‘Zoo Tiger’ by Mike Finn

‘Zoo Tiger’

© Mike Finn 2021

The tiger must be dead by now, except in my memory and, recently, in my dreams. We met fifty years ago and not for very long. I doubt I ever appeared in his dreams, yet I am certain that he saw me.

It was a school trip to the London Zoo, led by a well-meaning teacher who wanted us to ‘connect’ with the animals.

No, you can’t touch them, they’d bite you. No, you can’t feed them your sweets, you’ll make them ill. Peter Jones, if you keep trying to climb that wall, you’ll be back on the coach early.

Most of the kids were more interested in each other or in the food they’d been given or the food that they might get by trade or force or the power of persistent whining, than they were in the animals.

We’d done the baboons and the chimps, both of which reminded me of my classmates, and we were on our way to watch the sea lions being fed when I saw the tiger from a distance. I dawdled until I was at the back of the group and then stopped. My teacher, now in full flow, led the kids away.

No, they’re not really lions. They’re like very large seals. Yes, they always smell like that. It’s the raw fish that they eat…

When she was out of sight, I made my way to the tiger’s cage. These days, the London Zoo has a ‘Tiger Territory’, a huge open space that tries to replicate an Indonesian habitat and visitors see the cats through floor to ceiling windows. In 1970, my tiger wasn’t so lucky. He was in a cage. A very big cage but still something with a concrete floor and thick steel bars too close together for him to push his head between. The floor of the cage was raised to the height of my shoulders and a fence meant I couldn’t get closer than a few feet from the bars, so I stood and stared up at him, like staring at the altar in church and lost myself in all he was and all that he was not being allowed to be.

My father was a fan of Blake. A great socialist poet he called him. A visionary who rejected organised religion to look directly on the works of God. When I was a boy and he was headed out for a late shift driving his bus, he would come and recite Blake to me before he left. His favourite was ‘Jerusalem’. Mine was ‘The Tyger’. I could tell from the passion in his voice that my father loved the last verse of ‘The Tyger’ best.

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

There was neither forest nor night when I saw my tiger and yet he burned in my mind. He was huge and muscled and much more brightly coloured than I’d imagined. For people who’ve grown up with high definition video of just about anything available on their phones and tablets at any time and any place, the shock I felt being in the physical presence of the tiger must be hard to imagine. In my house, we were still a year away from having a colour TV. So when I saw my tiger, I’d never seen anything like him.

I didn’t call out or try to get his attention. I stood very still, stayed completely silent and watched him. He was pacing along the front of the cage, letting his shoulder brush against the bars as he moved. His head was down, hanging low between his massive shoulders. His tail flicked at the tip. He wasn’t moving quickly but he was always in motion. When he reached the limit of the cage, he turned with a fluidity that reminded me of a swimmer doing a racing turn and let his other shoulder brush the bars as he paced. I watched him repeat this pacing three times, awed by his physical power and what seemed to me to be his relentless anger. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying.

I recalled my favourite line from ‘The Tyger’:

Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

I felt too meagre to have been made by the same hand that formed this strong angry beauty.

The tiger knew exactly how long the cage was, how many steps he could take, the exact limits of his freedom and it seemed to me, he hated both the limit and the knowledge.

On his fourth pass, he banged his head against one of the bars. It was aggression, not clumsiness. He did it twice, then pushed a paw through at the base of the bar, wrapped his huge mouth around the steel and bit down.

I made a noise: part shock, part fear, part pity, at this display of impotent rage.

I don’t know which part offended the tiger, perhaps all of them, but, without releasing the bar, he turned his eyes towards me and then went very still.

I knew then that he wanted to kill me. Not because I was prey and he was hungry but because I was outside and he was in a cage and I had seen what the cage had made him.

I wanted to run but I couldn’t even turn my head. I started to cry, silently. I’m not sure if it was for me or for him. The tiger greeted my tears by rising to his feet and beating the bars with his huge paw again and again and again. He didn’t growl at me. He just glared at me with eyes bright with hatred.

My teacher’s hand on my shoulder.

What are you doing here? Have you been upsetting the tiger? You shouldn’t wander off like that. You missed the...

I was still staring at the tiger. He was standing still staring at me, head pressed up against the bars of his cage. Then he snorted, turned his back on me and stalked off towards the back of his cage.

…you’ve been crying. Let’s clean you up before we go back to the others. You shouldn’t…

She was kind and gentle and I hardly paid her any attention at all. I was waiting for the tiger to come back. I wanted… something. To apologise? To sympathise? To prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid any more?

Instead, I was lead back to rejoin my classmates like a gazelle that’s had a lucky escape pushing into the heart of the herd. As we scrambled aboard the bus, I submerged myself in the thoughtless, comfortable, constant noise of the group and tried to let go of the sense of shame that I didn’t want to name. It wasn’t my fault the tiger was in a cage and I was not. There was nothing I could do about it.

I was wrong, of course. At least, partly. It wasn’t my fault the tiger was in the cage and I couldn’t set him free. I mean, what would we do with a free tiger? Yet there was something I could do. I could remember. Remember what it means to be caged. What it takes away and what it makes us become.

The tiger has been visiting my dreams recently. He’s not so angry any more. I thought that might be because he’s dead and the dead are uncaged. Or because he’s in my dream. But then I thought about how he looks at me, just before he snorts and prowls away. My dreams are lockdown dreams. After a year of having my life on hold, I pace in my dreams the way my tiger paced in his cage. My dream tiger knows that. The look he gives me before he turns away, I think it means; ‘Now it’s your turn.’

4 thoughts on “‘Zoo Tiger’ by Mike Finn

  1. The photo I’m using as my profile image on most social media sites (including on my WordPress blog(s)) was taken in the children’s section — “Streichelzoo” — of Berlin Zoo, when I was 9 or 10 years old. Looking back, I am glad to chiefly have met large cats in zoological gardens where they had relatively large spaces to roam, imitating their natural habitat (or in safari parks, where they had even more space to roam). I do recall a behind the scenes visit at a circus, though, where I saw lions and tigers cooped up the same way you describe here, which was a deeply uncomfortable experience to me, too.

    Funnily, I don’t experience lockdown quite the same way, but that may be because I’ve always been prone to taking walks alone (which was never prohibited here), and virtually the only places where I absolutely need to go where there are lots of other people are the supermarket and the pet store — both of which are still open, and the only thing that’s different there is that you have to wear a mask. What I most miss on a personal level is traveling; not so much specifically for the experience of meeting other people but for the change of scene and the exposure to a new place, the learning / widening of my personal horizon coming with that, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Themis,
      It’s hard to imagine an modern zoo letting a child hold a lion cub like that now. They’d be too worried about getting sued. But it looks like a wonderful thing to have done.

      ‘Zoo Tiger’ is fiction. I didn’t make it to London Zoo until a decade later, when the big cats were behind glass. Lions always did better at London Zoo. They had the Mappin Terraces to live in from early in the century. I did find a Pathé film of a tiger in London Zoo in the 70s so I used that for the story – the film is here:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DCIS7v2mi0 about 8mins 50 secs in.

      As for Lockdown, like you I can go for a walk or food shopping (although I have most things delivered to avoid the crowds). Back in March 2020, I enjoyed my walks. A year later and it feels that I’m pacing a Mappin Terrace of my own. It’s the removal of choice that I find hardest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s what I miss about not being able to travel. We’re not restricted regionally here (or at least not directly; indirectly we are in that hotels are still closed and so are indoor restaurants, so for practical purposes you can’t go any further than the places that you can reach and return from within a day’s travel), so if you’re willing to spend some time in your car, there is at least some variation to be had; even if all tourist sites are of course closed, too — but at least you can spend time in different kinds of natural environment if you want to. But the variation and the change of mindset and scenery that only travel can furnish is still a far cry from that, of course.

        As for my blog profile photo, I’m actually using this specific image not because it was a sort of charmed encounter, but because the moment when it was taken taught me several valuable lessons; one about lions (and predators, generally), and one about myself — and if you look closely at my chin and my lower lip, it’s right there in the picture, too. What had happened was that Sasha (the lion cub) wanted to make friends and plopped down into my lap, expecting to be petted (as he apparently was by his carers in that position, every so often). I not only hadn’t expected that — my previous encounter with a lion cub, in the same place a year or so previously, had consisted in us kids (lion & me) sitting next to each other on a bench, with me joyously petting the baby lion’s back (there’s a photo of that particular encounter at the top of this page: http://themisathena.info/about ). Also, via TV shows such as “Daktari” and the movie “Born Free”, both of which I loved, I was firmly convinced that humans and certain wild animals (chiefly big cats and apes) could be friends, with no or only limited danger to the humans involved, as long as these conveyed to the animals that they *wanted* to be their friends and not their foes and had no intention to harm them (so the animals would not feel compelled to attack them in turn). Sasha, in plopping down into my lap — albeit indeed with the friendliest of intentions — disabused me of that notion in a split second: Not only was he much heavier, even as a cub, than I had expected; most of all, I also understood immediately that a lion or a similar predator doesn’t actually have to *want* to harm you, he/she/it may even do so inadvertently (and severely) when in fact wanting to play or otherwise seek your friendship. — The lesson I learned about myself in that moment is that I’m not easily fazed by a shock or unexpected peril; I’ll literally be able to meet it with my chin up and a defiant stiff *lower* lip … and even do my best to produce a smile, particularly if the moment is being captured on camera.

        And you’re right, of course, the days when this sort of encounter was possible are long over. I’m still glad I’ve had it, though — and the one with the other lion cub as well. As evidenced by my blog name — and by the Beryl Markham quote I put underneath my profile image –, if it’s done anything, it has only enhanced my lifelong admiration of and respect for lions. Or all large wild cats, actually, but lions in particular.

        Liked by 1 person

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