THE LAST SNOW LEOPARD
(East Lansing: Ghost Dance Press, 1996)
THERE ARE NOT MANY WAYS to live in captivity. Despairing of your lost freedom, you can pace in your enclosure, recalling images from the past, imagining unlimited expanses in the present, or wishing for a miracle in the future. Resolving yourself to a temporary stay, you can exercise and learn during your confinement, so as to enter the wide world with new strength and understanding. Or abandoning hope entirely, you can limit your perspective to the sides of your cage, eat and sleep and try to forget about everything else. Which choice you will make can only be discovered after you find yourself behind bars; all else is speculation. And, of course, the choice must be made each morning. When you wake from your dreams, one hard fact awaits you: the world with all of its possibilities has been drastically reduced, and your mind and spirit must accommodate the reduction.
On this particular morning, his second in captivity, Victor had given up hope. He lay with his chin flat on the concrete, his eyes rolled up to gaze through the bars at the human traffic. His first day he thought was temporary, so he yapped at everyone who stopped in front of him, supposing a person would take him to Daisy. But no one did: each murmured a few words and went on. Meanwhile, other dogs were calling: No, stand back, I don't want to go. The night was terrible: One bark, many barks, silence... One bark, many barks, silence... A car siren in the distance, howling, silence... Bad smells, bird chirps, silence... One bark, many barks, silence... Victor had sniffed every inch of his cell during the night; now he waited. A dark figure stood before him.
"How ya doing, buddy?"
Griffin peered into Victor's eyes and read the hopelessness. Again he thought to rescue the dog, but considered the consequences. To take a pet is a lifetime commitment - the life of the pet or the owner, whichever ends first. Griffin was committed to Satan, his first duty must be to him. Satan should have a say in the wildlife brought into the home, especially when the new tenant might be an ugly mutt with an outsize snout that might yap at him and maybe even try to clamp down on his spine. And to take Victor in preference to other captives - would this be fair? Better to conduct a midnight raid on the Humane Society, break open all the cages, set the hounds on the world! But then the world would retaliate, there'd be a massacre of dogs extending all the way to China, which had battered them into non-existence many years ago...
Big, turned-down galoshes plopped past; a door to the side wobbled in short bursts to a halt. Jay proceeded into the other room, grabbed a bucket and went behind the counter. Griffin eyed Victor a last moment, noticing that the dog now regarded him with indifference. He must be exceptionally bright, thought Griffin, to catch on so fast. It wouldn't be right to cheer him up now. He's got some hard thinking to do. Even so, Griffin could not resist a word of encouragement, delivered in a stern tone.
"You can do it, Victor."
On hearing his name, a word he knew, like walk, ball and din-din, the dog jerked to attention for a moment, then fell back into dull gazing. He saw Griffin's jacket moving away into the other room. Taking a left turn, Griffin avoiding greeting the attendant and stepped in front of the first cat cage. He had already decided that Satan was not there, but had to eliminate the possibilities, from top to bottom. So long as the cages were not inspected, he could imagine that the Humane Society, with its team of dog- and cat-catchers, might help him; once the last cage was inspected, he knew that Satan was on his own, where no one would find him.
The first cage: a pair of fluffy Persian kittens. They'd have no trouble getting adopted. The next cage down: a fluffy grey Persian adult. The slow gaze she gave Griffin told the whole story: a completely feminine look, sick and nervous. She was exhausted, drained of milk, deprived of offspring. There must have been more than two, thought Griffin, staring right in the mother's eyes. She stared back unwavering from a balled-up nest of newspaper: she knew she was finished. Griffin peeked down at the bottom cage: empty. They like to keep cats close to eye level.
In the next row, Griffin saw a plain white cat in the top cage, pure yellow eyes and a cut on its left ear; a calico cat in the middle cage made his heart leap, until the calico raised his head from the bowl - a plain tan and white face, no demonic markings about the eyes; the bottom cage housed a tortoise.
In the third row, Griffin saw an orange tabby with a white bib under his chin - he turned his nose up at Rex; a green-grey alley cat in the middle cage, running from the eyes and nose; a fat Russian blue in the bottom cage, panting heavily and rasping. Griffin returned to the calico, knowing that it was not Satan, but wanting to feel near his cat. The calico looked back with surprise, then continued eating, certain of the prison security. Griffin turned to the rack of cages behind him.
Departing from his order, Griffin spied the wild black cat at the top of the third row, her yellow eyes glowering ferociously; beneath her, a striped cat with a bob tail - not a Manx, someone had hacked off his original tail; at the bottom a couple more Persian kittens, rolling and wrestling and biting with tiny pointed teeth.
Rex quickly ran down the middle row - a cat with mixed eyes, a Siamese and a Sylvester - and turned to the first...
"Find yer cat?" the attendant inquired, tilting back the high stool.
Irritated by an interruption at this critical moment, Rex elected not to reply. Also not to hurry. In the top cage he saw a greenish-brown female with a diminutive head and a large abdomen, possibly pregnant. In the next, a grey and white male with a perfect white hourglass between his eyes - he snarled, revealing a broken canine. Rex took a quick breath and looked in the bottom cage: empty. Then, although it was senseless, he quickly ran over all the cages again in case he had missed anything. Convinced at last that Satan was not on the premises, he threw a glance at Jay.
"Have you seen him?" he asked.
"Who?" asked the attendant, who had returned to the sports page.
"No, I never seen Satan."
"Well, I hope you keep your eyes out for him."
"What's he look like?"
"He has black and brown flecks over his eyes."
"You mean your cat?"
"What time is it?"
"Huh? About ten thirty."
"When do you put cats to sleep?"
"Later, it depends."
"Do you like your work, Jay?"
"Yeah, how d'ya know my name?"
"What about the tortoise?"
"The turtle over there."
"Oh, it's somebody's pet, I bet. Found it walking down the sidewalk."
"Do you put turtles to sleep?"
"Come on, man, what d'ya mean?"
"I just wondered," said Griffin, turning to the outside door. He could see a round stone enclosure on the grass with bunnies hopping inside. Not really interested, he set off toward it to be rid of Jay. The attendant, shaking his head, shook out the paper noisily and resumed his study of baseball scores. At that moment, both heard a third man calling, "Jay! Jay!" Rex turned back to the cat cages.
"Jay, I want you to go out and help Kick saddle the horses. The kids are coming today."
"How soon, Mr. Butterfly?"
"In about half an hour."
Butterfly replaced Jay at the counter.
"I see you're still looking for Demon," he addressed the visitor.
"Satan," Griffin corrected.
"You must care a lot," Butterfly remarked, easing onto the round disk of the stool. Griffin detected a different tone and considered whether to regard it as falsely confidential or really non-combative. Butterfly picked up the bundle of newspaper and rustled it discontentedly. He had already read it through, but thought he might skim it again for any unusual items he might have missed. "Hm, some way to leave the paper!" he complained, not necessarily to Griffin.
"Anything on the snow leopard?" asked Griffin.
"Didn't see anything," responded Butterfly, looking up and measuring his man, "even though I looked. You know how it is: the condor, the rhino, the gorilla - they get a few notices, then they're gone."
"The dodo, the great auk, the passenger pigeon - they probably didn't get any notices at all," Rex added, aware that he was supporting the conversation. But this might be a smart tactic, he decided on second thought.
"Yeah, so I guess that's progress. Only the animals don't know it."
"There's another way," Rex could not help stating.
"Really, what is it?" Butterfly sat up.
"Stop the..." Rex hesitated, realizing with alarm that he was blowing his cover.
"Yeah, stop the what?"
"The whole thing," he ended vaguely.
"Hm, that would require concerted action. Not just this or that conservation group, this or that cause, but a national policy with strict enforcement. A world policy even, a world conference on animals." Butterfly paused for a moment, struck by the grandiose idea. Then he chuckled to himself at his foolishness. "But how could you get all the nations to agree on anything - on animals least of all?"
"Perhaps..." Rex was on the verge of telling him about the movement, the international concern awakened by assassinations of animal abusers, the demands for new legislation. The revolution, with people rising up against our putrid environment and taking a stand for a society in harmony with nature. As life became more intolerable and the prestige of the Wolf Pack grew, a transition could be made to political power, incendiary action, agitation.
"No," Butterfly went on, thinking aloud, pulling out his pack of cigarettes and regarding them ruefully, "we've had some progress on the whales, a little bit on the rain forests, but generally we're not united on a worldwide scale. Here in America, we've got the environmental groups, the zoos and humane societies, and their influence is growing every day."
"The zoos," Rex seized on the word, glad to be rid of his unfinished sentence, "you think they serve a useful purpose?"
"Of course," responded Butterfly with some amazement, "they're one of the chief agencies of preservation. Just look at the work of the San Diego Zoo in breeding rare animals, look at the sperm banks - they insure that no species need ever go extinct. But we talked about this yesterday, didn't we?"
"Breeding rare animals," Rex returned, "has little purpose other than to perpetuate a public exhibit, in which case the animals are rare only in the sense that you don't see them anywhere else, and wild only in the sense that they don't leave their cages. As for re-introducing them into their native habitat," Rex said with some venom, "there will be no native habitat in which to put them, precisely because the preservation program was a poor alternative to..."
Butterfly waited, enlivened by his ardent opposition. When the silence became heavy, stirred only by the mewing of kittens, he prompted: "Well, to what?"
"Yeah, we did talk about this yesterday," Rex concluded.
"Hm, well, in regard to zoos, I appreciate your objection, but you don't see the whole picture. Take the humane societies, for example. Most of them were begun to control dogs - you know, dog pounds. But in time they grew, multiplied their services, so that they earned the name of humane societies. I mean - pet adoption, blind-dog programs, veterinary work. The whole lot. The trouble is, the dog-control work must go on, and once you're doing that it permits people to mistreat their pets, to let them proliferate, run wild and so on. Would you have us close up shop and stop catching dogs? Do you think people would treat them any better if there were packs of savage dogs roaming the city streets?"
"We were talking about the zoos," Rex reminded the Director.
"The zoos have gone the same way," Butterfly continued, feeling uneasy again. "At first they only caught and exhibited animals: one could say they depleted the natural resources, endangered many species. But in time they took on more of a conservationist role - informing the public, learning the habits of their specimens, developing medical and bio-chemical procedures. Above all, they let people see these wonderful beasts - granted, in a cage or enclosure, and no enclosure is large enough - still, let people see them up close, marvel at them and inevitably love and respect them."
"Inevitably? How about kids making fun of the monkeys, fat slobs staring like heroes at captive gorillas, women squealing in disgust at the crocodiles and snakes? There's nothing inevitable about it."
"For some..." Butterfly, in his turn, went mum. The young man was right, of course, but not entirely, and it was the Director's responsibility to correct him, but just now Butterfly realized that a memory was playing in front of his eyes, as if an unseen projectionist were adjusting the focus. At first he could not make out where he was, only that he was looking at something when he was a boy, perhaps a teenager. It was a scene he had never thought about, never revived in all the remaining years of his life, forgotten utterly. And now, with the freshness of a morning in May, when one has awakened unusually early and been unable to go back to sleep, stepped outside into the dawning to discover that it is hours before work, the streets are still and the birds are chirping, this scene, in clear focus, appeared before his eyes.
He was sprawled out on the floor, looking through old copies of the National Geographic. Where was he, at camp? Or in some old man's house? The magazines were ancient, but they had paintings of animals that made them seem real, mysterious and very far away. Jack stopped at the scene of a greyish-white cat crouching on a mountain path, its tail brushing the snow like a bundle of feathers. Ahead, on the same path, a horned sheep lowered its head to defend itself. Jack looked down at the text:
Snow leopard, or ounce (Felis uncia), the large cat of the Himalayan Mountains.
That was the first time he saw it! Now the beast dominated his thoughts. Was it a magical moment? If so, it had taken years to mature. He had never thought about it again, even though that evening, he recalled, was spent in a youthful intoxication, a love of distant and enchanted lands with animal kings, shiny red snakes, silent flying owls, as yet unclassified, a whole distant unexplored world of beautiful and infinitely varied creatures.
Jack went to college, took zoology, but also English literature. He was fascinated by the inner structure of animals, the anatomy of the skate, but the poetry of Byron, Shelley and Keats came closer to the inspiration he received from living forms. He fell in love, went hiking with girlfriends, tagging animals and picking up litter for conservation groups. There was no way of cleaning the Potomac, named by the Indian tribe from which his family had supposedly descended, but some stretches of the river above Great Falls were relatively clean and abundant with wildlife. Everything seemed to go together; kissing a girl, writing poems to her, watching warblers and walking back home through city streets in the evening. Cramming for tests, guzzling beer with the guys, signing petitions and carrying signs. He looked on it now like a chapter of history, a reel of film with himself in the role of young man.
Had it all been foretold in the snow leopard's eyes? Yes, it seemed to him now that he had stared at the painting, at the yellow eyes and blacklined face of a snowy panther, and he had imagined him a secret king draped in a fluffy white robe, a snowy white fleece with open amber spots. The king ruled the vast craggy spaces through the icy air.
What about the day he met Florence in the hospital? Was it foretold? The moment he decided to drop poetry and seek employment in animal control? Did the snow leopard have anything to do with these events? No, of course not. Jack Butterfly was simply approaching the end of his life and reaching out for a childhood memory, reaching out to a point from which he could draw a straight line. From snow leopard to snow leopard, cutting though the zig-zags of his disappointing progress, he could trace a straight line and get on track again.
"Yes, the hunt is on," announced Griffin, observing Butterfly's lapse and surmising its subject. Butterfly snapped out of his reverie, heard the kittens mewing. "With each day the snow leopard comes closer to extinction."
"I suppose so," fumbled Butterfly, assuming that he must have mumbled something about the snow leopard. "We ought to do something."
"Well, organize a protection committee."
"There isn't enough time. Besides, the leopard's in Tibet."
"You're right. Perhaps an appeal to the Tibetan government, signed by scientists, statesmen, celebrities."
"Weren't you going to hunt it?" Griffin put in.
"Who? Me? Certainly not!"
Butterfly grabbed a rumpled pack of matches, tore one out unevenly and rubbed it several times across the soft carbon. It failed to light. Griffin stepped forward and flicked a stick match with his thumbnail: the flame shot up in Butterfly's face. Butterfly put a cigarette up to his lips and inhaled deeply. The smoke felt like a punch driving down in his chest.
"Thanks," he said though billows of exhaled carcinogens.
"Don't mention it," said Griffin, erasing the flame with one swish.
"No, no," Butterfly mumbled, "I can't imagine where you got that idea. I wouldn't hunt anything. Why, I'd even go there to stop the hunters myself."
"You know how to shoot?"
Griffin shut up, irritated with himself. He had spoken too directly, to no advantage. Rather than trap an enemy or win the support of a potentially powerful ally, he had uncovered Butterfly's weakness, his flabbiness, his confession of futility. Perhaps it would be better to go to Tibet and track the leopard himself, lay in wait for every Frenchman, German, Hawaiian who came in search of the last great cat. Then blow their brains out. The Lone Wolf, eternal protector.
Butterfly was attempting to pass.
"Sorry, got to go," he mumbled enigmatically. "I don't know, I'll think of something."
"Maybe I'll see you in Tibet," Griffin stated lowly.
"What? Are you going too?" Butterfly half-turned as he went out the door toward the rabbit enclosure. He held out his cigarette with obvious displeasure and flung it to the pavement.
Too! He said too! He is going. He's not so flabby as you think. He has connections with animal groups. He could get a special commission. He could make official connections with the Chinese, have them plot out the route. Maybe as a token of Sino-American co-operation. Tag him, take his sperm, stick him behind bars.
Griffin looked around and rushed out to the rabbits. Easter bunnies, no doubt, abandoned after they had nipped too many fingers and deposited too many pellets along the baseboards of their apartments. Ignoring them, Griffin chose a passageway to the left, past office windows, and proceeded into an open, ranchlike area. Ahead he could see a corral and a rectangular enclosure with wooden crossbars in the Western style. It held a few horselike figures and a cow. A line of children was squirming and noisemaking by the corral. Off to the left were piles of rocks encircled by chain fences, a goat on one pile and something like a yak on the other.
Griffin arrived as the lesson was beginning. A young blackhaired lady, dressed in a checkered shirt and jeans, with cowhide riding breeches, cowboy boots and a white cowboy hat, stepped into the corral. She had a pleasing, if somewhat rugged face, spoiled only by her left eye, turned outward. In the voice of a teenage boy she called:
Her call met with silence, then one child cheeped back: "Hello."
With friendly enthusiasm, the young lady turned up the volume: "Oh, come on, we can do better than that! Come on, kids, what do you say?"
Following a pause, there were now two or three timid hellos.
Not daunted, the lady persisted: "That's right, come on now, this time say a big hello!"
The kids, thus rehearsed, screamed out hellos in disjointed voices. Some were content with a single hello, others kept singing the word until hushed by an older lady whom Griffin had not previously noticed. She was an official carcass in a black dress and black thick-heeled shoes, with a square jaw and false teeth. "Now, now, Glen," she said in a warm and patient voice, "three hellos are enough." So saying, she helped a little black boy untangle his arms, which had gotten tied up in his excitement.
"Now today," the cowgirl continued, "we are going to ride a horse. How many of you know what a horse is?"
An explosion of shouts and commotion from the kids, breaking out of line, hanging on the bars of the corral, singing, pointing. Others seemed not to hear and looked away.
"Just raise your hand if you know. Who knows what a horse is?"
Obediently, a number of hands speared up in silence. Other hands remained in place. One kid was boasting, to no one in particular, "I know what a horse is, and a cow. They're right over there." He pointed.
Griffin eased up behind Butterfly, who was kneading the shoulders of a little white boy, and spoke into his left ear, noticing the controlled shudder that his words produced:
"That's right," replied Butterfly, not looking around.
"They look physically sound," Griffin commented.
"Emotionally disturbed," Butterfly clarified.
"In what way?" Griffin wanted to know.
"Every way," Butterfly sighed. He turned and looked Griffin right in the eyes. "Some were beaten by their parents - tortured, scalded, sexually assaulted. Others saw terrible things - traffic accidents, drunken brawls, knifings. Others are drug victims. And others - we don't know what troubles them."
"There aren't that many kids here," Griffin returned with unblinking eyes, trying to be tough.
"They fill the institution from which these few were chosen. These few have the most hope."
The cowgirl, having left the corral, returned with a horse - a farm horse impounded from a neglectful owner. His sides bulged, but his legs were thin. A hairless strip twisted around the right one at the front, and white disinfectant blotched his stomach. A small cloud of flies buzzed around his nostrils and reddened eyes. As the girl led him in, a rumble of admiration arose from the kids.
"Who wants to ride this fine horse?"
"I do!" said the kid who knew horses and a cow.
"Oh, Maze, I know you can do it," the girl said cheerfully. "But we'll let you ride a little bit later. Let's get someone who has never ridden before. Who has never ridden a horse before?"
Some hands went up, and the nice lady pointed at one of them, belonging to a little blond.
"You! You're the one!"
And before the blond had time to reconsider, the young lady took her by the hand, led her through the swinging gate and hoisted her right up on top of the old jade's back, which was unaffected by her mosquito weight.
"Why do they do it?" Griffin whispered into Butterfly's ear.
"Do what?" asked Butterfly, suppressing a shudder.
"Beat them," said Griffin.
Something in the stranger's voice made Butterfly look around again. He encountered a face contorted with rage, the lower lip curled, the eyes narrowed and glistening, a big vein standing out in the middle of the forehead. Startled, Butterfly looked past this insufferable sight to the compound of the Humane Society, then turned back again to the corral.
"I don't know," he was forced to admit. He thought to mention that many of the beaters had been beaten themselves, and many of these kids would probably abuse their children, should they gain enough control to produce them, but decided to let it pass.
"Can you say horse?" the lady asked joyfully.
The little blond looked frightened and glanced from side to side. But the cowgirl took her right hand and rubbed it between the fly-chewed ears. The girl smiled with sudden delight and started rubbing vigorously. "Horse, horse!" she said clearly.
"You see," Butterfly explained, not looking back, "kids and animals - they go together. Scientists have measured the heartbeat, the brainwaves, the nervous stress - they are all favorably affected when a kid pets a dog, or rides a horse. That's what our Prancing Mustang program is all about: to get these kids to speak, to name things, maybe even to spell - because they are riding a horse. And there are pets in prisons, and old people..."
Butterfly went on talking, but began thinking: "Ought to bring Vernon... maybe on a weekend. Let him see the animals. Doesn't matter what the employees think. He won't hurt himself..." He stopped, not knowing what he had been saying, turned around and saw no one behind him. Strange, he thought, and turned back to the corral.
Returning to his motorcycle, Griffin opted for a door into the shelter, rather than the courtyard with rabbits. He entered a small kennel, a short concrete walkway with five wire cages on the left and the right, two parallel gutters. There was no light and the smell was thick. In the first cage to his left, he saw a Saint Bernard sprawled out on his stomach, slobbering from his mouth and running slugs of matter from his eyes. In the next cage, a grey fox trotting in a circle. Griffin shot a glance around and perceived that each cage was singular and desperate. These were the sick and the maimed, the incurable and the vicious, whom no one would adopt, whom the public would not see. Proceeding past the last cage, where a cat flew up at the diamonds of wire, tearing her forepaws and nose, Griffin turned the knob of the next door and stepped into a crosswalk between the two kennels.
Jay was crouching there with his right arm around a muzzled dog, bracing open a door to the side with his foot. Griffin shot a glance into the small room and caught sight of a table, shelves and portable wire cages before Kick released the door and screamed: "What ya doing here?" Griffin merely hunched his shoulders and walked ahead through the swinging door to the next corridor, saying in lame excuse: "Is this the way out?" As he did, he nearly ran into a boy in galoshes carrying a plastic bottle and leather straps with clips. The boy, jerking his chin to his right shoulder, kept his circular fish eyes fixed on the floor. Jay called out from behind: "Kick! Kick! Get in here!" And at the same jaunty pace, Kick plunged through the swinging door.
Griffin paused a moment, then walked the length of the corridor with fifteen cages on each side, each holding two to five dogs. Passing through one more door, he saw Victor staring at him from across the room and knew that he was back at home base. Checking the cat cages once more with the same lack of success, he hurried outside and took a deep breath like a convict who had served his term.