[a story by John Shirley--originally appeared in Specious Species Magazine]
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
… shriek’d against his creed
“Carlton Griggs? Susan Lemuel, SPCA.”
“Oh. Right.” But he didn’t move aside to let her in. Griggs was a thin, stooped, balding man, early thirties, with pointed sunburnt nose and small suspicious blue eyes. He wore khakis of the sort worn by that zookeeper who went on the Letterman show.
Susan wondered if he was going to let her through the gate. It had been a long, hot, dusty quarter-mile walk from the highway, down the gravel road in the sullen late afternoon sun of the Sacramento Valley—a notice, under the largest NO TRESPASSING sign she had ever seen, had forbidden “unauthorized cars” on the road. She wasn’t exactly authorized, though he’d tentatively said she could come by, so she walked in. You learned not to argue with abusers about the small stuff. Don’t give them something to use against you. Choose your battles.
At least she had her walking shoes on, along with her light blue summer shift, and the sunhat. The purse dangling from her shoulder had very little in it—a small digital video camera, plus her wallet, cell phone, and keys. Still, she was overheated.
This was her last stop for the SPCA today; she’d been to three shelters already, and she wasn’t a kid anymore, she was turning fifty-four, tomorrow. She was one tired volunteer. “Can I come in, Mr Griggs? And if you could let me have a glass of water, I’d appreciate it.”
“Yeah, well—just so we agree, you’re not from the county, you’re not from the police department, you’re not from animal control, so I don’t have to let you in.”
“Of course!” Susan smiled, and licked her cracked lips. “I do know that. Yes. But…we did have some complaints that there were sick animals here not getting any care.”
“I have no such animals. All my animals get proper care. But I know–you can go to animal control with a writ, or whatever. You can give me a lot of bad publicity and we’ll have SPCA fools people out here protesting—bunch of misguided people parading around with signs. People who don’t know what animals really need.”
She gave him a little smile, and said, “Why don’t we go inside and you can tell me what animals really need…”
Reluctantly, he stepped back from the gate. She walked through, and looked around. The steel mesh gate was part of a tall, wire-topped fence extending out from the side of the farm house—was it a farmhouse if this no longer was a farm?—and encompassing fifteen acres of property. Only a few trees remained of the apple orchard that had once stood there. The rest of the ground was largely taken up by big cubicle cages, made of the same steel mesh, roofed and walled with it. There was about ten feet of open ground between each cage. In some cases there were tarps hanging on the sides, to blind the animals in neighboring cages from one another. There was a thirty-foot-wide dirt road down the middle, between the two rows of cages. She could see tanks of water, feeding chutes at each cage, a few climbing structures for the cats. The nearest cage on her left was unoccupied, though it still had scat in it. She wondered what had become of the animal.
“I have a permit to shelter exotic animals,” Griggs said. “If you want to see it. Even though you’re not the authorities, I’d show you.”
Susan nodded, staring at the tigers, two cages down. “Maybe later.” Two tigers, in cages across from one another. They were both lying in the shade, panting. When cats panted—especially tropical cats—they were likely badly overheated. Yet there was shade, under a wooden overhang, at the back of the cages. There was room for pacing, so it was strange they weren’t pacing. It was a warm day, but not that warm.
She walked down the road—turned at the sound of a low growling to her right. A wolf in a cage on her right, trotting toward her. It looked mangy, loosing patches of fur. Its eyes were rimmed in red; panting mouth showed several teeth missing. Its pelt was etched by its ribs.
Susan forgot about wanting a glass of water. She stared at the wolf cage.
She could see it had food, in a self-feeding chute, dry, greenish food of some kind, and water. All the cages seemed fairly clean, not a great many droppings. But there was a strong animal smell, here.
Griggs trailed along a step behind her. “They’re free-feeders,” he said. “They’ve got food, all they want; they’ve got water, they’ve all got shelter, padded places to lay down, something to climb on.”
“Yes. Well, a place like this might be better than a circus, but—it’s still harsh containment for a wild animal. They like to roam. They really need to be returned to the wild or at least taken to a real wild animal park where there’s room to move. And that wolf could be released in, say, Yellowstone, if you got permission…”
“No, can’t do that, that’d be turning my back on the whole point.”
She stopped, and turned to him. “Which point is that?”
“They’d eat meat out there. The point is to prove they don’t have to do that, here. I give them vegan pet food, for cats and dogs. They can live as a vegan, and feel good, and be happy. By degrees, we can retrain animals that way. Recondition them. End meat-eating even by animals.”
She stared at him. There was not the faintest trace of a smile on his mouth; there were no laugh lines around his eyes. He was not joking.
“I mean,” he went on, “vegans have dogs, we do fine, feeding our dogs. And dogs are carnivores. Or were.”
She shook her head. “Dogs don’t thrive on vegan dog food. They can get by on it. Maybe evolving close to people, they’re almost omnivorous. But they don’t thrive. They’re skinny and tend to be listless and lose teeth.”
“I’ll show you my dogs!” His arms were rigid at his side; his hands balled into fists. Red blotches showed on his face. “They’re fine.”
“Later, perhaps. Look–don’t get upset, Mr. Griggs, it’s just an exchange of information. I’m a vegetarian, you know. Not quite a vegan, but I eat no meat, and I hate factory farming, and the raising of meat animals that way—I campaign against it. But carnivores need meat. People are omnivorous and we have the wherewithal to replace meat in our diets. But wild animals…it’ll never happen.” She looked at the wolf. It looked back her. “How would you train them to go without meat?”
“By getting them used to it!” He was trembling, slightly, and articulating his words very slowly. “I could release these animals. Right now. And they would start eating grass. And grains. They would not even eat meat if I offered it to them. I have a system. I give them meat-free food, and I talk to them about it. I chant to them, and I feed them vegan animal feed, at the same time, and they understand me.”
“You chant to them?”
“They understand the chant! It’s an ancient Kiowa chant. I’m one-sixteenth Kiowa.”
She turned away, biting her lip to keep from sighing. There was a moth-eaten lion, down at the end, she saw now; there were two coyotes, together in one cage; there was a…
“Is that snake dead?”
“Oh. Is it?”
He shaded his eyes and looked. “I meant to…yeah, looks like it is. Pythons are tricky. I couldn’t get much down it.”
“These other animals look seriously malnourished, Mr Griggs. Look at that black bear! Patches of fur missing! Bears should be plump and he’s…emaciated. And he just sits there. They’re all listless, to say the least.”
“I think there’s a…a virus, or something. Making them a little ill. If they don’t improve I’ll get a vet in here.”
“No—this is all consistent with malnutrition. The vegan food just isn’t really feeding them! Those tigers should be up, checking us out, walking around. They thrive on hot weather. And look…both of them…just lying there. They’re losing fur, they’re losing teeth…” She shook her head. “I’m sorry but this is animal abuse.”
“You!” He took a step back from her, pointing. Baring his teeth, thrusting his head forward.
For a moment she thought he might bite her.
“You,” he went on, “and people like you…you are what keeps the world enslaved to meat eating!”
“I’m all for ending meat eating amongst people, at least civilized people, Mr Griggs, if we can insure everyone gets enough protein some other way, but predatory animals—no. Not only are you making them sick—you’re making them miserable. I mean, even if you could condition them to stop eating meat…they’d probably die from depression! They get their joy in life partly from hunting. They love feeding on meat. Nature made them that way, Mr. Griggs, it’s in their DNA…”
He was still backing away from her. “No! They are already changed! I’m going to prove it to you!”
He took a key from his shirt pocket, turned and used it to open the padlock on the tiger’s cage.
“I’ve never even gone in the cages,” he said, the words half crushed between gritted teeth. “I clean them with a pole and a scoop. I wasn’t ready to go in, but you’re forcing me to prove this right now!”
“No!” She started toward him—but he’d already opened the lock, swung the door open, and stepped through…into the cage of the nearest tiger.
This got the tiger’s attention. This glorious change in its routine, this freshness, this sudden unexpected chance, got the sickly animal to its feet. It stretched, and padded toward him.
“Come on!” he told it—and it sounded like Griggs was snarling, really.
He turned and stepped out of the cage, started for the other tiger. The released tiger followed him out, yellow and black stripes flowing, padding, out into the open.
Susan backed toward the front gate of the cage enclosure, afraid that if she ran, the tiger would pursue, and run her down. Her heart banged; she could hear her own pulse in her ears.
And Griggs went from cage to cage, opening them.
It was the wolf who came after Susan, as she turned and started to run—she couldn’t keep from running now. The open gate to the outside world was about ten yards away…
She heard the wolf growling…coming after her; she heard its feet trotting faster and faster…
Closer, to her right was the empty cage. The cage door was open.
She changed course, sprinted for the cage, jumped in, slammed the cage’s gate shut just as the wolf leapt—it banged onto the heavy chain links, making them ring with the impact. It walked up and down, once each way—then raised its snout to sniff—and looked toward Griggs.
He was stalking between the cages, toward her, waving his arms, grinning wildly, laughing.
“You see?” he shouted. “You see! Right? You see!”
The bear was out; the tigers were prowling along in the road; the lion was staggering out of its cage–it seemed particularly feeble. The coyotes were whining, trotting along, one after the other. And now the wolf joined them.
They all converged on Griggs. He began to chant at them. Something Native American. He repeated it over once, and twice—the tiger struck first…
Griggs didn’t even scream. Maybe he was too astonished.
The tiger knocked him down, and the others began to tug at parts of him; the bear had his right arm in its jaws, the wolf was pulling at a foot, the other tiger was gnawing at the top of his head; the coyotes were worrying a leg…
The feeble lion was making its slow way to see what the others might leave behind…
As she watched, the lion paused to lick at the growing puddle of blood. Griggs was trying to chant, then moaning, then trying to chant…
Shaking, her mouth bone dry, Susan remembered her cell phone. She fumbled it out of her purse, and called the sheriff’s department. She was very much afraid they’d shoot the animals. But what else could she do? There were farms, around here; people with children.
It took the police a good, long time to arrive. By the time they got there, and escoted Susan out of the cage, the animals had finished with Griggs, and left the area. The deputy said he hadn’t seen them on the way.
But he didn’t doubt her story. He could see what was left of Griggs.
She’d seen the animals hurrying, once they were done with him, out the open gate, to the outside world. They were energized now. She hoped that the wolf and the coyote might blend into the local wild animal population. They might survive out there, somehow.
It was possible. They were stronger, now. She’d seen it in their eyes, and their movements. They felt much better now.