A wolf wiggled out of its enclosure and jumped a fence at the Minnesota Zoo on Wednesday morning, and Mary Woestehoff and her 18-month-old daughter got a little closer to a predator than they had planned.
Woestehoff, of Richfield, spotted the escaped wolf, quickly scooped up her daughter and placed an emergency call. Within minutes, a zoo emergency response team had shot the animal dead.
"There's a lot of little kids here, and it could have turned out really badly," said Michelle McGuire, 19, of Apple Valley, who brought her 5-year-old half-sister to the zoo later in the morning.
The wolf never left the zoo's grounds in Apple Valley and no one was harmed, said Tony Fisher, the zoo's animal collections manager.
The endangered Mexican gray wolf squeezed through a gap between two chain-link panels in its off-exhibit enclosure, then made it over an 8-foot fence into the Northern Trail area of the zoo. Experts said it did not appear that the zoo fell short of safety standards, but the zoo will inspect other holding areas to check for potential openings.
The gap in the wolf enclosure may have been caused by snowfall last winter, Fisher said.
"We're going to be checking a lot of our holding areas that are subjected to snowfall, for sure, and make sure we don't have any more loose connections," Fisher said.
Zoo employees check enclosure fences daily, among other safety measures, Fisher said. Some fences have alarms designed to sound if trees fall on them. But nobody noticed a problem with the wolf's enclosure before the escape. The loose chain-link panel might have been difficult to spot until the animal pushed on it, officials said.
It was the first animal classified by the zoo as potentially dangerous to escape in Fisher's 25 years working there, he said.
Visitors in the area of the escape were evacuated and other guests were rushed into nearby buildings while zoo employees found the wolf and shot it.
Zoo officials did not want to give the wolf a chance to flee to major public areas of the zoo or leave the grounds entirely, Fisher said. "The wolf was just trying to get away," Fisher said, "but wolves, if cornered, can be aggressive."
The wolf, an 8-year-old male that was born at the zoo, is one of an endangered subspecies with only a few dozen living in the wild. There were three Mexican gray wolves at the zoo, but this one was not on exhibit because it didn't get along with the other two, Fisher said.
Instead, the wolf had been put in a separate enclosure with a chain-link roof and walls about a week and a half ago.
To shoot or not?
While Fisher was watching the wolves from the exhibit's public viewing area about 10 a.m., he noticed that the sequestered wolf was outside its enclosure, in a brushy area surrounded by a fence. He called other zoo personnel, who initially planned to tranquilize it.
But before they could act, the wolf jumped over the fence and made its way to the Northern Trail, stunning patrons, including Woestehoff.
She said the wolf "looked scared, looked like it didn't know where to go. ... It just wanted to get away from everyone."
The zoo's decision to shoot the wolf drew criticism from some visitors. After assuming responsibility for the care of wild animals, "They should be better prepared for that," said Miadad Rashid of Minneapolis, who visited the zoo with his girlfriend and her 3-year-old daughter.
Others deferred to the judgment of zoo staff. "They're very qualified and trained to determine whether it needs to be tranquilized or not," said Kim McCray, who drove to the zoo from Wisconsin with her three daughters. "It's sad that a wolf had to be shot, but obviously you can't endanger kids and families."
One problem, Fisher said, is that tranquilizer guns don't have the range of a traditional firearm. Plus, "We didn't have the time for a tranquilizer to take effect," he said, estimating that it would take eight to 10 minutes.
"Nobody wants to kill their animals, but it's our responsibility to keep the public safe and to keep the animals on-site," he said.
The zoo is accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires safety procedures, drills and other measures to keep the public safe, said association spokesman Steve Feldman. "As unfortunate as it was that they had to put those into practice, it worked," he said.
Fisher said zoo officials didn't think the wolf could clear the fence.
"We thought we had him secure," he said. "Sometimes animals will surprise you with what they can do."
Lori Schmidt, a curator at the International Wolf Center in Ely, agreed. "Wolves are amazing. If they can find a small opening, they don't need much."
The Ely center has a 10-foot fence with a 45-degree overhang at the top, plus buried ground wire to prevent wolves from digging their way out, she said. A secondary 8-foot-high fence beyond that has barbed wire at the top, primarily to keep humans out.
Given a description of the Minnesota Zoo's enclosure, she said, "It sounds like they're well within the range of what's typical."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482