike and "thumb" with my foot. In those days hitch hiking was much easier. The first two vehicles to slow down promptly accelerated away from what must, on closer examination, have been a Hades like apparition. The next car stopped. It was a Mini driven by an aged gentleman who was accompanied by his wife. She vacated the front passenger seat and climbed into the back. I carefully manouvered my way into the front seat and we set off. Scarcely had we gone a hundred yards before the vulture grabbed the steering wheel sending the car off the road. Control and composure regained the journey resumed before exactly the same thing happened about quarter of a mile further on. It was at this point that the first words were spoken. It was suggested that I keep my "sheep" under control. I explained that it wasn't a sheep but a vulture and I needed to get to the zoo. The old guy did as I asked but I don't think he believed me. Whats more, I believe that if it wasn't for his poor eyesight I might still have been waiting for that lift.