A Mexican gray wolf was shot and killed at the Minnesota Zoo on Wednesday after it escaped through a hole in the fence and appeared on the walking path for visitors.
Zoo officials said no people were in immediate danger but they decided to shoot the wolf because they couldn't predict where it would go or whether it would hurt people visiting the Northern Trail.
"He wasn't aggressive, he was trying to get away as fast as he could, but wolves can be dangerous if they're cornered," said Tony Fisher, the zoo's animal collection manager. "We didn't want to take a chance."
Fisher said the 8-year-old male wolf was in a holding area and not on exhibit when he escaped through a gap in the fence that might have been caused by the weight of heavy snow over the winter. Officials planned to use tranquilizers to stop the wolf, but then he jumped over a second fence designed to keep animals that escape from the holding area away from the public, Fisher said.
"We're going to be looking at raising that fence or making modifications to make sure that doesn't happen again," Fisher said, adding that zoo officials quickly worked to secure the holding area's fence.
Fisher said the zoo has had swans fly away and even had a raccoon-like mammal called a binturong climb up a tree and escape temporarily, but this was the first time officials have had to shoot an animal to keep visitors safe.
"That is the last thing we want to do with our wolves or any animals here, but it is our responsibility as a zoo to maintain our animal collection in a safe manner," he said. "We are prepared to deal with emergencies like this."
People who were in the area when the wolf escaped Wednesday morning were directed indoors as zoo officials arrived with nets and rifles, said Mary Woestehoff, a Richfield resident who witnessed the incident.
Woestehoff said she saw the wolf and quickly picked up her 18-month-old daughter. Then she and her friend reported the wolf on a zoo emergency phone. The wolf was running but didn't appear to be going after anyone, she said.
"It looked like it was scared, like it didn't know where to go. It was definitely out of its element," she said. "It was more frightened of the people than anything else. It looked cornered."
Woestehoff moved on from the Northern Trail to see other animals, and that's when the incident hit her.
"It wasn't until then that I realized I was shaking, and just really scared," she said.
Nevertheless, Woestehoff said she and her daughter and their friends continued their monthly visit to the zoo — without fearing they'd see any more loose animals.
"It's a freak accident I think. I'm not expecting it to ever happen again in my lifetime," she said.