FOR a few brief moments, they tasted freedom.
Forget the pandas and the holidaying penguins – all anyone was talking about at Edinburgh Zoo yesterday was a brave pig called Belle who led an audacious escape attempt.
In an Animal Farm-esque escapade, the four red river hogs made a break as they were being guided into transport to be taken to a private collector.
First, Belle managed to push past a barrier held by a member of staff, giving the others the confidence to follow her lead.
Visitors were forced to take cover in the monkey house as members of staff struggled to recapture the animals.
Charlotte Nainsby, 23, a travel agent from Durham, said: “We saw lots of people running along the path to the monkey house.
“Zoo staff told us animals had escaped and to get inside the monkey house, they were carrying brushes with them to get the animals back inside.”
The hogs have more reason than most to attempt an escape as last year three of their number faced being culled after being deemed “surplus to requirements”.
A national campaign ensured their survival but maybe the news filtered through to their enclosure.
Recapturing the rogue animals was no easy task as the hogs, which have striking red fur, with black legs and a tufted white stripe along the spine, weigh up to 18 stone.
They are native to the rainforests, mountains, and scrublands of west and central Africa and are mostly nocturnal.
Grant McConnell, 32, from Newcastle, was one of those taking refuge in the monkey house.
He said: “At one stage it was getting a bit stuffy and uncomfortable in there, I think there must have been about 150 people inside.
“I have to say the staff were quite professional about it and handled everything really well.”
As the attempts to recapture the animals got under way, zoo visitors were stopped at the foyer area.
Nancy Mackler, 65, a tourist from Vermont, said: “We were waiting for about 45 minutes to get in.”
An hour later, the animals were recaptured unharmed, the adults having been shot with tranquilliser darts.
Darren McGarry, head of animals at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “Our keeping staff are highly training for eventualities like this, and handled the incident quickly and efficiently, recapturing the animals in a short period of time.
“All of the pigs remained on park grounds, three in the vicinity of their enclosure, with one travelling down to the panda enclosure. We suspect she wanted to see what all the fuss was about before she moved off.”
In April, a pair of wallabies escaped from Leadburn Manor in West Linton.
Staff from the Scottish SPCA were brought in to help the owner of the fly-fishing centre hunt for the 18-month-old males, which were both recaptured safely.
A marksman was able to safely dart one of the animals, and the second was found a day later.
In March 2010, seven Barbary macaques leapt over an electric fence surrounding their Edinburgh Zoo enclosure. Zoo staff eventually managed to round up the escapees using tranquilliser darts.
The breakout was the largest that the zoo has ever seen.