Images courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library Image Archives unless otherwise noted.
At this time seventy-five years ago, a 600 pound grizzly bear was missing from the Point Defiance Zoo. The two-year old bear had arrived at the zoo from Yosemite National Park on July 5th and escaped from his cage less than two weeks later. Unlike most zoo escapes, this grizzly bear was never found.
The bear had been acquired to replace two bears, Romeo and Juliet, who died within months of each other in 1937. When the new arrival went missing, park officials hesitated to inform nearby residents because they did not want to incite panic.
Volunteers Howard Bjorklund and “Happy” Logue– who appear as clean-shaven hipsters to our contemporary eyes– look for traces of the bear in the woods surrounding Point Defiance Park. A woman reported seeing the grizzly by the park’s riding stables and tracks were found about a mile outside the park, but these were the last signs of the bear’s presence in Tacoma.
Grizzly bears can run up to 30 to 35 miles per hour and can travel many miles a day when given reason; I like to imagine that, when faced with a lifetime of being gawked at, the shy grizzly bear turned south and sprinted back to his home in California.
Meanwhile, back in Tacoma, Zoo officials scoured the grizzly bear’s cage to figure out how he escaped. The structure, built in 1901 out of stone and iron, showed no indication of damage or tampering on the padlocked gate; officials never resolved the mystery of the how the bear got out.
The following year, a new grizzly bear was brought to the zoo. Surely precautions had been taken to secure the cage, but this bear also escaped. Unlike the other bear’s clean get away, this grizzly, named Butch, left behind some hair and hide on the fence and was eventually recaptured. Butch managed to stay on the loose for almost three weeks, keeping residents on edge as he crashed in North End Tacoma like an uninvited and overbearing guest who cannot be politely asked to go home. Butch was finally enticed back into the fold with a tantalizing smorgasbord of cantaloupe, fish, bacon and honey.
While Butch was away, another grizzly bear named Boots arrived at the zoo. It would seem that the Butch’s unscheduled absence had stirred up the media and the two-year-old lady grizzly was met with quite a crowd when she arrived. Zoo workers and two lovely young women posed with Boots for the picture above before she was carefully released from her travel crate.
Butch was returned to the Point Defiance Zoo on July 3, 1938, less than a week after Boots arrived. In response to the evidence Butch left behind, zoo officials installed an electric wire to the top of the cage to prevent a repeat event.The two grizzlies remained at the zoo for many years, making it possible for this photograph of Butch and Boots to be taken in 1950.
Marleigh Udall (left) and Jerry Hopper smile, perhaps somewhat nervously, as they stand just out of range of one of the bear’s large clawed paws. The bear in front is likely Butch, while the bear standing in the background is probably Boots. Boots was known for standing on her hind legs, a trick she taught herself that was encouraged with the reward of food.
In 2007, the News Tribune published an article about the variety of animals that have escaped from the Point Defiance Zoo over the years, most notably a 2,700 pound baby elephant who made it all the way to Pearl Street before his wranglers were able to catch up with him.
One should not get the impression from these stories that animals regularly escape from the Point Defiance Zoo. The zoo takes preemptive measures to make sure their facilities are secure. In 2008, after a tiger escaped from the San Francisco Zoo– a zoo that, by the way, had 13 water buffalo, a pygmy hippo, and a large South American rodent all escape over the course of one day in 1964– the Point Defiance Zoo closely examined their tiger enclosure and took extra precautions.
Deputy Director, John Houck, told a News Tribune staff writer at the time “I absolutely stand behind our exhibits,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been in danger at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Our approach has been pragmatic, and that’s been the lesson from the San Francisco: Look at things with a new critical perspective, and don’t be ashamed or nervous about any aspect. If it can be enhanced or improved, do it.” You can read the full blog post here.
The award-winning Point Defiance Zoo is a truly wonderful asset to the community, teaching visitors young and old about endangered species, biodiversity, animal behavior, and the importance of conserving wildlife and their natural habitats. Thanks to the care and thoughtfulness of the Point Defiance Zoo, I think I can safely say that we don’t have to worry about any of the animals leaving us to become the stars of Madagascar 4.