It was only meant to be a quick stopover on his way up north, really. But the snap strike by the Transport Worker’s Union meant that the bus wouldn’t be in until well after six.
Which meant that Don had a little over seven hours to kill.
He moaned about it all a little, but soon decided that – since he was in town, anyway – he’d make his way to the Zoo.
After all, it was virtually an icon, and at least the taxi drivers were still on the job.
It wasn’t more than five minutes by cab from the station in any case, and he soon found himself lining up at the huge gates.
He’d seen the place loads of times on TV. You couldn’t miss the host if you tried. Still, after following the group on some of the tours, it seemed he had. There was no sign of him.
Don figured that he must’ve been in America, filming another one of his series.
Still, it wasn’t like he was a major fan, or anything.
It just would’ve been interesting to have seen him.
All the series and the ads made you think he was there, after all.
In any case, he couldn’t complain about the Zoo itself.
It was magnificent!
No expense had been spared to provide the animals with environments perfectly suited to them. And he couldn’t believe the size of some of the habitats! The Zoo itself was on hundreds of acres, with over fifty separate habitats – some housing only three or four animals!
There was a huge staff there, each team specializing in the care of the particular animals they were looking after. There were on-site vets trained in the treatment of each type of animal, too. Regular health checks. And the best food was provided for them …
Even the animals’ emotional needs were provided for. The carers said in their presentations that mental stimuli was vital for the animals.
Take the lions, for instance. When the carers would put food out for them (food which – apparently – cost prodigious amounts per year) it was in a different place in the habitat each time. Sometimes inside a log, or under some overhanging rocks. Other times up a tree. It wasn’t just hurled into the same part of their enclosures. The animals would grow fat and lazy. They had to work for it a little, which kept them from getting bored.
Don learned about the atrocious conditions in which animals used to be kept in zoos of the past. Little concrete cages and bars, where the poor things could only pace up and down all day. A lot of them ultimately died of madness, essentially.
Don tried to imagine what it would have been like for them – how people used to treat them. Trapping them. Confining them. How the poor beasts would have felt – stuck in a concrete cage for the rest of their lives, never able to touch the ground again, or run through the grass of their homelands.
It made him almost feel ashamed to be human.
But a look around at the incredible job that had been done at the Zoo – at how far people’s understanding and treatment of animals had come, at the compassion and genuine concern for the welfare and wellbeing of the animals shown by the dedicated people who worked there – filled him with a sense of hope and pride.
Even though the big man himself wasn’t there, Don still learned a lot from the people delivering the presentations. He had thought that he knew a fair bit about the wildlife in this country, and a reasonable amount about some of the animals outside it, but he felt that he’d learnt more in the couple of hours since he’d walked through the front gate than he had in a long time.
For instance, he’d learned that the animals that scientists knew about weren’t all that could exist. New species were being found all the time, all over the world. Even locally. It was extreme hubris to think that people had discovered every type of creature on the planet.
The Zoo was an amazing place … and a magnificent experience.
After a mouth-watering (but late) lunch, Don felt like breaking away from the main group, and so – as the crowd headed off for other presentations – he found himself following a tidy walkway into a beautiful rainforest.
The canopy grew thicker and thicker and the path changed from neatly-raked pebbles to bare dirt track as he strolled, and it was a good hour or so before he noticed that he was alone.
Figuring that he’d wandered onto a private path somewhere – perhaps for staff use only (he must have missed seeing the signs, or something, while looking at the rainforest) – Don stopped and checked his watch.
It was a bit later than he’d thought.
He thought he’d better start finding his way back so that he could get his stuff from the hotel and get down to the station to be ready for when the bus showed up.
He started back along the path the way he’d come, but soon realized that none of it looked at all familiar.
He shook his head in bewilderment.
He must have been looking up at the rainforest and just enjoying it so much that he hadn’t even noticed where his feet were taking him.
Still, he envisioned that – if he just stuck to the path (and kept his eyes on it, this time) – he’d find his way back to the main parts of the Zoo sooner or later.
So … he started walking.
The gentle trilling of birds accompanied him as he walked. Shafts of sunlight fell through the trees from low on the horizon. The heavy canopy made it difficult to see, and Don was a bit concerned about how late it was getting.
But not too concerned.
The environment was very soothing.
Which made it all the more jarring when he saw the leg sticking out of the bushes up ahead.
He stopped and shook his head.
It couldn’t be.
But it sure looked like it.
A leg. A woman’s bare leg – about thirty metres ahead of him – sticking out of the low bushes that ran alongside the path. The heel of her foot was just lying on the dirt of the track.
Head tilted back a bit as though something were going to bite him, Don nevertheless moved forward, wondering if it was – perhaps – someone who’d had a turn of some kind. Perhaps an epileptic. Or someone who’d had a stroke, or something.
He noticed that the canopy was darker than at any other part of the track he’d been on.
He looked around.
Nobody was around to help him.
Even calling out – first to anyone that might be around who could come running to help, then to the woman herself – didn’t help.
There was definitely nobody around.
The leg was barely ten metres away now, and Don was surprised that he still couldn’t see the rest of the woman’s body. He put it down to th fact that the bushes were so thick where her leg was pushing through them, and hoped that she was still alive.
He had to blink a few times because it was getting so dark. Either the canopy of the rainforest was cutting off really large parts of the light, or it was closer to sunset that he’d thought.
The path narrowed a lot as he got closer, the bushes on either side seeming to reach out to hem him in.
But he pressed on.
When he was about a metre away, Don crouched down and reached out a hand. The combination of bushes and canopy and fading sunlight was really making it difficult for him to make out any detail, so he couldn’t be one hundred percent sure when he thought he detected something strange-looking about the woman’s leg.
He reached out, just to try to tap her on the shoe, to see if he could wake her up that way. If he couldn’t, he figured that he’d have to try to get under the bushes and maybe drag her out.
But … what if she had internal injuries, somehow? He knew he wouldn’t be able to move her, then. It’d just make things worse.
Then … her foot twitched.
Sweating – despite the fact that the afternoon was cooling down considerably – Don backed up a little.
The woman’s foot …
When it twitched … it didn’t look quite … right … somehow.
“Hello … ?”, he said, reaching out for her once again …
… as something reached out for him.
The woman’s leg had been some sort of tail – camouflaged to resemble a woman’s leg and lying out on the path to attract him, like a rattlesnake would use the rattle of its tail to attract prey.
As whatever it was came for him – all teeth and claws – Don thought of something he’d heard during one of the presentations.
It was about lions.
About people who’d been attacked by them and lived to tell of it.
He’d learned that – somehow – these people reported a feeling of extraordinary calm as the lion attacked them. They also reported a lack of pain as the lions inflicted heinous injuries.
Don hoped for that.
Prayed for it.
But it didn’t happen.
Without even the ability to scream because whatever it was had savaged his vocal chords by digging either its claws or teeth into his throat, Don felt every slice and laceration – every puncture and wound as they happened.
He could feel great strips of himself being torn off and cast to either side of his body as whatever it was sought his insides. His own blood sprayed into his face with the pressure of a garden hose.
“Artery”, he figured …
… before his wounds became too much for his mind – his life – to bear …
… and he gave up the ghost.
The creature – having killed its prey – began its meal in earnest. Unbelievably powerful jaws split bone and sought out first the liver and then the kidneys. A rough tongue lapped the blood that had all but covered Don’s body. Deadly incisors gouged strips from his torso, his neck.
Sitting in what those in the business call a ‘high hide’ – a secure platform high in a tree where watchers can observe animals without interfering with their behaviour – two people moved.
The man’s eyes were wide open and the look on his face was one of pure rapture.
His wife’s voice – as strongly accented as his, though as different from it as chalk and cheese – was hushed as she leaned over to speak to him.
“It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it! And you first saw it yesterday? Where did it come from?”
Pushing his blonde hair out of his face and adjusting his khaki shorts so he could change position and get a closer look at the beast, the man – who hadn’t been at any of the Zoo’s public displays that day, but had been there (in the high-hide all day) – shook his head in wonderment.
“Crikey! I dunno, darlin’ … ”
” … but I do know that it’s gonna be real cheap t’ feed the little beauty!”
Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.
Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might … you never can tell).