The first one hopped the fence into the lion pit. We almost thought it was an accident, what with... you’d be amazed at the stunts people pull for photographs. But then we found a note in the guy’s shoe.
The next two incidents were more clear-cut: an unauthorized dip in the orca tank, the tickling of our resident silverback gorilla with a three-foot wooden pole. That really got the media cooking. Especially with last year’s... as zoo director I did what I had to do.
People were upset. Rightfully so. It upset me too that the lions had to be euthanized. Our orca released into the wild. The silverback shipped to a research facility in Kalingrad.
But I assured everyone that things would return to normal.
Obviously, I was wrong. How, though, could I have predicted a man would disguise himself as shrubbery, spend three days in the python exhibit until the snake swallowed him whole? That a woman would glue birdseed around her femoral artery and walk into the aviary? And those warthogs...
Was I concerned about these people? These lost souls driven to orchestrate their own tragic ends? Yes, I suppose on some level I was. But the acts also seemed so...a fad maybe. Twenty years as zoo director and I’d seen some tough times. We started as a humble petting park—only open weekends!—yet with a little perseverance (plus a lot of kibble) we became a world-renowned menagerie of keen-eyed animal trainers, loud-mouthed hot-dog venders, fat-faced little boys and enthusiastically masturbating chimpanzees.
I will say this: I could have installed more security measures sooner. Padlocks on the artificial savannah, for instance, might have forestalled the giraffe stampede... Though it’s worth noting that until a star-crossed couple broke through the twig enclosure, their boom box belting “If I Could Turn Back Time,” the giraffes appeared harmless. Now we know better... and that’s good for science... and science is what the zoo is all about!
Was I also a little side-tracked by ticket sales? August can be a slow month, but visitor numbers rose sixty-five percent. Sixty-five percent! We’d just renovated our Insect Annex—a real point of pride for me—so I assumed the crowds had come to observe the army ant colony’s pheromonally-driven hunting swarms, not to see someone...
So the Feds got involved and they really put on the squeeze. Carting off any creatures incriminated by their own natural impulses, plus anything with horns, fangs, or stingers. Of course I did everything I could to keep our remaining inventory intact. I increased fence height, lid tightness, mesh density—largely at my own personal expense—and still I underestimated the despairing human’s capacity for ingenuity. I found rope swings into the porcupine enclosure. Tunnels into the meerkat den. And... penguins, it turns out, can be highly territorial.
A few members of my staff, I discovered, had accepted bribes. Did it hurt me to fire them all? Yes, tremendously. It caused me terrible pain. I had known many of these individuals upwards of two decades. Gary, the dung analyzer, was a close personal friend. And Janet, the toucan groomer, had recently invited me to her son’s bar mitzvah. Still, the zoo was my life’s work: a beacon of enlightenment amid the fog of urban torpor. I felt I had no choice.
Unfortunately, the new hires lacked the surveillance experience and English-language skills to thwart a break-in to the Amphibian Arena—a tragedy of considerable loss—as the rare poison-dart frogs... Was it really so crazy of me to think I could run an entire zoo by myself? To be honest, my long-hours did likely contribute to the downturn and eventual cessation of my relationship with Marguerite. They also did not help with my asthma. But with the zoo’s inventory so depleted…
Such optimism, I admit now, was also a mistake. Though in my defense, the eight-person incident involving the Japanese-themed koi pond had little to do with the fish, and much more to do with the asphyxiating effects of water.
It was my lawyer who insisted the zoo close. “The good news,” he said, “is that I’ve got a mini-golf company ready to make an offer on the property.”
He looked rather squirrely as he said this: bucktoothed and twitching. His look filled me with tremendous nostalgia. Only hours before... those dear rodents.
“This deal should cover my fees,” the lawyer added.
With a heavy heart I hung a closure notice on the zoo’s front gates. What was left but to take a final tour? After peering into empty cages, I wandered across the golden plains of the artificial savannah, through the cacti region, past the unmelting polar ice caps. The zoo air—once ripe with the smell of manure and cotton candy, euphonic with squawks and bellows—breezed stale and silent.
Perhaps I could start a new zoo, I told myself. A better zoo. One with Portuguese man o’wars, ribbon-tailed astrapias, jackalopes...
And yet: any creature could kill under the right circumstances.
By that time my walk had taken me to the zoo’s outskirts, so that I stood before the geodesic dome of the Butterfly Palace. Home of the only zoo animals remaining.
I went inside.
Inside, the air steamed ambrosially around red hibiscus and purple-passion flowers, while butterflies—like miniature kites, or oversized confetti—flitted between blossoms. I sat down under some ficus and closed my eyes. I listened to the whir of humidity fans, the rustle of leaves. I wish I could say... it’s hardly worth mentioning now, but in the end I sat there waiting, waiting for something to happen.
Allegra Hyde's short stories and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in the Missouri Review, New England Review, Passages North, Southwest Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. She serves as prose editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.