about the author

Mercedes Lucero is a first year MFA student at Northwestern University and has previously been published in North Central Review, Whitefish Review, Burner Magazine, Canvas, Calliope, Blinking Cursor Literary Magazine, Mouse Tales Press, Scissors and Spackle, Larks Fiction Magazine, Reed Magazine, Kalyani Magazine, and Touchstone. Her short story “Memories I Cannot Recall” was nominated for a Pushcart.

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The Zoo

Mercedes Lucero

Last year the elephants got loose and trampled a few dozen people walking along the African Trail Exhibit, killing most of them. A park bench with the names of those crushed to death has since been built and family members still willing to step foot near the scene often place photographs and flowers there. This is the type of thing we’ve gotten used to.

The year the Endangered Species Show for the children’s summer program took place, a zookeeper was attacked and mauled to death while showing off the majestic Sumatran tiger. Tragically, the staff missed and shot two children with the tranquilizer gun as the tiger broke free and galloped off into the audience. Because of the dosage of sedative used, only the severely overweight child survived.

A few years before, a red-tailed hawk flew off during the afternoon bird show and snatched a small infant holding a balloon from a stroller. Those of us who witnessed the incident watched as the child looked to his frantic mother below. A few of us even took pictures as the image of the hawk flying off with the child and his balloon steadily became smaller and smaller. Neither the hawk, the infant, nor the balloon were ever seen again.

Often these events leave us somewhat shocked, shaking our heads and saying things like, “What is the zoo coming to?” But it isn’t long before we come creeping back up to the entrance gates carrying diaper bags and fanny packs followed by our children holding stuffed versions of the animals they will soon see. We’ve been planning these trips for years and for some of us, our whole lives. Mothers spend evenings packing bologna sandwiches in lunch bags to eat with the kids in the grassy area near the Australian Small Animal Enclosures. Fathers make sure the digital camera is charged, even remembering to bring along extra batteries and sunscreen. Kids lay their outfits and tennis shoes near their beds the night before. Of course we all know, falling asleep each night, that out of the thousands of us who go to the zoo each year, there will almost always be a few of us who won’t return.

One year the 140,000 gallon pool in the Polar Bear Passage flooded and two polar bears were able to swim over into Penguin Plaza. Families watched from behind the glass as the polar bears, not having been fed yet that day, devoured the penguins, turning the water a deep red and flinging bits of penguin against the glass. Most of us who heard the screams coming from inside Penguin Plaza walked past it, pretending to look at our zoo maps very closely as if we didn’t know what was going on. Some parents still claim their children never recovered. The entire incident became known as the Zoo Penguin Massacre. The town committee has since voted to include it on the calendar as a day of remembrance.

The zoo itself sits atop a large hill spread out over nearly one thousand acres. During the drive along the road, large colorful banners hang from the trees with pictures of snow leopards and tree frogs. An abundant amount of staff wearing forest green polo shirts and khaki shorts are always there directing cars through the parking lot.

Inside the park, there are multiple exhibits featuring rare and exotic animals and a newly remodeled kids playground. The colorful pathways and trails are lined with flowers and small shrubs while trees growing overhead help to block out the sun. A skylift which overlooks and travels over the entire zoo is quite popular and there are even plans to construct an indoor rainforest attraction in the near future.

So who are we to deny the children who beg us to go? They’ve spent weeks learning about butterflies and prairie dogs in their science classes, finding pictures of lemurs and owls in the magazine section at the library. And now they want to see them. And we’d be lying as adults if we said we didn’t want to see them too. To us, the zoo is a place where all things are possible and we want so much to be a part of it. So we take our children partly because our parents did the same with us. Besides, we’ve been saving up all year to afford tickets for the entire family.

Though it usually isn’t long before a snake keeper is strangled to death by a boa or they have to temporarily close the giraffe feeding exhibit because a woman lost a hand when she stuck the food too far back into the giraffe’s mouth. It isn’t long before the orangutans escape and swing rampant through the trees, terrorizing visitors. Or the nightly fireworks, aimed incorrectly, shoot off into large crowds of spectators, starting fires and causing mass casualties.

Of course, every year we say we’re not going back to the zoo. We don’t want any part of it. There’s no way you’ll find us buying zoo coffee mugs or magnets. Groups of us will sometimes line up around the zoo entrance on weekends, protesting the various catastrophes. We press the issue by passing out fliers, sticking brochures under windshields or standing on corners holding signs. Some of us will make low-budget documentary films attacking the media for bias or lack of coverage of various zoo incidents.

But then the zoo will offer free admission for children or they’ll give out free T-shirts with each ticket and we all end up going back, lining up at the entrance like ants. Sometimes the director of the zoo will make a public announcement stating that everything in his power is being done to enhance security and ensure safety for all and we’ll wonder why we ever doubted our trips to the zoo in the first place.

Sure it won’t be long before there are minor setbacks. Just a month ago they had to tighten the railings over the hippopotamus pond after a man leaned too far over and fell into the water. A few bystanders were able to pull him out but the doctors couldn’t save the leg. It seems the mother hippopotamus was trying to defend the baby which was only a few yards away from where the man fell in. Ensuring safety and standing true to his word, the director of the zoo ordered staff to remove the teeth from all hippopotamuses a week later. Unfortunately, this caused several of the hippopotamuses to grow thin and die of starvation.

But somehow we know the zoo is really the one thing we have to look forward to. It is something we do as a family. Where else will we be able to see such animals? None of us will ever roam the African savannas to see the lions, head to the hills of Asia to catch glimpses of the panda bear, or trek through the Antarctic to see penguins up close.

And so we climb into our SUVs and head off to the zoo with our membership passes dangling around our necks.

Of course there was the one incident, nearly a decade ago, after which the zoo came dangerously close to being shut down. Perhaps it was because the girl’s mother was a former school district superintendent. Perhaps it was because her father was pastor at the local Baptist church and played Joseph every year in the Christmas plays. It could have even been the fact that after her death at the zoo, her face was plastered everywhere from billboards to morning talk shows.

It wasn’t the first time a child had ever died at the zoo, nor would it be the last. Few of us can really say why her death sparked so much attention. Few of us really cared to ask at the time.

It is said while walking through the exotic bird aviary, she died within minutes after a scarlet macaw jabbed its beak, which hadn’t been trimmed in some time, into her tender neck.

As the story began to unfold, more and more images of the girl were spread across the media and for the first time, daily news stations covered the story. Local television anchors began to call the macaw “The Puncturing Parrot” as they described the atrocity to us.

We watched as pictures of the young girl holding a baton in a sparkling costume, of her at a tennis match, of her swimming in a lake up north where her family vacationed, began to be seen everywhere.

We saw her blonde ringlets frame her face while her innocent eyes seemed to beg us to do something about it. Whatever the case, it was the first death at the zoo that really shook our community. And so we promised ourselves that this time was serious.

We began to hold candlelight vigils on the first Thursday of each month at the church. A memorial fund was set up. We did weekly marches through the streets holding signs that read “SHUT DOWN THE ZOO!” Cashiers at local grocery stores would kindly ask customers if they wanted to make a donation for our cause.

We were up at the zoo protesting every weekend standing along the entrance gates watching the few families who would not look us in the eye as they walked inside. The threat to close the zoo down felt serious. There were even several failed attempts to free the animals of the zoo which resulted in arrests but still, more media coverage. Private interest groups and corporate partners started to reconsider their sponsorship of the zoo.

And yet, some of us began to wonder about others who had died. Those of us who questioned why other deaths at the zoo hadn’t received as much attention were given blank stares and quick shrugs. Soon, we weren’t even sure what we were protesting for anymore.

But what really changed the minds of everyone, what really pulled all of us back in, was baby Apollo. Apollo was the first baby gorilla to be born right there in the zoo itself. Soon, advertisements and promotions were everywhere, replacing all those of the young girl we had spent so much time protesting for.

But if we were honest, if we really truly thought about it, it wasn’t like we minded. We were tired, exhausted and to see a picture of a baby gorilla covering the back section of the daily newspaper was something of a relief.

Soon we all wanted to see little four-pound Apollo. Hoodies and T-shirts with the little primate’s face on the front sold off the shelves almost instantly. It was quite a phenomenon. Eventually we put down our signs and the protesting dwindled. The girl stabbed to death by “The Puncturing Parrot” was old news. Well really, how could we protest against a baby gorilla? We weren’t monsters.

That spring, the zoo made its greatest comeback yet. This was partly because the previous mayor lost to the former curator of the reptile and amphibian exhibit during reelection. We were willing to overlook the fact that the curator had no previous experience in politics. It did not matter to us that the curator did not know how to finance an annual budget or advise the city council on new legislation.

What mattered is that the curator could wrap a python around his forearm. He could wrestle live alligators in front of huge crowds. For us, the choice was easy. He was practically a celebrity.

The new mayor promoted the zoo with such vigor, sending in zookeepers to speak to our children at schools, advertising through local programming, offering us specials and discounted rates and promising us that the zoo would remain open for all of us to enjoy for good. And so we all headed back to the zoo as if nothing had happened.

Maybe it’s because we can still remember our first trip to the zoo. We can remember how we followed our parents through the gates. Maybe it’s because we’ve never truly considered what it would mean to change the zoo. Or maybe we don’t want to. To us, this is what the zoo is and means. We feel no need to consider why we bring our children here. Why we risk our lives to come here. Sure, there is always the chance a woman tries to feed the rhinos a slice of pizza and a stampede ensues or the electricians use the wrong bulb wattage igniting electrical fires during holiday lightings of the park.

There’s the chance that somehow the zebra meat meant for the lions will end up in the food court causing half the days’ visitors to go home with food poisoning or the guardrails on the skylift will malfunction sending people tumbling into various animal enclosures. Although there’s always the chance that some of us may be lucky enough to tumble into the flamingo garden.

But to us, there is some sense of tradition, some comfort in the fact that this is what we’ve always done. And so every year we will continue to bring our children to the zoo, line up in long lines outside the gates, always somehow knowing what’s to come, but always slightly hopeful that this time, things will be different.

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