When Evelyn, a 24-year-old African gorilla, climbed over the wall at the Los Angeles Zoo’s gorilla habitat in October, her caretakers to say the least took notice. Evelyn’s escape is either the fourth or fifth for the primate, say zoo officials who are unsure of just how many times she has managed to find her way out of the outdated enclosure. She climbed over the wall and wandered about the grounds of the venerable city landmark before being caught by a posse of zoo workers. The ever-resourceful Evelyn and her fellow gorilla, Jim, are old hands at breaking out of the aging facility. While the wall has been raised since the her last breakout, Evelyn, in her latest escape, managed to grab a stray vine, swing across a 12-foot-wide moat and easily climb the lower wall over which visitors view the animals. Zookeepers say they are leery of more escapes, given the animals’ curiosity and penchant for wandering away. “That gives us a little bit more urgency to get this campaign completed,” said Debbie Ives, president of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Organization, a non-profit fund-raising group which has collected $5.75 million for a new gorilla habitat. So far, believe it or not, more than half the funds raised have come from corporate and business sources in the San Fernando Valley. “Universal in particular has been very good to us on a consistent basis,” Ives said of the studio that has pledged $500,000 for the drive. Susan Fleischman, Universal’s vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, said the company has an 11-year history of supporting the zoo. “We’re very interested in the zoo, in particular, because of its education efforts,” said Fleischman who also serves on the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Organization board of directors. Soft drink maker PepsiCo, which operates a plant in San Fernando, donated $200,000 to the effort. Boeing Co., which operates Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power in Canoga Park, donated $50,000 while the Walt Disney Co. and others donated unspecified amounts. Valley-area businesses have donated nearly $3 million so far to the campaign, including contributions by Kinko’s in Burbank, Universal City Nissan and scores of other small businesses. Although the drive is still $1.25 million short of its $7 million goal, Ives is putting the effort into high gear with several programs aimed at drawing business leaders to the zoo for a VIP tour of the 80-acre facility near the junction of the Golden State and Ventura freeways. The proposed new habitat will be a state-of-the-art enclosure, giving the gorillas more room it will be three times the size of its current enclosure with more trees, shrubs, bushes and grass to better resemble their native habitat. It will also feature an escape-proof wall, along with a Plexiglas area that allows visitors to see the animals up close. “It’s going to be an experience that people have never had before,” said zoo director Manuel Mollinedo, who oversees the zoo’s 226 employees and its estimated 1,500 animals. “But it all depends on having the money.” The city of Los Angeles provides about half the zoo’s $13 million annual budget. The park covers its remaining expenses primarily through corporate assistance, gate receipts and concessions. Mollinedo, however, hopes to someday count on much more corporate assistance than the zoo receives now. According to estimates, corporate and business assistance accounted for about $4 million in revenue last year. By comparison, the Bronx Zoo in New York City receives about $80 million yearly in corporate assistance. “I hope that we get to the point where we can get $20 million to $25 million in corporate or foundation help, but we’re a long way from that,” Mollinedo said. Part of the zoo’s funding dilemma has been sometimes insufficient funding allocations by the Los Angeles City Council which, from the perspective of zoo supporters, has at times refused to consider zoo maintenance a priority. When he arrived in 1995, Mollinedo took over a zoo on the verge of losing its accreditation from the American Zoos and Aquariums Association because of rampant unsafe and unsanitary conditions. As if that weren’t enough, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had charged Los Angeles with violating the Animal Welfare Act at the city-owned zoo. The city was cited for failing to maintain fencing that protected animals from injury and failing to store animal food supplies in order to protect them from deterioration. It also was cited for failing to ensure the animals were properly fed and failing to properly give veterinary care. Although the zoo was never closed and never had any civil penalties imposed, it forced city officials to hire Mollinedo and conduct a needed upgrade of the facility and zoo policies. “Things had deteriorated significantly at that time,” said Jan Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-based American Zoos and Aquariums Association. “But they’ve turned things around and the zoo is much improved.” The zoo began a series of upgrades: a new chimpanzee exhibit and a red ape rain forest that opened last year, improved handling of food and feeding routines, and plans to build a veterinary center.