When people think of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium as a place of great escapes, they’re generally looking forward to getting away from the pressures of daily life.
But for some of the zoo’s animals over the years, that phrase had a different meaning.
Some of their zoo breaks would rival Harry Houdini’s best tricks.
• A 3-month-old Magellanic penguin slipped out of his pen in August 2002. He was never found. But former News Tribune reporter Skip Card immortalized the fledgling in a classic piece of crank journalism in which he imagined the young penguin out and about in Tacoma.
“I feel comfortable at black-tie events, where every other guy is dressed in a tuxedo,” the bird told Card in an exclusive interview. “Besides, there’s usually a shrimp platter.”
• A 2,700-pound baby named Rama bolted from two handlers and took an unscheduled elephant walk up Pearl Street on Nov. 16, 1987, trampling fences and breaking windows in a nearby neighborhood. But the young Asian bull “ran out of gas on the Pearl Street hill, and we got him back safely,” deputy zoo director John Houck said.
• Karluk, a 3-year-old 900-pound Kodiak bear, barely missed escape in November 1969 when he bent the bars and ripped up the concrete of the 1905 pen in which he was temporarily housed.
His massive head and one paw were already free when two Bellarmine Prep students happened by on their lunch hour. They got help, and Karluk – agitated and out of luck – paced the enclosure while the bars were repaired. Police officers stood watch with a 12-gauge shotgun.
• “Predatory animal hunters” were hired to catch a 3-year-old 250-pound grizzly after he escaped in June 1938. But a fondness for cantaloupe, fish, bacon and honey proved the bruin’s undoing, and he was trapped three weeks later.
“He looked just like a boy caught stealing jam,” park official Peter Benthien told a News Tribune reporter.
The bear, known as Butch, was enticed to stay at Point Defiance with a mate named Boots and an electrically charged wire around the top of his cage.
But perhaps no account was as tragic and bizarre as that of the bear who escaped from a truck at 10th Street and Pacific Avenue en route to a new life at the zoo.
“Slain Bear Will Go To Soap Plant,” reads the Aug. 29, 1936, headline over a Tacoma Times story. It explains the wayward she-bear was caught and shot to death in the elevator at the Olympus Hotel.
Park Superintendent Sherman Ingels told the newspaper that officials considered “the tempting possibility of steaks and roasts. But those thoughts were abandoned, because, (1) the beast had not been bled properly, (2) she-bear meat isn’t considered especially tasty, and (3) the slain animal appeared to be rather old and tough.”
In 1975, the City Council appropriated $27,000 to fence the zoo, mainly to keep dog packs from roaming the facility at night, injuring and killing the tenants. Vandals also had caused problems over the years.
Today, habitats with water features, glass and carefully measured distances – plus state-of-the-art caged raceways from daytime to nighttime quarters – keep zoo inhabitants in and vandals out, Houck said.
“We design really well,” he explained. “We don’t want to take any chances with a bear or a polar bear or a tiger.”