A Pleasant Day at the Zoo

Veranda 25 Deakin University

Veranda 25 Deakin University

STEVE looked up from the dinner table to see a panda standing in front of him. It was his wife, Margaret. She had synthetic fur – black for her paws and hind legs and white for her belly – up to her neck. Above that was her face, red and sweaty from wearing the costume all day. Under her arm was the panda’s head, its eyes rimmed by inky bruises, the pupils plastic but somehow alive.

Steve stared at his wife, speechless. He was surprised because she usually came home dressed as the arse-end of a hippo.

‘Cutbacks,’ she explained. ‘A hippo requires two actors to look convincing. A panda, just one. Guess the zoo went with the cheaper option.’

‘But the hippo,’ said Steve. ‘You worked so hard at playing that hippo. The splashing. The stomping. You were good. You really looked the part.’

Margaret glared at him.

Steve tried to think of something else to say. ‘So what’s it like? Playing a panda, I mean.’

Margaret stopped glaring and sat down at the table. ‘The script sucks. Eat bamboo. Scratch behind. Eat bamboo. Scratch behind. The things must have died out from boredom.’

Steve was staring at the panda’s head, still tucked under Margaret’s arm.

‘You know what I hate?’ Margaret raised her voice. ‘The politics of the place. It’s so, what’s the word? Clique-y. Unless you hang with the right crowd, you just don’t get the good roles. Monkeys, lions, zebras. Christ, I’d be happy playing a gazelle, but you’ve got to know the right people for that, kiss the right arses.’

Steve shifted his gaze to his wife’s face, suddenly aware she was talking.

‘Talent!’ Margaret was shouting now. ‘No one gives a shit about talent.’ She slumped in her chair.

‘Well, look on the bright side,’ said Steve.

Margaret glared at him again.

‘You’re a soloist now. That guy, what’s his name?’

‘Jason?’

‘Yeah, Jason. You don’t have to play second fiddle to Jason anymore. People can see what you’ve got, see how good you really are.’

‘You really think so?’

‘I know it,’ said Steve. ‘This’ll be a good thing. You’ll see. You’ll be great. I’ll come tomorrow and watch you. It’ll be great.’

The two of them rose to hug. Steve tucked his chin into the nape of Margaret’s neck and glanced over her shoulder. The panda head had fallen from his wife’s arms and rolled into the corner. There it sat: the likeness of a long-extinct animal, its eyes filled with something primal and menacing that Steve had never seen before. He couldn’t look away.

——

The zoo was a gigantic complex on the edge of the city where the suburbs met the desert. The air was thick with sand and pollution, and streetlamps and houses vanished into the yellow haze as if civilisation itself were dissolving into smog. A tourist stopping here would think it the very edge of the world, and in a way it was; beyond the city limits stretched a desolate nowhere devoid of life and water.

A glass dome ran around the perimeter of the zoo, protecting it from airborne particles. Inside the dome, the land was divided into four ancient habitats where exotic animals once lived. There was a forest with plastic conifers and artificial snow, a wetland with man-made mud and synthetic reeds, a jungle with fake ferns and grassland with rolling pastures of astroturf.

The zoo had started with just a few exhibits, mostly amphibians and water-birds. But as more iconic animals had succumbed to the desert, others had been added, until the number of species inside the glass dome eclipsed the number outside. Now the only wild animals left were feral cows, sheep and chickens that had escaped from livestock farms.

The intention had been to preserve the planet’s dwindling biodiversity but things hadn’t worked out that way. The plants had died in the poisoned soil and the animals had refused to breed in captivity. After the last specimen, a giant tortoise, had died, the zoo had lain empty and derelict. It was a colossal cemetery on the edge of a grey, depressing city.

Everyone had forgotten about the zoo until a biologist-turned-dramaturge rekindled the public’s interest in nature. Dr James Langhorn reconceived the natural environment as a ‘spectacle’. Since the beginning of time, he said, nature had existed as a form of entertainment for humans. People had kept pets, raced horses and camped in the wilderness solely for the sake of amusement. The environment had deteriorated and these things were no longer possible but human beings still craved them. This was, Dr Langhorn said, the reason for the depression epidemic sweeping the city. And he knew just the cure.

Dr Langhorn experimented with holograms and robots. Although these could recreate the appearance and behaviour of extinct animals, they lacked the essential element of showmanship. In 2088 Dr Langhorn dressed an out-of-work actor as a bear from a 21st century circus and animal acting was born.

Within a few years an entire industry had evolved around impersonating extinct species. In 2097 a Russian artist from Siberia invented the acting method of ‘primal immersion’. Vladimir Kalovsky believed a performer should not merely play the role of an extinct animal, he should become the extinct animal. To do this an animal actor had to channel his cellular memory and devolve into a savage beast, thus restoring Nature to her past glory. Those schooled in the Kalovsky Method are able to leave behind their human identities and tap into the primitive emotions of rage and fear. Чтобы играть медведя, Вы должны сначала провести время в его коже. ‘To play the bear, you must first spend time in his skin.’

This was common knowledge and Steve, who had often witnessed his wife’s transformation into a hippo’s backside, knew more than most about the power of primal immersion. What he didn’t know was that the Kalovsky Method carries serious risks. A performer can become so immersed in his animal role that he loses touch with his human identity, leading to uncontrollable rage or debilitating fear. Kalovsky himself had experienced such an episode in 2108 and had gone rampaging through his village attacking everyone in sight. Luckily, the animal that Kalovsky was channelling at the time was a woodpecker, so his victims suffered only minor injuries (mostly small, circular bruises). Since no one was harmed the villagers never reported the incident, and Kalovsky wasn’t about to denounce his technique just because he spent an afternoon pecking people with his index finger.

Steve knew nothing of Kalovsky’s episode, so he felt perfectly safe wandering among enclosures housing wild animal actors. His only worry was that he’d lost his bearings. He had no idea how to reach the panda enclosure and was about to give up and go home when he spotted a Chinese tour group.

Chinese tourists were the zoo’s biggest customers, arriving in their millions each year to catch a glimpse of a rare panda actor. The lucky ones went home with a tuft of synthetic fur as a souvenir. Steve latched onto the tour group, knowing they’d eventually want to visit their nation’s mascot.

As the tourists were entering the Asian forest section, a loud buzzer sounded. Steve approached a nearby security guard.

‘What’s that noise?’

‘Oh, that,’ replied the security guard. ‘It’s the alarm. Means an enclosure’s been breached.’

‘You mean the animals are on the loose?’

The security guard chuckled. ‘More likely someone’s tried to enter an enclosure to get a better look.’

Steve followed the tour group to the panda enclosure. Sure enough, there was Margaret, crawling on all fours. Her movements were so convincing that Steve forgot that the creature in front of him was his wife. All he saw was a panda, an ancient beast from a time when nature still inspired fear in the hearts of men and women.

Steve watched for about fifteen minutes. The panda moved slowly, its large, heavy head bobbing up and down as it crawled up the astroturf hill towards a grove of fake bamboo. Once there, the panda sat facing the crowd and started stripping the fake bamboo of synthetic leaves. The Chinese tourists murmured approval.

Then a hush fell over the crowd. The tourists stood there, transfixed. Steve was frozen and silent too. For behind the panda were two lions lurking on the astroturf as if it were long grass. The lions were played by thin young male actors, and their yellow fur costumes hung loosely on their bony frames. The lion costumes had no heads, so the actors had used make up to achieve the likeness of that once-feared predator. Their faces were painted sandy yellow, with whiskers on their cheeks. Rather than wearing wigs, the actors had grown their hair long and frizzed it into shoulder-length manes.

The lions must have scaled the wall at the back of the enclosure while the panda was crawling up the hill. Now they crept closer, closer, while the panda sat with its back to them, pretending to chew synthetic bamboo leaves.

Later, Steve wondered why he didn’t say something. There was a moment when he could have yelled a warning and it might all have been prevented. But like the rest of the crowd he was rendered quiet by anticipation and awe¾yes, awe, for he had never seen anything like this, had never witnessed one of nature’s unscripted displays. He had lived his entire life in a world tamed by humans, and this was the first time anything had engaged his primitive side. Like homo sapiens through history, from Romans at the Colosseum to tourists at the Running of the Bulls, he wanted to see chaos and carnage. He wanted fear. He wanted rage. He wanted blood, guts and gore. He wanted to watch the dumb beasts fight and chase each other around the enclosure. He wanted a spectacle.

The lions pounced through the fake bamboo, pinning the panda to the ground with their plastic talons. One lion sank its teeth into the panda’s hind legs, ripping out tufts of black synthetic fur. The other raked its talons down the panda’s belly, ripping out white fur. The lion-actors’ teeth and talons were not sharp but they were relentless and soon the panda had only a thin layer of material covering its body.

The lions kept going. They tore through the material and suddenly they were puncturing skin, human skin, and blood was rushing onto their paws, staining the yellow fur dark brown. Excited by the smell, one of the lions put its face into a wound on the panda’s stomach and locked its teeth around a chunk of flesh.

From a distance, Steve watched the actor’s dreadlocked mane thrash from side to side.

The whole time the lion-actors were attacking Margaret, she kept the panda’s head on. The head lay still, but from its mouth issued the inarticulate cries of a terrified beast. At any moment Margaret could have used a free arm to remove the panda’s head and yell for help. A word might have jolted the lions back to reality and remind them they were people, not vicious animals. A human voice might have broken the spell that had fallen over the tourists and kept them silent and complicit. A woman’s cry might have roused her husband to her aid. But she never did it. She never took off the panda’s head, even when she was completely exposed, when her thighs were raked raw and her stomach was a swamp of blood and tissue. For the entire ordeal she kept up the act, screaming wild animals screams until all that was left was a mutilated body with the head of a panda.

This story is available for re-publication. Email greg.foyster@gmail.com for details.