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It was Christmas Day and I was driving back home. Well not home, exactly. Home away from home. I was heading away from my home in Los Angeles, where my husband and kitties still lived, to my home in San Francisco, where I lived because I was working a one year internship at the zoo. Being a zookeeper had been a long time dream and I was over the moon to be accepted into this internship. It had taken a decade of volunteering and a year of applying to jobs before I finally landed it. It hadn't been smooth sailing by any means, but I was so glad to just be part of it all.
My phone rang, and I answered it.
My mom said something and I responded with, "Wait, WHAT?"
She repeated herself, "All the tigers have escaped at the San Francisco Zoo and they're killing people!"
All the tigers? At my zoo?? Were OUT?!
Now... My mom is prone to exaggeration. But I knew she was quite serious, and my brain spun into a fragmented mess of all the possibilities of what might really be the truth and what was really going on. I had her go online to find news stories, and indeed, the first one that had been published read that all 4 tigers had escaped their enclosure. All we could think was that maybe a door somehow got open..?
The news stories changed over time, pretty rapidly. I ended up hanging up with my mom and calling my husband, wishing I wasn't still 3 hours away from my home and my computer. Wondering if I was still going into work the next morning.
My husband was able to read me some more news stories that explained only one tiger had gotten out, and a little later, that no doors had been open or unlocked in any way. "She must have jumped out," was the only conclusion we could draw, but that seemed so impossible. How could that be true, that she could have just leapt out at any time??
By the time I got home to my flat in San Francisco, I had a voicemail from one of my supervisors. "Hey, so I'm sure you've heard by now what's going on with the tiger escape. The zoo will be closed to the public tomorrow, but open to employees. When you come in, you need to come in the employee entrance at the back of the zoo..." And she gave me directions.
The next morning, the entrance to the zoo looked so bizarre with orange cones blocking everything off, and the chain fence shut and locked up tight. Police cars were stationed too, with lights flashing. Do NOT enter, was the clear message being conveyed.
I drove around, and finally found the driveway my supervisor had mentioned. I had only been at the zoo three months, and never even knew about this entrance! I pulled up, had my i.d. ready to go. They didn't normally check i.d., but I hardly knew anyone at the zoo (since I only worked in one section of the zoo and not the whole place), and I was sure security would be extra high today. A woman in a red blazer holding a clipboard marched very seriously up to my window. "Excuse me, do you work here?" she asked sternly. Oh of course she needed to ask me that. I was dressed in my regular street clothes, as we always change into uniform on site. I must have just looked like any other guest trying to find a way into the zoo!
"Yes," I said, and reached over to the passenger seat to grab my nametag. I started to hand it to her, and looked up, and straight into the big giant black eye of a HUGE camera lens. Where had THAT come from??
It was being held by a man standing next to her, though he was hard to see with the camera eclipsing him as it was. She continued, "Great, let me ask you a question, why are you here today, are you all coming in just to care for the animals?" It came out all in one stream, like a broken dam, her words flooding into my face.
Trying to muddle through what was happening, I ungracefully sputtered out a few words. "Uhh... yeah.. I mean.. we have to take care of the animals," I said.
Finally, I broke my gaze from the camera and looked straight ahead. A security guard had jumped out of his little gate entry kiosk, shoved the gate open, and was frantically rowing his arm in a circle so that I'd come inside already.
I heard her voice start to ask me something else, but I hit the gas and went into the zoo, and the security guard slammed the fence shut behind me.
I drove slowly down to my area of the zoo, not used to driving through the freaking zoo. The walkways were ominously empty, devoid of the usual crowds. I finally got to where I needed to be, got into my uniform, pinned my nametag onto my shirt and rushed to the morning meeting space only to find everyone leaving, faces drawn and tense.
"What happened? What's up?" I asked a coworker.
"Well," she said, "They kind of just went over everything. Basically, tiger got out. One guy died. We'll be closed for a bit, and we're not allowed to talk to the press. Just tell them 'no comment,' if they come by. Other than that, I don't exactly feel like rehashing everything right now."
"Oh. Yeah, sure, ok," I said. And found my supervisor I was working with that day. I cleaned like usual. I pet the goats and sheep. I mucked out the barn. I did everything like usual. Except nothing was usual. The grounds were so quiet. No chatter or laughter. Just everyone in their own world, trying to make sense of something that most definitely did not make any sense. A man had been killed by our tiger. Our tiger had been killed by our police. And on our radios, we heard conversations like, "Sweeping Bears now." Then 30 minutes later. "Bears clear." "Sweeping meadows." ... "Meadows clear."
Sweeping for bodies. No one knew how long Tatiana had been out before she killed that guy, who else she might have grabbed along the way. People. Animals. No one knew. It had to be checked.
A little later, my coworker who'd told me she wasn't ready to rehash anything asked if I wanted to walk and get coffee, our usual morning ritual. I said yes. Then I blurted out, "Can I talk to you about something?"
"Yeah, sure," she said.
My own dam of words burst forth. "I'm so freaked out, a lady asked me a question this morning, and I didn't know she was a reporter, and she asked why I was there, to feed the animals? And I said, 'yeah uh to feed the animals,' and I'm so... I feel like such an idiot. I don't know why I didn't just say 'No comment,' like you're supposed to! I didn't even think of that! You don't think they'll put that on the news do you?? Is anyone going to be angry with me for talking to the press? I had NO idea she was press!"
Amber giggled. "Oh, don't worry, you're fine, Meghan!"
"Whatever! You didn't say anything. It's not like you spouted off about what an idiot that guy was for teasing the tiger in the first place, or something like that. You just said something true. That's fine. I mean, it's not great. No comment is definitely the better answer. But whatever, you didn't know."
"Ok," I breathed. "Ok, thanks," I said and sighed.
Later, she teased me again at the lunch table, telling others how worked up I'd gotten, and I was able to laugh about it then, but only half heartedly. I still watched the news that night, and to my great and dramatic relief, while they talked about the tiger escape and attack, they did not show my wide eyed deer in the headlight face muttering that we needed to take care of the animals.
But we did. Need to. That IS why we were all there. It's why any of us is ever working at a zoo. That's what we care about and what our passion is. And thankfully, the reporters stopped coming after a while, stopped bugging us. I was so tense after that I felt like I couldn't talk to a soul about it. That "no comment," was more a state of life regarding anyone and everyone who wanted to know anything about it. Thankfully that didn't last forever, and I was able to feel more able to speak about it all after the fact. I think most of us were just shocked. And sad. That a group of 20 yr old men would tease and throw things at a tiger to the point of angering her enough to leap across a moat and scratch her way up, to stalk them through the zoo and hurt no one else except them. One of them died. And she died. And our hearts were broken. It really is hard to know what to say when something like that happens. Even if they hadn't told us to be quiet about it, I'm not sure I could have found the words anyway.