The Zoolights Massacre

Damn. The little girl was still crying. Vincent silently cursed her as he peered through the window in the door, but he put on his patented Happy Face as he actually swung the door open.

“I brought you a box of popcorn,” he said, in a shockingly false attempt at cheeriness. Vincent slid it across the table in front of the girl. The girl, wrapped up in her own emotions as children can be, ignored it, so Vincent slid it a bit further.

This caught her attention, but not in the way Vincent intended. Specifically, she hurled the box at him, producing a bigger welt on his left temple than he would have expected from a piece of thin cardboard thrown by a four- or nine- or so year-old girl.

Vincent appealed through the resulting shower of popcorn to a woman he presumed was the girl’s mother. But she just glared at him like he was an overflowing toilet.

Vincent considered this horribly unfair. He was just trying to help, after all.

He’d been drafted to speak to them—why, exactly? Vincent was a zookeeper. He understood the ways of animals, not humans. Sure, humans are technically animals, but not within his specialty. He knew aquatic mammals better than his own family, but if he wanted to act as a human psychiatrist, he would have spent a bit more time in the primate house to work up to it.

Lacey, the zoo director, claimed it was his responsibility. Bunk! If he wanted to talk to people, Vincent would have become a salesman or a teller in a bank. He was nothing if not a man who planned his career logically. Of course, it is difficult to argue with the woman who signs your paychecks, and the incident did happen in his area.

Still: Not his fault! Vincent could swear that to his grave. He had, in fact, warned about the danger—the ticking time bomb that was: Zoolights.

Zoolights is the Lincoln Park Zoo’s massive Christmas light display. Immensely popular, it brings throngs of people to the zoo during Chicago’s unwelcoming pre-winter Decembers.

The problem is, nobody asked the animals how they feel about this. Giraffes don’t have to negotiate glowing orbs when they’re eating leaves from trees on the plains of Africa. The desert rocks that lizards build their nests under don’t flicker. And most of all: In the wild, sea lions never, ever, ever have to face a bank of evergreen trees flashing, while a loud, tinny recording of “Jingle Bell Rock” ripples through their waters.

Isn’t that a CIA siege technique?

Vincent had watched the display and listened to the song almost three times through on opening night. Initially, he just cringed. But near the end of the first time through, he fell into a near-hypnotic trance. By the middle of the third repeat, Vincent very much wanted to kill. A bump from a grandmother in a wheelchair, poorly navigated by her rambunctious grandson, broke the trance; luckily, this occurred before the emotion could fix itself in Vincent’s mind. But he had rushed to find Lacey, beaming as she finished a television interview near the lion exhibit, to relay his concerns.

“Nonsense,” Lacey had explained, once she had dragged him to a private spot. “You know perfectly well that unusual stimuli keep the animals happier and allow them to more fully exercise their natural instincts.” She refused to hear any further protest on the subject.

Two weeks later, the cold weather and four hours of blinking each day had claimed the lights on two of the trees that framed the sea lion exhibit. The failed lights were together, and dead center, and it could have been pulled off as an artistic choice if the silhouettes of the trees weren’t faintly illuminated by the rest of the display.

A little girl tapped the glass to summon a sea lion, preferably the pretty one with spots on his face.

Her father, feeling the bliss that came when the girl behaved herself as she was today, noted the flaw in the display, and shared it with his daughter. “Those trees are out, Sally. See? Look at those trees!”

He pointed, stretching out, far out, over the sea lion tank.

“Sir,” called an attendant. “I have to ask…”

Boomer, the pretty one with spots on his face and one of the older adolescent males, had not adapted well to the barrage of flashing lights. The glass-tapping, that didn’t help either. And then, putting a target up in the air, well, that was just too much for the lad.

Boomer propelled himself upward with a few thrusts of his mighty tail. The man’s hand was easy to reach. The crowd oohed and aahed, thinking this was all intentional.

But Boomer didn’t let go.

The man found himself dragged over the glass, into the tank, and near the bottom before realizing what was happening and that fighting back might be wise. Almost obligingly, Boomer released his grip, and the man tried to swim to the surface.

He didn’t get far. Boomer was just adjusting his grip, and in his frenzy he was perfectly content to attack the man’s legs next.

The man was dead before anyone from the zoo could be summoned to rescue him.

And so, Lacey had reached the conclusion that, since sea lions were one of Vincent’s specialties, the whole situation was his fault and he ought to at least talk to the man’s family. Perhaps he could even help to convince them to settle, rather than sue.

He picked a few kernels out of his uniform before deciding that the buttery mess would just have to wait for the washer tonight. “You know,” he said, trying to be kind out of respect for the girl’s youth and her recent loss, “Just because I work here doesn’t mean I get a discount. The concessions stands, they make the zookeepers pay full price.”

“You heartless, murdering bastard!” shrieked the girl’s mother, as she pounded on Vincent’s chest with the bottom of her fists. She wore down eventually, though. Her wails became gulping tears, the blows grew weaker, and finally she just slumped to the floor.

“I am sorry,” Vincent said. “Boomer was just exhibiting natural aggressive adolescent behavior, and I wish as much as you that your husband hadn’t gotten in the way of that.” The woman glared up at him, but didn’t begin shouting again, so Vincent thought that was a good sign. He risked the next step, and kneeled down next to her.

“I really hope you’ll consider settling with the zoo, rather than suing,” he said.

Even the little girl knew this was the wrong thing to say.

“Get out,” the woman commanded, nose twitching in rage.

The lawsuit was long, and costly, but Vincent never saw it. He lost his job the night of the attack, but he didn’t mind much. It was time to give up on the whole talking-to-other-people thing. He moved south, found a forest, and took tremendous joy in never being seen again.

*****

The second piece (first one here) inspired by my trip to Zoolights, so lets get one thing out of the way first: This is absolutely fictional, and I don’t want to imply that this type of event has or could happen.

There is, however, a musical display of flashing lights around the sea lion tank at Lincoln Park Zoo, and it would drive me batty if I lived there. Of course, I’ve got a good headstart, so…

I empathize with Vincent here. He’s a good guy who doesn’t understand human interactions at all. Fun to write, and don’t judge him.

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