Dr Gavin McConnell was a cross between Indiana Jones, David Attenborough and a grizzly bear. There was something of the wild instilled in his posture and gaze, like he was raised in a cave and fended off predators from birth. He had a trademark leather wide-brimmed hat to provide shade from the Sahara sun or as a shield for torrential rain in the Amazonian forest, the typical environments in episodes of his TV show, Adventures into Nature.
He was highly vocal about the premise we are undergoing a mass extinction event. He had spent his recent years analysing logging effects, pollution effects, urban expansion and desertification. He knew, he felt in his bones, the way we were heading was into oblivion. We had over populated and polluted the planet and there were no signs of abating the pace. Worst of all, we were killing everything else that shared the world with us, the ultimate crime to a career biologist.
I was not surprised that he was angry, I could hear that tell of barely disguised venom when he talked; the heat of his delivery, the way he swore at every opportunity in contrast to his calm and enthused TV persona.
“These bastard politicians haven’t got a clue what they are doing!” he roared at me from the perch of his tall stool. I knew I would have to edit his quotes heavily before I sold the interview to a newspaper, if just to keep him on-side for future interviews. I had been given a rare opportunity to cover his story as he had read my previous interviews and liked my treatment of the celebrities involved. I wasn’t about to screw up a contact like this and the future earnings it would bring.
I had met him at the zoo as part of a promotion opportunity he envisaged. He was colluding with a research team at the zoo on an EU funded University project called REVIVE. The scientists involved were working on methods to fortify animal DNA, making it robust to pollution, hardier to survival in harsh conditions. A few simple adjustments to the genes and it was proposed that life longevity, fat storage, even survival instinct itself could be improved. A zoo was the perfect place to try the experiments out in a closed, controlled environment with endangered species that would benefit from this type of engineering the most.
“Animals are becoming extinct at one thousand times the normal rate. We now have less than six per cent of the rain forests left so in a hundred years we are going to lose everything that lives in them.”
It was a compelling interview. I rarely felt moved by statistics – as they were easily manipulated and invented, but this felt different. We were going to lose forest habitats, that was common knowledge but what he was saying was the reality is we were literally destroying everything alive.
“What’s totally stupid about this,” he continued with bluster and now finger waggling at me, “our antibiotics originate from rainforests, our new cures, and so with the population growing and disease becoming more a threat alongside this, well, we must be bloody stupid!”
“Do you think it’s too late to do anything to prevent any of this?” I asked in my ‘interviewer’s voice’ reserved for important jobs.
“Well. I did think that but then the scientists at REVIVE contacted me and asked me to help promote and draw attention to their new project. I was sceptical at first but hell, they were convincing. They are trying to reinforce the cellular makeup of all sorts of species to survive under threat in order to combat the challenges of their environment. This is the ultimate adaptation to promote life, like a Darwinism-styled booster injection that I believe is needed right now. The patient is going into cardiac arrest, it’s an emergency, so we need an adrenaline injection to the heart!”
“What do you think will happen to the animals?” I said in monotone.
“If what I have been told and shown is true, they’ll be resistant to weather, hunger, injury and they’ll live longer so they have more opportunity to breed. This is ground breaking stuff!”
I shuffled in my chair, feeling uneasy and finally said, “So, are the scientists from the REVIVE project sure that this won’t have any really weird side effects?”
Gavin McConnell looked through me with a black stare.
“Why don’t you ask them yourself, son?” he said.
I paused and smiled.
“Yes,” I said, “I think I just might do that.”
That was last week. Last week was another era, a different generation, past-history. What had happened yesterday at the zoo changed the world forever. I knew it was unlikely I would survive till dawn. It was 10:30 pm. Silence at a zoo, complete silence, is not natural.
I stared, unblinking, from the thin glass window of the keeper’s store shed. My fast breath was casting misty pools of moisture on to the pane, my lungs excited as if I had been running and yet I had been motionless for over three hours now.
The radiance from the moon outlined the enclosures nearest to the shed. I could make out – even though the power was cut – that the integrity of the fences was compromised. There were ragged tears and large holes. I could not see it any more since the darkness smothered the scene but I could smell the stench of blood and gore. I knew it was everywhere about here, it was splattered over the tarmac walkthrough, it was smeared over the walls, it was running down the Perspex chambers.
Something was scratching at the door, something with claws. It was not a desperate sound, more a curiosity, a probing for more. Something knew I was in here. I was trying to work out what to do.
What I had seen earlier when the screaming began had made me shrink into myself. I was determined to be invisible to threat. My stomach was grumbling and gurgling. I was stalling to make a move. I was thinking, ‘This is insane, how did this happen, when will the rescuers get here?’.
The claws began to pierce the wooden door. They simply poked neatly through the door in intervals. White curled daggers would systematically lance the wood. There would be a dull thud and they would appear, five of them in a semi-circle. I instinctively looked towards the hinges of the door and they held firm, undisturbed, but the wood was splitting and splintering.
When you are in a state of fear your hearing becomes amplified, so the low animal growl seemed more intense than it probably was. The one thing that had not occurred throughout this ordeal was a barrage of primal sounds; it was like the animals were subdued, in control, unemotional. It had mostly been human screams and then silence during the previous carnage.
My brain was firing. I was panting, I was sweating, and finally a piss streamed down my jean leg in the purest expression of terror. A low ghoulish groan began to leak from my throat, and I couldn’t help it. I imagined those claws were going to cut through my neck, were moments away from ripping my flesh from my bones to feed a mouth, to digest in the stomach of a creature.
The series of events gathered speed, escalated like a terrifying dream pulsing through a disturbed brain. I watched with wide eyes as the extended drooling lower jaw of an animal smashed through the thin cracked wood of the door, the large yellowed teeth were gripping and chewing the hole to make it bigger, pulling out chunks frantically, sensing an opportunity to feed.
I scanned the tiny room as I had many times already. The shed had cheap stacking shelves on both sides, upon which was a selection of labelled Tupperware with bird feed and grubs in and there was a tall freezer in one corner, stocked with cuts of frozen meat. The only tool was a small trowel but that was hardly a weapon. My whole body was shaking violently in terror, the adrenaline wanted me to run, not fight, but where could I run? If I had been thinking clearly, I would have moved the freezer to block the door or tried to exit through the window, but my mind was a hive of confusion and dread. I was not functioning under the stress. My vision seemed to become altered like I was staring through a tunnel.
The two holes in the door were now quite large and an eye was staring at me. It was a large cat’s eye. I realised it was one of the lions but the fur was strangely ragged and grey, the beast looked like a bizarre and horrifying contortion of the animal I had seen peacefully lying on the blanket of woodchip on the floor of its enclosure, only a matter of hours ago. There was nothing but bloodshot hatred in that eye, a stare so primitive and prehistoric that it felt both natural and evil.
I shrank into a defensive ball in the corner of the room – squeezing into the gap at the end of one of the shelving units.
The head of the beast thrust through the larger hole, but it did not roar. Somehow it felt colder an attack for the absence of the battle cry. What it lacked in noise it made up for in movement, the head was thrusting and forcing itself with violence through the awkward shaped remains of the door. I wanted to close my eyes but could not even blink. It was the moment the shoulders of the beast broke through, when it froze mid-pounce, one paw juddering in spasms.
Four metal spikes sprouted from the lion’s face, one spike bursting an eyeball and ripping it off at the optic nerve. I gasped and froze. It took a moment to process what had occurred. I recognised the evenly spaced spikes as the head of a garden pitch fork. Blood sloshed from two of the holes in swiftly dying arcs as the spikes withdrew and vanished back through the entry wounds, retreating from the large skull of the beast.
“We need to go, now!” came the harsh and desperate whisper with its underlying Scottish accent and air of authority.
I found my voice, after a moment of disbelief dissipated.
“Gavin, is that you?”
I couldn’t see beyond the suspended lion’s head, lolling through the ruins of the door.
“Well – who did you think it was, you bloody idiot? Now get on your feet and come, now!”
The lion’s head was dragged back through the jagged hole and there was a ‘thunk’ as the corpse of the big cat slumped to the tarmac beyond the shed. As if to comically mimic the previous grizzly scene, Gavin’s round ginger fringed head and bearded grimace peered into the shed at me.
“You’ve pissed yourself. Jesus man, pull yourself together. That lion will be alive again in about one minute. So come on, we have to go now!”
I knew what had caused all of this, it was the reason I was here in the first place, but I still could hardly believe it. I managed to find my feet and I stood up. My sodden jeans made me cringe. I stank of fear and sweat.
“Thirty seconds, Robert, thirty seconds, and then we are dead meat. Let’s go, now!” Gavin hissed, and he began to turn and run.
I could already hear the lion growling. It was coming back to life but this time I could sense the anger that had been missing in the recent attack.
The tall panes of glass had already been shattered but there was no hint of any shards on the paving or wooden picnic tables outside the café. Whatever had demolished the windows had broken in, rather than out. I would have hesitated about our destination and what might be lurking in there if it wasn’t for Gavin’s steadfast resolve to reach the door, his pitch fork swinging erratically, grasped by both hands.
“Get in!” he hissed desperately, as he swung the door open and held his pitchfork up against the dark of the night behind us, his heel wedging the door so I could dive into the café interior. Inside, the dark felt comforting for a second. The only light that emanated in a faint blue glow was from strip lights within the refrigerated, covered displays, preceding the till.
There were wrapped sandwiches and fizzy drinks in there, reminders of the innocence of visiting families. It was a clue to the source of the stench in the air.
I was a keen runner on weekends. My memory flashed to moments of passing by roadkill discarded on the roadside. It was a putrid stench of rot and meat. I stared at the pool of blackness around the floor to make out shapes; arms, legs, heads – the remains of the people from the day before. They were outlines and shadows, nightmarish but free of details like gouged eyes and gnawed fingers. It was like a landfill of human slaughter, the body parts mixed in with the items of everyday; handbags, shoes, a pram. I froze in horror again.
“Snap out of it, Robert. The back door leads to the exit. We have to get out of this zoo.”
The back door of the café led to the gift shop, before the exit. It was literally a sales funnel. The food and drinks, the toys and books, you had to see it all before you had a chance to escape. The process captured consumers so they would consume more. I could hear the lion padding into the café as we slammed the door shut behind us, our bodies trembling in fear. The gift shop looked dead, like it was a forgotten museum.
Red and blue flashes of light illuminated one corner of the shop, near the zoo’s exit door. It was a police car’s roof light. We exhaled with a sense of huge relief. Thank God, we were not alone in this predicament any more.
We shuffled to the back door but when we pushed through the exit, there was no police tape, no crowds and no reporters. There were four empty police cars, all with doors wide open, blood fanned out on the bonnets and on the jagged edges of shattered windows. Beyond those cars, in the suburban street were human bodies, strewn like discarded rubbish taken by a gust of wind. We could sense something else too, something barely hidden from us, something that was both large and menacing. You could feel its gravity, its powerful intent.
From the edge of the darkness, a huge shape swayed side to side in measured steps in our direction, slow and deliberate. It was a bull elephant but we could see half its skull, the bone that linked to a tusk clear in the moonlight. Its ribs were exposed on one side, where gunshots had ripped into it. Behind this grey wall of a creature, were a family of gorillas, similarly blood soaked with pieces of their bodies missing. They resembled foot soldiers following the massive flesh tank of the elephant toward us, edging along the road on their knuckles. No longer the perfect, groomed-for-view animals, they had raw intensity about them, were unkept and ruffled by fighting. The blood that was seeping from their wounds was drying quickly. We could see the splits in their flesh changing from wet fresh red pools to dark clotting agents in acts of miraculous healing. The beasts had their attention fully on us, the frail prey that had emerged tentatively into their night.
“We can’t win this,” relented Gavin. For the first time there was defeat in his voice.
We crept back into the sanctuary of the room we had just left and shut the door firmly, now trapped in the confines of the tacky gift shop. From the walls, cartoon images of laughing big cats and swinging monkeys stared down at us with massive white eyes.
“What happens now?” I pleaded.
There was a long moment of contemplation. I imagined this is what animals, chased back into artificially made dens, felt like.
“We’re surrounded and stuck, so we’re either going to die in this crap-hole or think of a new way out,” replied Gavin calmly.
The sounds of movement gathered around both doors, from the zoo and from the street, like crowds were congregating, trying to get a clear view of us.
I sat down. I felt like I wanted to rock back and forth with the frustration of the predicament.
We didn’t know what to do. We had no control and few options. Some of the animals made loud noises outside, they were screeching now, emboldened. I guessed they could sense they were free.