Animal Man: Reflections of a Zookeeper
The tapir, like all odd-toed ungulates, has an exceptionally large penis. I have seen it with my own eyes.
I can never un-see it. I can never erase the weighty mental image, but I can offload it onto others. And I do so often. I tell my friends and my mum and the postman about it. Don’t sit next to me at dinner because I will talk about it – at length, so to speak. You’ll be my John Coffey. I’ll make you take deep, deep breaths and inhale all the unspeakable things I’ve seen in my capacity as animal pimp.
It’s tapir mating season at the zoo and I’m in charge. My mission: insemination. Success is especially important this year because it’s our old cow’s last chance to have another calf. If she doesn’t conceive in the next two weeks, she won’t take part in the breeding programme again.
We’ve flown in a stud from Frankfurt. He eats 95lbs of vegetation every day, 90lbs of which he needs to maintain his massive tapir-hood. This thing is so big it touches the floor. It sweeps leaves. On the first day of the breeding programme we let him into the enclosure and, straight away, he starts strutting around the perimeter. You can tell he reckons he’s going to show our girl a good time. A scratch here, a spray there – this boy is ready to go.
Tapirs often mate in water (another ineradicable mental image), so when we let our cow out for the big introduction to her visiting lothario, he drags his bulk into the pool, gets all glisten-y and come hither-y, and makes these rumbling grunting sounds at her which seem to say, “I know you want a piece of this.”
Knowing she won’t go near the water, I face-palm on his behalf. Since March, she’s been terrified of it – a kind of post-traumatic aversion. Every morning, at dawn, I try to cure her of her fear by putting sweet tinned pears on a plate near the shallow end, but she will not risk taking them, even though pears are her favourite. Too sad? Too frightened? Who knows.
And sure enough, she is not remotely swayed by the stud’s attempt to lure her in. Over two whole days she does nothing more than sniff his arse (which seems to displease her greatly). I am the architect of the worst blind date ever.
Every day, I watch as first-date couples turn the corner from Butterfly Paradise and spot the stud’s king dong from 30 feet away. Most of them laugh uproariously and pose for happy snaps in front of it. These kids are the ones you know will be all right. They’ll look through the photos on the train home, barely able to breathe, spitting crumbs at each other and falling in love. I remember being like them.
Then there are the ones who come round the corner and start shitting their pants. Their fledgling relationships cannot deal with the dong. They did not agree to the dong. The dong was not on their romantic zoo-date agendas. On day four, when the stud is taking his now considerable sexual frustration out on a battered shrub near the observation deck, I recognise in the faces of a passing pair the unmistakable blush of adolescent panic – the drowning feeling of the teenager who has no reference points and nothing vaguely witty to say when something witty is so urgently needed.
The bush is now shedding leaves as the animal humps, determinedly. Children and grannies giggle and point, but the young couple cannot bear it. They are avoiding each other’s eyes and laughing nervously. Someone has to talk. This is excruciating.
Mortified and compelled by desperation, the boy eventually points at the tapir’s hammering penis and gambles on a joke, delivering it with (he doesn’t know why, but he’s already started) a pitiful French accent: “Zat tapir’s girlfriend is one lucky lady.” His date smiles a pained, withering smile and looks away, saying nothing, not laughing, not even pretending to laugh. The boy turns pale as silence descends on the enclosure, on the zoo, on the whole world. A pigeon starts to coo in nearby woodland.
You’re not supposed to get emotionally attached to the animals and generally, I don’t fall for them. But I do have a soft spot for the old cow. She’s just so stupid and sad, you can’t not love her.
In the first week of March, she accidentally squashed her only calf in the pool and drowned it. The vet said she was confused and distressed and that it might take a few months for her to recover. I’m not sure if she knows that she was ever a mother, or if she’s consciously aware of her loss, but somewhere in that mulchy mammalian brain of hers, some Pavlovian flicker tells her that very bad things will happen if she strays too close to the water.
She never does fall for the stud’s continental charms, so after a fortnight we ship him – and his foot long – back home. And though this is a professional failing on my part, and the breeding programme will suffer as a result, I am secretly very proud of my old cow for not falling for his nonsense.
One morning, a few weeks later, I step into the enclosure and see her chubby silhouette lying very still in the dawn light. Over by the pool, the sticky plate is licked clean. The sweet pears are gone.
Rose Brétecher's non-fiction debut, Pure, is now available in paperback.
This story originally featured in Issue 1 of Somesuch Stories, which is available for purchase here via Newsstand.
Photograph by Bowmanville Zoo