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By Michael Ledwidge
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It’s All Happening at the Zoo
Los Angeles Zoo
West Hollywood, California
LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.
Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.
To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once—if you squinted, hard—it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.
By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot in the seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.
Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo’s female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.
Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa’s mate and the dominant male of the zoo’s two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.
Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick’s mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.
Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren’t.
For lions as for other social mammals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.
Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.
Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.
Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.
Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he’s enormous—five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.
TERRENCE LARSON, THE assistant big-cat zookeeper, opens the outer chain-link door of the lion enclosure, swings its hook into a waiting eye to keep it open, and drags the red plastic feed bucket inside. The sinewy, middle-aged city worker swats at flies as he lugs in the lions’ breakfast, twenty-five pounds of shank bones and bloody cubes of beef.
A dozen steps in, at the end of the chest-high wire mesh keeper fence, Larson, a former studio lighting tech at Paramount, dumps the meat over the fence and retreats a few steps. The meat plops onto the dirt in a tumble of wet slaps. Beside the open outer fence, he flips the bucket over and sits on it. He knows he’s supposed to stand behind the tightly locked outer fence to watch the lions feed, but it’s July Fourth weekend and all the bosses are on vacation, so what’s the fuss?
Sitting in the enclosure with the lions in the morning before the zoo opens is the best part of Larson’s day. Tommy Rector, the young head of the big-cat department, likes the smaller, sprier, more affectionate cats, the jaguars and lynx, but Larson, ever since a life-altering trip to a Ringling Brothers circus at the age of seven, is a passionate lion man. There’s a reason this animal is a symbol of might, danger, and mystery, he thinks; a reason that all the famous strongmen—Samson, Hercules—had to wrestle these guys. Their power, their physical grace, and their otherworldly beauty still amaze him, even after fifteen years of working around them. Just as he did when he was working on films, Larson often tells friends he can’t believe he’s actually getting paid to do his job.
He takes a pack of Parliaments from the breast pocket of his regulation khaki shirt, and as he slips one between his lips and lights it, the Motorola radio clipped to the pocket of his cargo shorts gives off a sharp distress-call beep. He reaches for it, trying to guess what the problem could be, when the reedy voice of Al Ronkowski from maintenance comes squawking through the static; he’s bitching about how someone’s parked in his spot.
Larson half laughs, half snorts, turns down the radio’s volume, and exhales smoke through his nose in twin gray streams as he scans the grass at the other end of the hundred-by-two-hundred-foot enclosure. He wonders where in the hell the two lions could be. Mosa is usually waiting for him when he opens the gate, like a house cat who comes running at the sound of an electric can opener.
When he hears the splash, Larson flings away the cigarette and stands up. Panic.
What? No! The moat?
There is a raised berm and a protective platform to prevent the lions from falling into the water, but it actually didn’t stop one of them from falling in once before. It took the staff two hours to direct a terrified, soaked Mosa back to dry land.
That’s all he needs, with the bosses gone and the crew at half-staff. Play lifeguard to four hundred pounds of pissed-off, sopping-wet lion.
Going into a cage without backup: definitely a no-no policywise, but in the reality of a workday it’s done all the time. Quickly, he throws open the keeper’s gate and runs to the edge of the raised berm above the water.
He lets out a breath of relief when he spots one of the green Swedish exercise balls bobbing in the moat. He forgot about the stupid things. That’s all it is. Mosa somehow knocked the ball over the platform. Whatever. Whew.
Turning back around from the edge of the berm, Larson stops. He stands by the edge of the moat, blinking. Directly between him and the open gate in the keeper fence is Dominick, the male lion: still, tail swishing methodically, golden amber eyes riveted to Larson’s face. His breakfast lies untouched beside him. He sits there, huge, silent, staring at Larson with those flat, flame-colored eyes.
Larson feels his saliva dry up as the immense cat leans forward, then back, like a boxer feinting.
He’s posturing, Larson reasons to himself as calmly as he can, trying to keep his body perfectly still. Of course, the old tomcat’s simply surprised by his presence out here in the middle of his territory. Larson knows that in the wild, this grumpy twenty-year-old would have long ago been killed by a younger challenger who wanted the females in his pride.
Larson figures he’s in a spot of bother here. He thinks about the radio, decides against it. At least not yet. He’s been in the cage with Dominick before. The old man’s just throwing his weight around. He’ll get bored with this little game of chicken and start eating any moment. Dominick has known Larson for years. He knows his scent, knows he isn’t a threat.
Besides, if worse comes to worst, Larson has the moat behind him. Three steps and he’ll be over the side and safe. Wet and humiliated and maybe with a broken ankle, but by the time the other keepers arrive, his skin will still be covering his bones and his guts will still be on the inside of him, where he likes to keep them.
“There, there, buddy,” Larson says—in a whisper, a shhh, baby-go-to-sleep voice. “I like your Mosa just fine, but she’s not my type.”
Larson senses more than sees the movement at his left. He turns in time to see something burst from the grass, massive, tawny, throwing a column of dust into the air as it rockets at him, growing bigger, picking up speed.
The keeper isn’t able to take one step before Mosa springs. Her head slams into his chest like a wrecking ball. All the wind is knocked out of him as he goes airborne and then down on his back ten feet away.
Larson lies on his back, dazed. His heart is beating so fast and hard, he wonders if he’s having a heart attack. The thought goes away as Mosa’s low, compressed growl reverberates beside his ear.
He reaches for the radio as Mosa puts her paws on his shoulder and bites into his face. Her great upper canines puncture his eyes at the same moment the cat’s lower incisors slide with ease into the underside of his jaw.
Larson is as helpless as a rag doll as Mosa shakes him back and forth by his head. When his neck breaks, with a crack remarkably similar to a pencil snapping, the sound is the very last thing his brain registers before he dies.
MOSA GRUNTS AND releases the dead keeper. She uses the thumb-like dewclaw of her right front paw as a toothpick to dislodge a sliver of meat from her teeth. What’s left of Larson’s wristwatch falls to the dirt as she licks blood from her mouth.
Dominick, having already fed, is starting to jog for the open gate. At the end of the fenced corridor, the two pass the tiny crush cage the keepers shove them into when they need medical attention. They aren’t going to miss that.
They quickly cover the length of the big-cat service yard. At the far end, by the hoses, is a low gate and the zoo’s bright white concrete path on the other side. Both Mosa and Dominick clear the gate in a leap easy as a breath, and soon are racing down the zoo’s empty promenade. The two lions spring over the turnstiles and skirt the parking lot for the nearest cluster of Griffith Park’s oak and walnut trees.
They trot up a scrubby brush-dotted hill and down its other side. They catch a human’s scent again on a hot breeze. They spot its source a moment later on one of the golf course fairways. He’s a handsome young black man in a red shirt and black pants. Getting nine holes in before work. He looks surprised to see lions on the golf course.
Dominick charges, knocking the man sideways, out of his shoes. His death bite takes away most of the golfer’s neck in a flowering burst of blood.
Dominick releases the dead man and rears back slowly as a police car glides down alongside the fairway from the north. He can smell that there are more humans inside this shrieking, shining box. He wants to stay and attack, but he knows that this box full of humans is of the same cold, difficult material as his cage.
The two lions run for the cover of the trees. At the top of the ridge, Dominick stops for a moment, gazing down at the city. Los Angeles spreads out beneath him, a brown field of humanity, woozily shaking in the smoke and the gathering morning heat, dissolving into fuzz at the edges.
That smell is stronger now, coming from everywhere. From the buildings and houses, from roadways, from the tiny cars snaking along the highways. The air is saturated with it. But instead of running away from it, Dominick and Mosa run toward it, their paws digging for purchase, mouths wanting blood.
The Beginning of the End
I WOKE UP shaking.
I panicked at first, thinking I was having a stroke or something. Then I opened my eyes, relieved, as I remembered it wasn’t me that was shaking. It was my apartment.
Outside the wall of dusty industrial-style windows beside my bed came what sounded like a regiment of giants rhythmically striking concrete with their rifle butts in a parade drill. But it wasn’t the jolly green marines. I knew it was the elevated number 1 Broadway local, rattling to shake the dead back to life next to my new fifth-floor Harlem loft apartment. Hadn’t gotten used to that train yet.
I winced, covered my head with a pillow. Useless. Only in New York did one have to actually pay for the privilege of sleeping beside an overpass.
But I was so broke I couldn’t even afford to complain. I sat up. I couldn’t even really afford to sleep. I couldn’t even afford to think about money. I’d spent it all and then some; my credit was in the sewer. By that point I was in tunnel-vision mode, focusing my entire life on one desperate need: to figure things out before it was too late.
Things hadn’t always been so dire. Only two years before, not only had I lived in a nonvibrating apartment, I was actually on the PhD fast track at Columbia University. I was the golden boy in the ecology, evolution, and environmental biology department, so close to the brass ring I could practically smell the book contracts, the cocktail parties, the cushy university appointments.
But then I came into contact with the event—what others called the mistake—that changed my life.
I noticed something. Something that wasn’t quite right. Something I couldn’t let go.
That’s the way it happens sometimes. Life is flowing along like a fairy tale, and then you see something that you just can’t categorize. Something that starts filling your every thought, your every dream, your every waking moment.
At least, that’s the way it happened with me. One minute I was about to realize my goal of academic greatness, and the next I was wrestling with something I couldn’t stop thinking about, something I couldn’t shake, even as my world crashed around my ears.
I know how nuts it sounds. Intellectual promise plus obsession plus throwing away conventional success usually ends pretty badly. It certainly did for Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Chris McCandless, the Into the Wild guy, who died on that bus.
But I wasn’t some malcontent or mystic trying to form a deep intrinsic connection to an ultimate reality. I was more like Chicken Little, an evolutionary biologist Chicken Little who had detected that the sky actually was falling. Except it wasn’t the sky that was falling, it was worse. Biological life was falling. Animal life itself. Something very, very weird and very, very bad was happening, and I was the only voice shouting in the wilderness about it.
Before I get ahead of myself, my name’s Oz. My first name is Jackson, but with a last name like mine, no one uses it. Unfortunately, my father is also known as Oz, as are my mother, my three sisters, my uncles, and all my paternal cousins. Which gets confusing at family reunions, but that’s neither here nor there.
What is here and there—everywhere—is the problem I was monitoring, the global problem I’d by that point pretty much devoted my life to trying to figure out.
It sounds grandiose, I know, but I feared that if I were right—and for the first time in my life I truly hoped I was wrong—a planetary paradigm shift was underway that was going to make global warming feel like a Sunday stroll through an organic community garden.
I HOPPED OUT of bed wearing a pair of wrinkled gray pajama bottoms that Air France had gifted me with on a recent flight to Paris. Shaved, showered, teeth brushed, I got back into the fancy French pajamas. Working from home has its perks. Okay, “working” implies I was making money. This was another kind of work. Anyway. They were really comfortable pajamas.
Coming out of my bedroom, I retrieved another prized possession from the doorknob—my fire-engine-red woolen hat, which I’d acquired on a recent trip to Alaska. With my thinking cap firmly on the bottle, I got down and pumped out my daily hundred push-ups, a habit I’d picked up on yet another jaunt, a four-year stint in the US Army before college.
PE complete, I headed into my shop. I flipped the surge-protector switches, turning on the TV sets that I’d lined across a metal workbench in the center of the industrial-style room. There were eight of them in all. Some were nice new flat-screens, but most were junkers I’d picked up diving Dumpsters after the digital signal changeover. Behind them, a Gordian knot of wires connected them to cable boxes and satellite receivers and a set of laptops and computer servers that I’d modified with the help of some electronic buddies of mine into the world’s biggest, baddest DVR.
As I waited for everything to boot up, I popped my first Red Bull of the day. Another number 1 train kicked up my heart rate along with a cloud of dust off the windowsills. Call me crazy—go ahead, you wouldn’t be the first—but after the initial shock, I kind of liked my apartment’s MTA-provided sound track. I don’t know why, but from the time I was a little kid up until I received my Rhodes Scholarship, my ADD-addled brain tended to fire on all cylinders when it was surrounded by headbanging noise. Old-school AC/DC, that was my bag. Metallica, Motörhead, with all the knobs cranked to eleven.
I frowned at the lightening screens, remembering my father, a lieutenant in the FDNY, watching the evening news. After a Bronx four-alarmer, he would come home, drop in front of the tube, and at the first commercial, after a Miller High Life or two, he would say, “Oz, boy, sometimes I think this world of ours is nothing but a goddamn zoo.”
In front of me, animals began to fill the screens. Lots of them. All of them behaving very badly.
Fathers really do know best, I guess, because that’s exactly what was happening. The world was becoming a zoo, without cages.
SETTLING BACK INTO my tag-sale leather rolling chair, I lifted a new legal tablet from the fresh stack on the table to my right, clicked a pen, wrote the date.
I turned up the volume on set number four.
“A missing seventy-two-year-old hunter and his fifty-one-year-old son were found dead yesterday,” said a correspondent from WPTZ in Plattsburgh, in upstate New York, a good-looking brunette in a red coat. She held the microphone as though it were a glass of wine. “The men were apparently killed by black bears while illegally hunting outside of Lake Placid.”
The camera cut to a shot of a young state trooper at a press conference. Buzz cut, lanky. Country boy, uncomfortable in front of cameras.
“No, there was no way they could have been saved,” the trooper said. He blew his p’s and b’s straight into the mike. “Both men were long dead and partially eaten. What’s still puzzling to us is how it happened. Both of the men’s weapons were still loaded.”
He ended the report with the claim that the father and son were known poachers, fond of using an illegal hunting method known as deer dogging—using dogs to chase out and ambush deer.
“Back to you, Brett,” the brunette said.
“Not good, Brett,” I said as I muted set four and cranked up set eight. Blip, blip, blip went the green bars on the screen.
On it, a news program from NDTV, a sort of English-speaking Indian version of CNN, was starting.
“A Keralan mahout was killed yesterday while he was training elephants,” the middle-aged anchorman said. He had a mustache and a Bollywood swipe of hair; there was something of Clark Gable about him. “Please be advised: the footage we are about to show you is graphic in nature.”
He wasn’t kidding. I watched as an elephant, tied to a stake in a village square, stomped a little guy in front of her into the ground. Then she wrapped her trunk around the guy’s leg and tossed him up in the air.
The anchorman explained that the attack had occurred while the mother elephant was being separated from its baby during a training ritual known as phajaan.
I’d heard of it. Also known as torture training, phajaan is the preferred way of elephant training in rural parts of India. A baby elephant is separated from its mother and put in a cage so villagers can whack it with hot irons and sticks that have nails on the ends. The brutal beating continues to the point where either the baby elephant allows itself to be ridden or dies.
“Guess Ma wasn’t down with the program, dude,” I said to the dying elephant trainer on the screen.
But the pièce de résistance was the breaking news I pulled off Fox News on set two. The Barbie doll on TV informed me that two lions from the L.A. zoo had not only killed their keeper and escaped, they’d also killed some guy on a nearby golf course. On the screen, half a dozen LAPD with M16s cordoned off a block lined with palm trees, people from animal control milling around behind them in white jumpsuits.
“The lions were last spotted in the La Brea neighborhood, near Beverly Hills,” chirped Megyn Kelly, her vacant eyes nailed to the teleprompter.
I threw down my pen. I was pissed, pissed, pissed. Skin itching, heart going like a hammer. Was everyone asleep? Under hypnosis? High? Was everybody frigging stoned?
I grabbed the pen again and scribbled three letters on the pad, hard enough to tear the paper.
H A C !!!!!!!!
Then I threw the pad of paper across the room.
“When will you people listen?” I yelled at my wall of media.
It was time for more caffeine.
I SAT BENT
- CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR JAMES PATTERSON:
- "The Man Who Can't Miss."—Lev Grossman, Time
- "When it comes to constructing a harrowing plot, author James Patterson can turn a screw all right."—New York Daily News
- "Patterson's novels are sleek entertainment machines, the Porsches of commercial fiction, expertly engineered and lightning fast."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2012
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Little, Brown and Company