"Superhuman" doesn’t quite fit the scenario, so John Houck calls it a "superanimal" feat – but one he’s certain won’t happen.
For a tiger to escape the showcase exhibit at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, it would have to leap up 13 feet past wire meshing and turn in midair to grab hold of a rock wall and pull itself over.
Houck, the zoo’s deputy director, calls it "so remote a possibility" that it could happen. Still, crews were working Friday afternoon to extend the wire mesh by more than three feet. It’s part of a thorough check of its animal facilities which have led to safety modifications to the tiger areas and a temporary closure of the polar bear exhibit.
"We don’t want any animal — no matter if it’s a rabbit, a frog, a web-weaving spider or an elephant – to escape," he said. "It might be different scales, but the same assessments go on for everything."
But after an escaped tiger escaped its pen on Christmas at the San Francisco Zoo, attacked three people and killed one, the incident cast a critical light on enclosures of potentially dangerous animals. Zookeepers must balance safety with keeping the animals close enough for customers to get a good view.
In the tiger exhibit, the distance from the highest ground point to the end of the wire mesh was 13 feet. The Felid Taxon Advisory Group guidelines recommended a distance of 16.4 feet, so Point Defiance crews added about an extra three feet of mesh.
A fence that runs along the sides of the exhibit will also be extended.
The maintenance staff also bolstered safety measures to the tiger pens in the animal holding facilities. They identified a latch on the cage as the weakest part of the chain-link barrier between the animals and employees, so they added a heavy sliding bolt lock on each side of the door.
The improvements to the tiger facilities cost about $1,000 and began Monday, Houck said.
The polar-bear exhibit will be closed for at least the next two weeks while crews evaluate its safety.
"We’re going to go over it from top to bottom, assess it, and go from there," Houck said.
The bears have ample off-exhibit space and facilities – but nowhere else to display them to visitors. The tigers remained on display during the checks because zoo staff could rotate them among four different areas.
Houck said the improvements shouldn’t be misinterpreted to mean the zoo’s patrons were in danger before.
"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."