Jaguar – Emily Cogburn
Ralph got the jaguar’s food from the zoo kitchen and loaded it into his cart along with treats for the nearby emus and alpacas. When he was a kid and someone asked, “what’s your favorite animal?” Ralph would pick some random beast—one day it was a tiger and the next a monkey. He didn’t care. He liked animals, the way they fit neatly into categories—carnivores, herbivores, male, and female. No outliers that didn’t fit in, like him, a boy who watched My Little Pony, stared at girls who thought he was weird, and obsessively read Star Wars novels. From the time he’d set foot in a classroom, he’d been ridiculed for one thing or another—his weight, his glasses, his hair, his tendency to stumble over his words.
Now, he’d turned into a guy in his thirties who still spent most of his free time playing video games while eating sugar cereal. He watched the same movies so many times that he could recite whole stretches of dialogue and spot the mistakes, such as a cup disappearing between camera shots. He didn’t fit into the categories from The Breakfast Club, not a jock, not quite a nerd (he wasn’t smart enough), and certainly not the popular kid. Animals didn’t care about any of that. If you fed them and gave them enough room, they generally liked you. Some liked to be petted too.
The jaguar was always cool, lounging by his pool, ignoring the gum-chewing kids and whooping teenagers crowding up to the glass, trying to get him to move. Most of the time, he just slept, conserving his energy, as though he was going to rob a bank or travel across the state one day. He was programmed that way, just as Ralph was programmed to avoid eye contact with people and forget their names. Though sometimes he wondered how much of his programming was genetic and how much was the result of that constant torment. People acted like bullying was just kids being kids, but until you’ve been called “Stinky Pits” (because of persistent body odor) or “Lard Boy” (for obvious reasons) a few thousand times, it’s hard to understand how it wears you down. Kids stepped on the back of his shoes as he walked down the school hallways and jeered at him so much that he never figured out what normal human interaction was.
Ralph didn’t tell anyone that he felt a special connection to the jaguar, which some wag had named Jeffrey, Jeffrey the Jaguar, like Tony the Tiger. Dumb. Privately, Ralph called him Jag, which he thought sounded much cooler. Jag was really just a big cat. He’d rub his sleek, muscled body up against the glass when Ralph brought his food every day. Every member of the zoo staff had a favorite animal and, even though they were supposed to rotate who fed each one, Ralph almost always got to feed Jag. Most people were reasonably afraid of the jaguar since he could easily crush a person’s skull with his teeth, if he ever decided to. Ralph wasn’t scared of him, though. He shoved the food through the metal bars into Jag’s feeding lockout and watched the graceful, powerful beast saunter in to claim his prey. Ralph wished Jag could have whole animals every day because he could sense the cat’s joy in tearing apart a rabbit, fur and all. The ground meat mixed with supplements and vitamins seemed less satisfying to him, a meal he ate more quickly before retiring to his favorite rock for a nap. Sometimes, the golden eyes would meet Raph’s with a gaze that seemed to ask, “Where is my country? This was mine and you took it and put me in this cage.”
Ralph often thought about what the world was like before humans made it their playground, shoving the animals off into the cramped space under the slide. He knew what that felt like. The other kids used to gather in groups around jump ropes, the soccer field, or foursquare, but he didn’t bother to ask to play. The few times he had, he’d been dismissed with a “sorry, we have enough players,” or even worse, “you’re too slow, lard butt.” He gave up and spent the time sitting near the chain link fence, hoping if he was quiet and still enough, a squirrel or a bird might come up to him from the vacant lot next door.
Jag would not have lived as long in the wild, subject to death from an infected wound or a fight with another big cat. Perhaps, he would have been trampled by a herd of prey animals he was pursuing. Protected by the zoo vets and fed daily, he now had a long, boring existence, trapped behind glass with a carefully landscaped square of earth, strategically placed rocks and trees. It reminded Ralph of the old question—would you rather have a long, sad life or a short, happy one? Jag didn’t have a choice.
Once the food was loaded, Ralph heaved himself onto the seat and started the cart. It didn’t go very fast, but he still liked zipping around the zoo, dodging kids with snow cones, a man on a mission. His mother had basically forced him to volunteer at the zoo one summer during high school in a desperate attempt to drag him away from his beloved Nintendo. Onscreen, he was cool, a guy who saved princesses, fought monsters, and generally got things done. But his mom wanted him to live in the real world. At first, he hated it—the heat, the insects, the kids trying to run off with the beaver pelts and raccoon skulls he was supposed to be showing them. By the end of the summer, though, he’d begun to feel a connection to the animals, almost as though they were talking to him. It sounded cheesy, so he didn’t tell anyone, but he quietly kept volunteering when school started. After he graduated, he took a job as the lowest level zoo employee, sometimes called the Pooper Scooper.
He always fed the jaguar before the zoo opened. Kids didn’t need to see the big cat tearing into a cute little bunny; besides, cats don’t like to eat when people are around. So Ralph could zip as fast as he wanted along the sidewalk, taking the corners exactly as quickly as he knew he could without rolling it over.
He eased his foot from the brake at Jag’s enclosure. The front side, where the visitors stood to stare at the trapped creature, was a wall of glass, but in the back, steel bars contained him. Steel mesh covered the top, just in case Jag got into a climbing mood. Ralph couldn’t imagine it happening. Jag had everything he needed.
As usual, the cat sauntered toward him as soon as he pulled up. Ralph ignored Jag’s golden eyes as he unloaded the food. But once he had the bucket in his arms, he faced the cat full on. They looked at each other—that beast so much more elegant and stronger than Ralph, or anyone really. Jag’s sleek coat was draped over lazily powerful muscles. Eyes inscrutable, alien, containing generations of hunting, stalking, killing. Even their color was miles from human—a shade reflected from the sunset of a million year old landscape. It was wrong for humans to contain him, and yet it was their duty to protect him from the destruction they were wreaking on the planet.
With a gloved hand, Ralph took the rabbit from the bucket, holding it by its fuzzy feet. The cat’s eyes fixed on the dead animal and then on Ralph. He felt the bones in his hand, the structure of a living thing, now limp and dead.
The jaguar’s eyes zeroed in on the rabbit, the light in them brightening until Ralph thought the cat might somehow jump through the wire. Hastily, he dropped the carcass into the feeding cage and slammed the door shut, stepping back to watch Jag do his thing.
The jaguar slid into the enclosure. Despite the eagerness reflected in his eyes, he slunk forward slowly, muscles and tendons expanding and contracting with each deliberate movement. As he ate, crunching through the rabbit’s bones with his pointed teeth, he kept part of his focus on Ralph. When any other member of the zoo staff fed him, he’d refuse to eat while the person was present. But he trusted Ralph, at least enough to munch a rabbit in front of him. Ralph took it as a compliment.
When the jaguar had finished, leaving behind just a few bones and teeth, Ralph reluctantly got back into his cart to go feed the other animals. The best part of his day was over.
Ralph had a strange feeling as he went to the get animals’ food the next day. Nothing odd happened—Lucie had prepared everything the same as always, in gallon buckets, and left them before going on her usual cigarette break. That was fine, since she always looked at him as though he were something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Chimpanzee hierarchies are similar. Not one of Ralph’s favorite animals.
No, it didn’t have anything to do with Lucie or even human beings. It was the animals. He hadn’t entered the exhibit portion of the zoo yet—the kitchen was set in the back, near the animal hospital—and he could already sense tension and fear. He remembered feeding the animals the day before Hurricane Gustav, a few years ago now. The storm had whipped through St. Jude, throwing around tree branches and spitting rain. No major damage had been done, though his apartment had been without power for a week. The animals knew it was coming, he was sure. Noses to the wind, the antelopes had wandered restlessly around their enclosure, eyes fearful. The tigers paced and growled. Only Jag had seemed unaffected, sleeping in his usual corner as the wind made ripples in his fur.
Ralph heard a noise coming from the far side of the zoo, past the train tracks, near the gift shop. It was a scream of pain and fear, a call of distress so anguished that he wanted to run all the way there, past the Aardvark café, through the turtle paradise, and around the children’s playground.
Hands trembling now, he loaded the cart and began driving toward the sound. He knew he would have to abandon his usual route and try to save the animal, whatever it was. He hoped it was as simple as a zebra with its head stuck in a fence, but somehow he knew it wasn’t. Whatever had happened to make that animal scream had been horrible.
He was pretty sure the noise had come from Wild America, an exhibit that included deer, alpacas, foxes, and Jag. Somewhere in his mind, connections were being made, but he turned them off and focused on driving. It was quicker to skirt around the giraffe enclosure, where Cindy and Noodles were huddled inside their building, peeking out, just like they had during the hurricane. He gave the cart a little more gas as he rounded the corner, feeling one of the wheels lift just slightly off the ground.
Another cry cut through the air like lightning, cracking the fragile morning with its unnatural horror. Ralph wanted to stomp on the brake, go back home, and hide in his tiny apartment. He thought briefly about grabbing his cell phone or his walkie-talkie and calling one of the other workers who would be in the park this early—Lucie, Mack, Janie, or Fred all came to mind, but he really didn’t want to look like an idiot if it was just a zebra stuck in a fence. He endured enough ribbing from the others already, Mack always asking him if he had a date yet and Lucie laughing at the hole in his shorts that he hadn’t noticed when he hastily put them on in the dark. No, he couldn’t call them, at least not yet.
As he passed the giraffes, he drove the pedal down harder because the next stretch was a straight shot all the way to the grass eaters, and Jag. When he got closer, he realized that he didn’t even know which enclosure to look into. Where had the scream come from?
Ralph thought he saw something odd in the fox enclosure, but a noise from the alpaca habitat made him turn the cart that way. He stopped, but once he realized what was happening, his foot left the brake and the cart eased forward without him noticing.
Jag was standing over one of the alpacas, posing like a human hunter posing for a victory photo. Blood dripped from his teeth and, as Ralph watched, he put his head back down and bit into the animal’s meaty side again. His eyes reflected the early morning light, projecting it back to Ralph like laser beams. Pride, Ralph thought. Jag was proud of his kill.
Ralph noticed that the cart had moved forward and cut the wheel, turning it around. He had to get to a building, somewhere safe with a door that Jag couldn’t operate. His frantic mind was clicking at two different levels—pure panic and calculating. The part that still knew facts realized that Jag was doing “surplus killing,” a term used when hunting instinct is let loose in an environment where prey cannot escape. Ralph knew he was prey—that was the panic part.
He pounded the pedal to the floor, taking the chance that the cart might overturn. He only had to make it a few yards to the ice cream stand near the playground, the closest building he could think of. Once there, he scrambled out of the cart, hurrying even though he knew that Jag couldn’t have followed too fast—the cat would have had to give up on his feast and jump the fence out of the alpaca enclosure. He fumbled for his key. Once in a while, he filled in at the concession stand, making cones for kids out of soft serve that came in big plastic bags, so he had a key on his chain. His hand shook as he tried to put the key into the lock and he steadied it with his other hand.
The door opened, and he fell inside, righting himself quickly and locking the door behind him. He got his walkie and drew in a breath before speaking. He did a few seconds of centering meditation, but his voice still wavered as he said, “Jaguar escaped and is now in the alpaca enclosure. We need a vet with a tranquilizer immediately.”
Lucie answered right away. “Are you safe?”
Ralph told her where he was and said, “He’s already killed an alpaca and maybe a fox, hurry!”
“I got it, don’t worry.”
Ralph let go of the button and sat down next to the soft serve machine. There was nothing he could do now. Lucie was trained as a vet tech. She’d go to the hospital, grab a tranquilizer gun, and do the job herself, most likely. A fire hydrant of a woman taking down his sleek beast. In the wild, only nature could have taken him down, but here, in this artificial world, a weakling with a weapon could do it.
As he sat on the cold floor, memories passed through his head like a slideshow—Jag watching him as he ate his rabbit, pacing toward Ralph, rubbing against the cage in a show of feline affection, meeting his eyes with his own golden ones. Ralph had wanted to set him free, let him back into his true habitat, but had he really thought about what his life would be like? Coldly, the killer would take any prey he could, from baby animals to those too sick or weak to run. He’d tear up their bodies, eating his fill and leaving the rest for the vultures. Ralph watched nature documentaries, he knew how it worked. He understood that he could be next.
The slideshow continued to some of the animals vulnerable to Jag’s attack—the sweet emus, Bubba and Nancy, who liked their noses rubbed and seemed to listen when he told them his problems; the shy fox, Emile, who stayed at the back of his enclosure and only came out after Ralph had delivered his food and left the fake forest that was his home. The alpacas, Sam and Judith, were his favorite herbivores for their senses of humor, seeming to laugh as they stole his bucket and hid it in the tall grass near their little pond. He had to be there for all of them.
As he unlocked the ice cream stand, he could feel his heart thumping in his chest, a strange sensation that his brain registered as an afterthought. Not bothering with the cart now, he stalked toward the alpaca enclosure. Jag stood over Sam, the alpaca’s throat ripped open the way Ralph might have torn into a bag of Doritos. Ralph didn’t look away this time. He stared the animal down, trying to show that he, Ralph, was the alpha male, even though he knew it didn’t really work that way. Their gazes met—Jag’s cool and deliberate, Ralph trying his best to seem tough, even though he wanted to just scream in anger.
Lucie pulled up beside him in a cart and jumped down, a tranquilizer gun in her hand. They weren’t close enough to hit Jag. Whoever was going to make the shot would have to get nearer.
“Give me the gun,” Ralph said, keeping his gaze directed at Jag.
He expected an argument, but Lucie just handed it over, stepping back toward her cart.
Ralph strode forward, not bothering to hide his movement. He was furious at Jag and himself for somehow thinking of the animal as his friend, okay not exactly his friend, but not this monster either. He felt betrayed, which he realized was completely stupid. How could he be betrayed by a wild animal? Still, he felt it, that this animal was cruel, just as cruel as the kids who called him Fatty McFat and bumped into him, making him drop his lunch tray on the floor. He wanted to punish him, just as he’d wanted to beat up those kids, but of course he couldn’t do that, couldn’t do anything to his tormentors. Now, he had the gun. He could make Jag stop.
Once he was close enough—Jag hadn’t moved, his eyes locked on Ralph’s—he raised the gun, aimed for Jag’s flank, and fired, the dart whizzing through the air and meeting muscle with a thump that echoed in the expectant air.
“Good shot,” Lucie said, climbing out of the cart.
She’d expected him to fail, Ralph thought, but she hadn’t wanted him to because she didn’t relish doing the deed herself. Her cart had a trailer attached and they carefully lifted the hundred-fifty-pound animal into the back. Sitting behind the wheel of the cart, Lucie picked up her radio and said, “All clear. The jaguar has been contained. The vet came come and look at the other animals now.”
Jag’s eyes remained open, but they saw nothing, reflected nothing now. They had turned to glass and his body into an inert lump of meat. His coat no longer looked sleek, but greasy and lifeless.
As Lucie listed the enclosures with wounded animals, Ralph closed his eyes and tried not to listen. He didn’t really want to know the extent of the destruction his friend had wrought.
Jag slept in a corner of the cage, spotted head resting on his muscled legs. He knew Ralph’s smell, but he didn’t glance up, didn’t move except for the slow rise and fall of his flank. Ralph thought he looked satisfied, completely at rest. Watching this animal he thought he’d known so well, he realized that Jag had always been ill at ease. He’d never seen him looking completely at rest until that moment.
Killing had made him that way. Whatever else he might be or think or do, Jag was born to tear apart other animals. Ralph had known that—he wasn’t a complete idiot—but he hadn’t known it in the depth of his being the way he did seeing his cat lounging, for once indifferent to his status as a caged animal. For just the briefest amount of time, Jag had been his true self. Ralph felt his anger dissipate. He was the one who’d been wrong, believing this animal to be somehow better than humans. Jag wasn’t better or worse, he just was.
He knew he should force himself to look at the other animals in the hospital, the ones Jag had maimed. Two he had killed outright and partially eaten, but he hadn’t finished off the other three. Ralph was going to search for Lila, who worked in the hospital, but instead Lucie approached him, her normally sardonic look replaced by one of genuine sadness.
“Emile is already dead, and Sam, Neil and Judith might as well be,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Ralph said, trying not to picture the fox and alpacas in his head.
“Sorry?” Lucie’s eyebrows lifted. “If you hadn’t rushed over there and then radioed in the alarm, who knows when Jag would have stopped, or if he would have escaped the zoo completely? Plus, you took him down quick, one shot, almost like you weren’t nervous at all. I was shaking so hard I could barely hold the gun. You did something great today, Ralph.”
“I did?” Ralph glanced away from the cage where Jag was still sleeping. “I just heard one of the animals screaming in pain and I had to see what was wrong. Anyone would have done the same thing.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But you didn’t screw up, Ralph. You took care of business.”
Ralph didn’t think Lucie had ever said anything that nice to him before. It would have felt great except that animals were dead now because of his favorite cat. That sat like rocks in his gut. “How many others did he kill?”
Lucie looked at Jag too, and there didn’t seem to be any anger in her expression. He thought it lacked the understanding that he felt toward the jaguar, but her face held a softness that he hadn’t expected. And then a terrifying thought came to him. Perhaps, she knew they were going to put Jag down. That could not happen.
“Dina, Bee-Bee, Hermione, and Jill,” she said.
Dina and Bee-Bee were emus, Hermione was another fox, and Jill was an antelope. He bowed his head. Those poor gentle animals didn’t deserve to be torn apart by Jag. They were innocent beasts, eating grass and, in the case of the fox, eggs and the occasional mouse. Dina and Bee-Bee were practically domesticated, placing their noses on his arms when he cleaned their enclosure, begging for a pet. When displeased, they scrunched up their faces and stared at him, expressive as an insulted aunt. The fox, Hermione, was more elusive, but a beautiful creature, sleek and red. She would dart to the back of her heavily foliaged enclosure when he approached and drag her food to the farthest corner. The antelope, Jill, pretty much ignored him too, calmly eating grass as he checked her environment every morning.
“Terrible,” Ralph mumbled.
“This is the worst tragic mess this zoo has ever had. There’s a meeting about it already scheduled for tomorrow.”
“What about Jag? Are they going to put him down?”
“No, of course not. He didn’t kill any people and besides, he was just being a jaguar,” Lucie said, gazing at the sleeping cat with an expression that looked a lot like fear. She turned away from the cage. “There’s nothing wrong with the jaguar. He’s just in here until we can make absolutely sure he can’t escape again. He bit through the metal mesh and squeezed through a hole just a few inches in diameter.”
“Cats are made of water,” Ralph said absently. He didn’t fail to notice that Lucie hadn’t used Jag’s name. Would either of them ever think of him as part of the zoo family again?
Lucie walked away and Jag opened his eyes. Ralph had believed once that he understood this animal, he knew what it was like to be trapped and held back from what he really wanted to be. But he saw clearly now that any ideas he had that he shared anything with the jaguar were completely and utterly ridiculous. Jag’s marble eyes glowed and then blinked closed again.
Emily Beck Cogburn is a fiction writer based in Louisiana. Her published novels are Louisiana Saves the Library and Ava’s Place.