The Zoo Diaries I – Frances Pauli

The Zoo Diaries I – Frances Pauli

The Rainriver Zoological Gardens are fully licensed and operate in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act, which set minimum standards for the care and keeping of animal exhibits. In compliance with the law, each enclosure is designed to meet the minimum requirements for the animal within it. Each diet is planned to satisfy the minimum goals for health and vitality, and each animal is cared for, handled, and transported in a fashion that meets the minimum conditions for humane treatment.

The zoo was once a popular tourist destination. It was once awarded a prestigious accolade for its public outreach and overall design.

Recently, it has fallen upon financial difficulties that make providing minimum care a constant juggling act between obeying the laws and keeping the doors open.

Ape House

Gonzo the macaque smells the coffee long before he can see it. The-one-who-sweeps-the-walks passes in front of his territory. She clutches the broom in her odd, hairless fist. The other hand holds the vessel, and the vessel emits the thick, overpowering scent of bean.

Gonzo’s paws tremble. His nostrils gape, reaching for the scent as if the fumes alone could sustain him. He salivates. His lips stretch back, revealing stained teeth, four-centimeter fangs, and a pink tongue. His head throbs. It has been four months since he chewed the bean. Four months of hell.

Outside his range, a wretched crow perches like death atop the ‘Jungle’ sign. She caws, a nail straight through Gonzo’s caffeine-deprived skull. She caws, and the macaque cringes.

Tortoise Enclosure

Oliver drags a stumpy leg through the sand. He pulls, one clawed foot at a time, flicking sharply at the last second so that a shower of grit washes away behind his great domed shell.

He digs. He rocks forward and back. He is 110 years old.

Today he’s circled his enclosure three times already, but Miranda has not returned. She does not hide behind the prickly cactus. She does not wade in the shallow pool. She is not stalking through the reeds near the square door that leads nowhere.

She is missing.

Oliver drags at the sand. He digs.

The love of his long life has vanished.






Elephant Paddock

Shanti calculates the width of her enclosure in steps. She measures the length and deduces the height of her shelter by triangulation. Her trunk lays out bits of straw to represent each distance. She bundles them, divides, and reorganizes her square footage.

There are thirty-seven peanuts in a pile beside the straw. She has gathered and counted them. The crowd threw 168 peanuts. She has eaten 131.

Curling her trunk into an ess, she flaps her flat ears and blows out a reverberating sigh. If she saved 100 peanuts, in ten days she would have a thousand.

She stuffs three into her mouth, subtracts them from her total. Calculates.

There are seven zebras in the enclosure beside hers. If each zebra has twenty stripes…

The Crow

The macaque throws a stone at her. Debra shrieks and takes to wing. Perhaps it was only a carrot nub, a lump of rind or vegetable scrap left over from his morning meal. She flies anyway, lets the pigeons have it.

Down from the apes, the trundling Sulcata tortoise, Oliver, is attempting to escape again. Debra teases him until he begins to cry. Then she tires and circles.

She flies over the Savannah, past the elephant, the arctic wedge, and the cat house. Somewhere behind this she can hear the hyena sobbing. Debra ignores that sport, landing instead upon the peak of the great aviary.

Her brethren amass there. The irony of it amuses them. A full murder of free crows huddling atop the massive avian jail. Debra joins them long enough to add her stories to the morning’s gossip. Then she hops to the roof’s edge and waits at the highest point above the building’s double-glass doors.

Soon, the park will open. Soon the hordes will enter.

They will push their strollers through the stiles, purchase warm bags of popcorn, piping hot lattes. They will steer their infants down the paths to the double-glass and find for the first time the sign which reads: ‘No Strollers’.

The children will wail. The door will open and close, releasing for a brief moment the many calls of the birds trapped inside. Then, a line of abandoned strollers will wait below, overflowing with treats and ripe for plunder.

Debra loves popcorn.

And though the crowds have been much thinner of late, though the walks are less choked and the spoils less plentiful, she will drink from someone’s latte today. She will think of the macaque dreaming of his beans and laugh.

A solitary pigeon, brave or suicidal, streaks past the aviary. The murder shifts, caws, and threatens.

“Watch out,” the fat gray body calls back. “Watch. Watch.”

The crows hop and posture but do not fly. Do not chase. The gates are open now, and they are not fools.

Hyena Pen

Today her cubs are six months old. Alice has not seen them in two weeks. She opens her square jaws and lets loose a sobbing cackle. Her teats have long since dried, but she is certain there were two healthy, viable cubs. She remembers them, and her spotted fur bristles.

Two cubs with strong, sloping backs once bounced and gamboled in the cramped, square enclosure. Two sang with her, obeyed her as their mother and matriarch.

Alice climbs to the top of her stair-step rock and lowers her head to the cold, too-smooth stone.

She can smell them beneath the harsh, biting disinfectant. She can smell her family, and she knows, for a moment, that they were real.

Grizzly Grotto

Hector works at a bur that is stuck deep in his shaggy pelt. The sticker has lodged just behind his left elbow, and he is forced to stretch to reach it, to contort his massive body so that his long, sickle-shaped claws can scratch and pry at the thing.

He growls and ripples his black lips. His ears lie flat against his huge skull, and the nub of his tail tucks tight against his round bottom.

He sits up, glares at the trench that surrounds his home. A fat log lies on this side, a broken stump stands beside him. Hector considers trundling over, using the bare wood to scratch away his irritation.

He considers it, but she will arrive soon, and tree scratching is far too undignified for a bear of his stature.

Already he hears the noises. Pattering feet and barking voices. Hector listens, lifting his face high and scenting for her.

She is always early, and he has learned to wake long before his body’s rhythm would prefer. He groans at the ache in his right hip, but he leaves off scratching and finds a more dignified pose.

She appears at the railing high above the trench. By then, he is rampant, stretching tall on his hind legs and only gripping the leaning stump with one paw for balance. He is mighty. He is bear.

She claps her hands once for him, takes out her pencil and her book, and begins to draw.













The board of directors discusses migrating the largest predators to a diet of commercial mince, which is far more cost effective, and according to the sales brochure provides a well-balanced and nutritional substitute. Someone points out the deficiency in mental enrichment and stimulus, but a solution is negotiated. The mince will be supplemented with blocks of frozen cow’s blood.

When these blood blocks are introduced into the enclosures, they are well received. Everyone’s worries are assuaged, and the money saved goes to a remodel of the front gates designed to increase the facility’s curb appeal.

Lion Enclosure

Charlie licks the frozen blood until his tongue goes tingly. It is not fresh, not warm, or even particularly flavorful. The block melts slowly as he toys with it, but it never heats, never feels alive and flowing.

He waits for the morsels. He licks the red ice and pants, huffing until his whiskers dance.

They arrive all at once, a herd of tall ones and their bite-sized offspring. They swarm the distant railing, and the air fills with the scent of hot dogs.

They lean against the glass wall inside his den, and Charlie wonders if they taste fresh. He watches the little ones move with stuttering steps. They squeal and totter and place filthy hands against the barrier which keeps them alive.

The hot dogs bleed onto their clothing, red ketchup streaks, and dribbles of some sweet drink. The morsels laugh and point while their tall ones snap pictures and Charlie imagines long grass, dry heat, and the rhythm of their steps against baked earth.

He licks the block, grinds a slow divot in the ice, stains his muzzle crimson while they dance outside his prison.

Charlie imagines they would run like gazelle, run in tiny tripping steps. They would scream. They would run. But the morsels would not be fast enough.

They would never be fast enough to live.

Tortoise Enclosure

Oliver’s tunnel grows. He has aimed it inward, toward the center of his pen, for he has learned long ago that any outward digging will be quickly backfilled by They-who-bring-food.

To peer into it now would offer a view of a shallow scrape, a domed, tortoise-shaped cross section that angles sharply down but poses no risk of escape.

Oliver has learned.

He has dug his pits through generations of keepers, and so you would have to be a tortoise to fit yourself deep into the hollow at the far back wall and pivot one half turn to the right to realize his digging has continued.

The tunnel moves east, toward the Savannah, angling up again and aiming for all it’s worth at the open, grassy picnic square beside the elephant.

He might have less distance to the west, but the macaque’s cage has a concrete floor. If he miscalculated there, he could be forced to dig beneath the entire ape house to find freedom.

He will take the slower, safer path. Already, he believes his tunnel has breached the confines of his enclosure. He digs below the zebras now, and if he turns to the left soon, he should emerge amid the picnic tables.

By day, he makes certain to be seen. He trundles, slow as a stone, around the shallow pond, through the tall reeds where Miranda should have lingered. He sleeps in the sun, and when it fades, when They-who-bring-food are gone, Oliver digs.

For freedom. For love. He digs for Miranda.


The zebras circle the place where the ground moves. They lower their muzzles to the earth and snort a chorus of echoing rumbles, striped hides heaving all around.

Their leader stamps and the others mimic her.

In the center of their huddle, the packed Savannah lifts and cracks. A bulge appears, rises and falls.

The lead zebra flicks her tail, takes a step backwards, and the ring widens. Voices whisper as the herd digests the anomaly.

“What is it?” “What do we do?”

The ground surges, a boil, a fly bite on the Savannah’s skin. It erupts at once, spattering dirt and sending the herd into stumbling flight. They retreat, bolting to the far corner of their fence.

Their hooves beat a fearful dance. They blow and bellow. The leader brays, harsh, screeching.

Nothing horrible happens.

Eventually, they circle back. This time the leader approaches alone. The others murmur encouragement from a safe distance.

Something moves in the broken earth. A blunt head appears, and the herd trembles. A small voice speaks a single, clear-bright word.


The zebras echo him, reverently whisper, “Damn.”

The head vanishes. Nothing more emerges and the herd leader gets down to business.

“Hole,” she announces. “Hole. There’s a hole here. Mind your hooves. Mind your legs.”

The herd recovers, taking up the chant and fixing the danger in their memory. “Hole. Mind your hooves. Hole.”

Elephant Paddock

Shanti has eaten all her peanuts. Her computations have been erased by The-one-who-sweeps. She stands outside her shelter, in the dark, and tries to count the stars. There are too many lights still on in the zoo, and the heavenly bodies seem to fade in and out, shifting positions as if to spoil her work.

As if taunting her.

She thinks it is unnatural for the night to be so well-lit and swings her trunk in frustration. Shanti rocks on pillar legs and begins again. Six bright stars in a cluster.

She is sorry she ate the peanuts, which were exceptional for counting. For a while she tried to use the straw, but straw is fleeting, too easy to blow aside with even the slightest of sighs.

Shanti swings her trunk. Six stars. She thumps a nearby rock that certainly wasn’t there a moment ago.

One rock.


One tortoise. He surges forward one short step, and Shanti can see the curve of his shell, the extended neck, and flat-faced head.

“Am I outside the fence?” he asks.

“That depends,” Shanti whispers.

“On what?”

“On which fence you mean and which side is outside.”

He looks at her for a long time. She can see his two tiny eyes. She can see a pattern of shapes on his shell.

“You’re an elephant,” he says.

“Yes.” Shanti begins to count the shapes.

“Damn.” He swivels, shifts so that the patterns move.

“Wait.” Shanti imagines she could count them all. If he held still, she could. If he were to follow her into the lighted shelter. The patterns on his shell line up perfectly, orderly, one against the next.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I have to get outside the fence.”

“I know how.”

Shanti has counted the loose spots, the places she can lift and bend, and he is not nearly as big as an elephant. For a tortoise, there would be more than enough room. If she lifted. If she pried.

If he would only agree to a little bargain.

The Crow

Debra listens to the hyena weep while the sun sets. She perches on the guard rail beside the path, and she tilts her head from one side to the other. When the noises become unbearable, grating, she flies away, circling the cat house and the larger enclosures around it. Tiger. Lion. Bear.

As dark falls, the pathway lights are triggered. She darts between them, an invisible shadow, like death.

Eventually, she settles outside the macaque’s cage. He is her favorite victim, but tonight he sulks inside the ape house. His little door is open, but even if he can hear her taunts, what fun could she find in them without witnessing his reactions?

Frustrated, she paces the top of the ‘Jungle’ sign. Every three hops she turns, reverses direction, and changes her view.

Savannah, hop, hop, hop. Jungle, hop hop, hop.

Perhaps she should rejoin the murder, but lately their gossip reeks of repetition. Debra considers inventing something, manufacturing some scandal, but she is a bird of very small imagination.

Just as she decides to relent, however, a sharp creaking drags her back to the Savannah view. Metal complains in the darkness. Something large moves against the linked-chain fence.

Debra bounces once before launching. She flaps. She soars, landing in a tree beside the picnic area. She watches, first with one eye and then the other, as the elephant pries up the bottom of her fence.

The gap the mighty trunk makes is ridiculously small. Not big enough to let its own head escape. But it is not the elephant which squeezes through the opening. It is something low and round. Something that trundles out of the Savannah and steps slowly onto free, green grass.

“Escape.” At first Debra whispers. Then, she takes to wing. She circles the darkened cages, circles, and is first to chant it into every ear. “Escape. Escape.”

The night rings with her gossip, her triumph.


It begins. She feels it like a held breath, like the first pebble forewarning the landslide. Someone is free.

Someone is bound to be shot.

Ape House

Gonzo remains inside the house after the rest of his troop emerges. Some days, They-who-bring-food linger in the aisle between the cages. They chatter in their barking voices. Some days they bring the bean with them, and the ape house interior fills with the scent of home.

Gonzo was not born in the house. He remembers a Formosan jungle. He remembers freedom and long afternoons lounging on a branch chewing bean.

Today, the aisle clears quickly, however. He is alone in a world of stone and metal, a concrete maze of parallel bars and tiny square doorways.

His troop is excited about something. Gonzo hears the other male screeching, shaking the rope perches. The females echo him, and a rain of spit seeds and tossed debris patters against the outer wall and floor.

Gonzo rubs his head and face with both paws. He approaches the square door, but does not exit. He listens, and he hears the voice of birds.

“Loose in the zoo.”

It is not the rotten crow’s voice and carries little of taunt or terror. Gonzo shows the doorway his teeth and ambles into a sunlit morning.

“Someone has escaped!” The youngest female macaque is on him before he takes a step. She lands on top of Gonzo, dropping from the ropes, and just as quickly rolls off.

His head aches. He brushes her off with his paws even though she is already bounding away.

The troop gathers at the front of their territory, where a pair of pigeons strut along the path.

“Turtle,” one coos.

The other corrects her. “Tortoise. Free.”

Gonzo eyes the sky, the jungle sign, and the rail beside the path. There is no sign of the crow. He drags himself to a far corner, to a place both separate from the troop and near enough to hear the pigeons’ chatter.

“Someone is free.”

Gonzo’s lips stretch. He offers a silent screech, a mute tribute. The-one-who-sweeps approaches, and already he can smell his mistress on the wind.

Hyena Pen

Alice pants atop her stair-step rock. She has spent the morning chasing pigeons, racing from one end of her enclosure to the next, snapping her jaws and snarling at the noisy birds.

They spread lies. Their fat beaks chant of freedom and escape.

Alice hates them.

She will crush their bones if they venture inside the bars. She will chomp and chew while their fat, feathered bodies twitch in her jaws.

Once, when the pups were only just taking their first steps, Alice caught a pigeon unawares. Feigning sleep, she lulled it into a sense of safety, and when it waddled between the bars to search for scraps among her straw, Alice killed and ate it.

The pups were too young then. Too young to learn her trick. What if they are hungry now?

She cackles and glares out through her bars. In the shade of a flowering shrub beside the path, a great stone has appeared. Alice is certain it was not there when she awoke, and she wonders if rocks are born. If they come into the world with pain and panting, or if they simply sprout like the grass and flowers.

She’s never seen a new stone before and has always assumed they just are. Always there. Always in the same place.

She flicks her tail at a persistent fly and wonders if the rock has a mother. If, somewhere, a larger stone doesn’t wonder where this one has gone.


The video is activated by motion. It streams to the Internet according to a randomized order of camera hierarchy. On the zoo’s website, a simple flash player shuffles through cages beneath the boldfaced type reading: ZOO CAM.

Someone’s nephew has, upon suggestion, programmed the feed to respond to viewer interest. The more clicks on a particular feed, the more often that camera is displayed. It takes only four hours for the elephant house to dominate the feed. In 24, the recorded highlight video, quickly dubbed, “Asian Elephant Pets Turtle,” has gone viral.

On screens all over the world, the elephant traces the multi-faceted shell with her trunk, slowly, methodically. Theories abound as to the nature of the animals’ relationship. One commenter remarks that she almost appears to be counting, but they are quickly shot down in favor of more romantic interpretations.

Another points out that the ‘turtle’ in question is actually a Sulcata tortoise. They are mocked into silence.

When someone questions the presence of a turtle inside the elephant’s enclosure, the moderator quickly turns off commenting.

The page views continue to escalate.

Grizzly Grotto

Hector lies on his back with three paws in the air. The fourth cradles half a melon against his chest, saved for a later treat. His head turns to one side so that he may watch the artist as she captures yet another glorious Hector portrait.

All morning long he has been bombarded by birds.

First, the crows came, singing of tragedy. Then the pigeons, clattering and talking over one another. Hector ignores all gossip. He cares little for what happens outside his trench. Inside it, there is only him. Only bear and stump and the attention showered upon him by the artist.

As a cub, Hector was bottle-fed, cradled by They-who-cared, and fawned over almost continuously. When he played with his brother, they would clap and coo. When the cubs wrestled, They-who-cared cheered.

Now his brother is gone. Hector only remembers him as the one who shared this affection. He does not share any longer. Here behind his trench, Hector is the star.

The artist finishes and flips her book around. She shows him her work, always seeks his approval upon finishing.

Hector rolls slowly to a sitting position. He gazes up to the railing, but it is too far. His eyes are not what they once were. Still, he growls agreeably before stuffing the melon half between his jaws. He approves.

The artist claps.

They understand one another. This is the way of things, and Hector likes everything exactly as it is. When another pigeon flutters past the stump, he slaps at it, sends it and its gossip on their way.

He cares nothing for what happens beyond the trench. The bear, the star, is forever on this side of the world.

Lion Enclosure

Charlie hears the birds arguing, but he is too busy rolling in dung to worry. They have brought him a half dozen fresh zebra droppings, and the scent drives him to a frenzy.

His mouth hangs open. He huffs over and over until the odor threatens to overwhelm him. His sides heave. His long tail lashes.


A stupid crow has broken from its flock. It bounces on a nearby stump where the two lionesses that make up Charlie’s pride are lounging in the sun.

“Go away.” His favorite lioness yawns, showing the bird her teeth in warning.

The crow caws and flaps but remains foolishly in place. Determined. “Someone has escaped.”

“Lie,” the lioness says.

Beside her, another purrs agreement. It is well known that crows are not to be trusted.

“Someone is out,” the bird insists. “They’ll be shot for certain.”

Charlie huffs and flattens his ears to his skull.

“Who is it?” The female decides to believe the gossip. Her tail-tip, however, twitches, a sure sign she is also considering pouncing on the messenger.

“The tortoise,” the crow cackles.

“They’ll catch him for sure,” the lioness says. “But they won’t shoot him. They only shoot fierce animals.” She says it proudly, as if she dares them to try.

Charlie thinks that he is fierce. He thinks the tortoise will be found quickly, but he agrees with the lioness. No one will shoot it.

He has lived at the zoo his whole life, and no one has ever been shot.

The dung bores him now. His head is full of escape and freedom. There is no room left for odors, however delicious.

At the far end of the enclosure, a crowd has gathered at the railing, at the glass. Charlie heaves himself to his paws and shakes his head, lets his thick mane shiver before stalking toward the gathered morsels.

Tortoise Abroad

Oliver moves in darkness. He has forgotten how cold the world is outside his desert, and how slowly he is forced to move when his limbs are chilled.

When he first emerges from the bushes, a terrible noise assaults him. It takes Oliver two rocking steps to discover the sound is coming from an animal.

There is a barred cage across from his hiding spot. It is raised on a concrete foundation, and there is a fake rock in one corner with many levels. Near the bars, a hyena gapes at him.

Oliver stretches his neck by way of greeting and takes another step.

“Stone,” she says. “You are very strange.”

“Tortoise,” Oliver says. It takes a great deal of his energy to speak.

“No,” the hyena laughs. “I’m a hyena.”

“Yes.” Oliver has lived many lifetimes. He believes a hyena should know a tortoise when she sees one. This one, therefore, has been in a cage her entire life.

He stops moving when he’s near enough to look straight up at her.

“Have you seen Miranda?”

“I saw you born,” the hyena whispers fiercely. “Do stones have mothers?”

“My mother eats in distant fields,” Oliver says. Does she understand? He knows that animals born in the zoo often have unnatural ways of thinking. Is it a waste of his time and energy to linger? He has only a few hours until he must hide again.

“That’s sad.” The hyena moans and covers her muzzle with both front paws. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m looking for a tall bird,” Oliver says. Before he can describe his love, the hyena barks an answer.

“Aviary.” She surprises him with her confidence. Her head lifts, ears flicking and eyes wide and lucid. “All birds are kept in the aviary.”

“Except pigeons,” Oliver says.

“And stupid crows.” The hyena nods. In this, they fully understand one another.

“But Miranda lives in my enclosure,” Oliver says. “And she’s a bird.”

“They were probably just waiting for someone to die,” the hyena says.

Oliver thinks she’s still talking about crows until she finishes.

“They were just keeping her with you until a cage was free.”

Oliver hates this idea, but it is probably correct. He has not planned what to do when he finds Miranda, and he imagines They-who-bring-food simply stealing her away again. He imagines it will be difficult to free her from this aviary. What if the floor, like the hyena’s, is thick concrete?

“It’s the second path.” The hyena’s voice brings him back. She is urgent, pressing against the bars and speaking in a squeaking rush. “It’s not far. Just take the second path.”

“Thank you.” He pivots, thinking of bars and concrete.

The hyena watches him go, panting, making sporadic, sharp cackles as he steps. One slow foot after the other. When he is near to the second path, she calls out again.

“That’s it. That one there.”

Oliver pretends he cannot hear her. He takes the path, though, and her cackles chase him, her final proclamation rings out.

“Very strange stone.”


The aviary is never silent. Inside its twin pair of double safety doors, hundreds of birds dwell in a state of constant communication.

Sometimes the voices are soft, contemplative. Sometimes they are a trumpet’s blast, a declaration of activity and interaction. If the butterfly house is a held breath, the aviary is a conversation, a steady, unrelenting chorus of voices in all registers.

Thousands of plants grow inside. Stout tropical trees, low bushes, and layer upon layer of climbing vine, creeper, palm, fern, and orchid. The air is thick, wet, and aromatic. A false river wanders across the floor beneath the bamboo bridges and the hanging paths. It adds its babble to the cacophony, singing a soft, low, steady baseline to the avian voices.

Above it, hidden among the fronds and branches, birds of every shape and size warble, tweet, caw, and hoot. Tiny, high-pitched voices titter. Large, booming voices honk and squawk.

The flutter of beaks in motion is only matched by the occasional explosion of wings as the flocks of iridescent bodies shift position from one perch to the next.

Every day, the aviary sings non-stop. When one voice pauses, another speaks into the gap. Every breath is sound and secret.

Today, they sing a song of freedom. They sing of liberation and escape. Outside their walls they hear the lesser birds’ gossip. Inside, they make of it a cantata, an aria, a symphony of excitement.

Escape is not unknown here, despite the signs on all the double doors that read: Please Close Outside Door Before Opening Interior Door. They-who-open-doors do not follow rules, and someone leaves from time to time.

The aviary sings of their foolishness for days afterward.

It is cold outside. It is often dry and dark and unforgiving.

“Escape,” the aviary sings. “Escape. The last desperate act of fools.”

Your thoughts?

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