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Twitter.com/NationalZoo

7 Other Crafty Zoo Escapes

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Twitter.com/NationalZoo

Earlier today the National Zoo in Washington asked for help locating Rusty, a red panda who'd gone missing. "If you do see Rusty," the Zoo tweeted, "don’t try to approach him. Stay where you can safely keep an eye on him and alert the Zoo (202.633.4888) immediately." As we wait for good news on Rusty, check out these stories of other animals who made a break for it.

1. Juan the Andean Goes Bike Shopping

REUTERS/STR/Landov

Anyone who's watched a jailbreak movie knows that you won't get far without stealing a set of wheels. Even Juan knew that, and he was a bear. Juan, an Andean spectacled bear, made a daring escape from the Berlin Zoo in 2004. He rode a log across a moat designed to keep bears in their habitats, and then scaled a wall to gain his freedom. His first stop? The zoo's playground, where he terrified parents, rode the merry-go-round, and went down the slide. After a few minutes of play, though, he started to wander around again. Zookeepers needed a way to distract Juan, so they set a bicycle in his path. As Juan inspected the bike—possibly to see if it was a worthy vehicle for his ride to freedom—his handlers nailed him with a tranquilizer dart and carried the sleeping 300-pound bear back to his habitat.

2. No Cage Can Hold Fu Manchu

You may be impressed by escape artists like David Blaine, but orangutan Fu Manchu scoffed at such escapades. (Or he would have if orangutans could scoff.) Fu Manchu made his first jailbreak from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in 1968; his keepers assumed someone had accidentally left the door to his cage open. They coaxed Fu Manchu and his family back into their habitat, and everything seemed normal. Or at least it did until Fu Manchu escaped again. And again. After the third breakout, Fu Manchu's handlers started keeping a closer eye on him. Eventually, one of them noticed something shiny in the orangutan's mouth. It turned out to be a piece of wire that Fu Manchu had shaped to fit in between his lip and gums; it was also the lock pick that he used to make his daring escapes. His cage was stripped of all wires, and Fu Manchu's brief stints on the lam came to a close.

3. Reggie Eludes Capture, Keepers

reggie.jpgReggie the alligator has had a fairly odd life. His first home was in the backyard pool of his original owners. Eventually, though, these owners realized that a 6-foot gator probably wasn't the smartest thing to keep around, so they did what any reasonable, considerate human beings would do: they dumped Reggie in an urban lake in Los Angeles in 2005. At that point, Reggie became the city's problem, and L.A. endeavored to capture the reptile before he could cause any mischief.

Unfortunately for the city officials, Reggie wasn't so keen on being caught. Despite their best efforts, animal-control officers couldn't nab the gator; even calling in professional "gator wranglers" didn't help. Two years and $180,000 in expenses later, Reggie finally let his guard down long enough for officers to capture him. Since he was something of a local celebrity by this point, the L.A. Zoo took Reggie in. Apparently Reggie wasn't too pleased with this situation, either. Just days after his public debut as a zoo gator, he scaled a five-foot wall to escape his habitat. Workers found him lounging on a loading dock before the zoo opened the next morning.

4. Chucky Goes on the Lam

Reggie isn't the only gator to make a notable escape. When Hurricane Ivan threatened Gulf Shores' Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in 2004, zookeepers evacuated as many of the resident animals as they could. Unfortunately, they couldn't take their alligators with them. The hurricane's storm surge then destroyed the gators' habitat and allowed them to escape. Although a handful of gators escaped, Chucky got all the publicity due to his size; he was 12 feet long and weighed half a ton. Zoo officials worried that since Chucky had been fed by friendly humans for 14 years, he wouldn't hesitate to approach people and potentially eat them. Chucky remained at large for five days until he was finally captured by the Alligator Retrieval Team from Orlando, Florida's Gatorland.

5. Beware Packs of Elephants

[Image credit: Box of Jalapenos.]

The Seoul Children's Grand Park had a daily parade of elephants outside of their habitat in 2005. Everything was delightful until the day when one of the elephants became startled and ran off. When the first elephant took off, five more followed. They stampeded into the garden of a nearby home, and while handlers tried to corral them, three elephants took off and stormed into a restaurant. One elephant clipped a woman with its trunk as it charged down an alley near an elementary school. After scaring their fair share of Seoul's residents, the elephants eventually submitted to corralling and returned to their enclosure.

6. Roaming Buffalo

Where do the buffalo roam? Pretty much wherever they feel like roaming. They can weigh over a ton, so when they set their sights on an escape, it's tough to stop them. As a result, bison escapes are more common than you might think, and usually don't end well for the animal. However, not all bison breakaways have sad endings. Nine bison escaped from the Oakland Zoo despite being held behind a pair of gates, at which point they wandered off and enjoyed a nice snack of poison oak. Zookeepers tried to lure the bison back to the zoo using hay, but to no avail. Eventually, though, they found the right bait: a trail of Wonder Bread. The bison followed the white bread road and made it home safely.

7. Bronx Zoo Cobra

Wildlife Conservation Society

In 2011, most of New York and all of Twitter were focused on finding the Bronx Zoo's Egyptian cobra. The snake turned up six days later a couple hundred feet from her enclosure. Upon her return, the now-famous cobra was named Mia (for "Missing in Action").

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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