Metro was wild about the story too. Its effort ran under the headline: “Baboons armed with ‘knives and chainsaw’ spotted in safari park”. The Daily Record, Yahoo!, Mail Online and the Daily Star also covered the tale.
All the stories cited anonymous quotes from two park workers making the claim that baboons are fishing the implements out of a toolbox and visitors are giving them a helping hand to attack cars.
A further anonymous quote aimed to paint a picture of the impact on vehicles, with a “mechanic from Sale” warning that “two customers fell victim to the baboons this year”.
It sounds bizarre – but is this story true or wildly off the mark?
This story has been debunked by Knowsley Safari Park.
The main problem with this story is that it seems there was little effort from The Sunday Times or The Sun, at least, to corroborate the claims with the safari park’s staff.
Following publication of those stories, on July 27 the Knowsley Safari Park account tweeted: “Hi @TheSun – just wondering if you’ve spoken to anyone who has actually ever seen this? #fakenews #hearsay #talltales #urbanmyths”
This triggered local and national titles to contact the park to get the full story and the verdict: it’s an urban myth that they reckon was born from exaggeration of times when baboons have managed to mess about with motors.
This was reported in the Liverpool Echo under the headline “Safari park sets record straight on chainsaw baboons ‘urban myth’”, while the Manchester Evening News and sister national title The Mirror also ran stories reporting the safari park’s denial.
The Sunday Times and The Sun published with no such comment, retrospectively updating their stories with statements from the safari park. The Liverpool Echo does the best job of laying out the safari park’s point of view, even suggesting that the articles could damage the park’s efforts to get back on track after reopening on June 15 following the Covid-19 lockdown.
Rachel Scott, head of marketing at Knowsley Safari Park, told them: “We’ve heard many such tales being told over the years and, of course, if we’re provided with any genuine cause for concern we take the appropriate steps.
“We’re just really saddened and surprised that these urban myths were reported by a broadsheet and then rehashed without any proper facts by its sister tabloid publication.”
Despite the doubt being cast over the claims, The Sunday Times, Sun and Metro stories remain online with their original headlines at the time of writing, so there are a couple of cautionary lessons to learn from this scenario.
The first is to be wary of anonymously attributed quotes. They are necessary in sensitive stories to protect the identity of sources, but in this case they can call into question the veracity of the claims.
It’s also a warning to read beyond the headline – otherwise you’ll be left to fear roaming armed gangs of baboons ruling safari parks – and that really would be wild.
Image: Miles Cole