Little Aleppians are from time to time permitted to name incoming animals to the Harper Zoo; they shouldn’t be. Either no one participates in the publicity event and the keepers slap a cheesy faux-ethnic name on the poor creature, or everyone participates way too hard and brawls break out and factions are formed and leaders rise. In ’56, the zoo asked the neighborhood to christen the new yak over KSOS in the morning, and by that night the Main Drag was in flames over the question of “Yak Benny” vs. “I Am Just A Foreign Cow And I Shouldn’t Be In A Zoo.” Both the LAPD (No, Not That One) and the Town Fathers became involved, which meant everyone had to pass a hat around for the bribes, and that took a lot of air out of the riot. Street warfare has a certain momentum it needs to maintain itself.
The shakedown was seen as just by the shake-ees: there were certain unbreakable rules a society needed to uphold, and one of them was “no knife fights in the Main Drag.” After a month of committee meetings, exploratory missions to Las Vegas, and thousands of pages of testimony, the Town Fathers came to a conclusion that there was no more juice to be squeezed from this particular berry, and named the yak Nancy at two in the morning when no one was looking. When the angry rival gangs arrived at Harper Zoo the next morning, they saw that there was indeed a plaque bearing the name of Nancy, and under that was information about yaks and their lives and diets and hobbies. Must have been three feet across, the plaque, and all engraved. A zookeeper in blue coveralls was polishing it with a rag and spray bottle.
The angry rival gangs paused.
“You can’t argue with that.”
“No. That’s official.”
“The yak is named Nancy. Okay. Hey, didn’t you stab me?”
“Everybody stabbed everybody. The details are unimportant. Let’s go get breakfast.”
And so the two angry rival gangs did become one hungry crowd that went for breakfast. The yak, who was named Nancy and had a plaque to attest to it, may or may not have noticed. The neighborhood’s opinion was not solicited for quite some time, but institutional memories fade and dumb ideas are recycled every generation, which is why Harper Zoo’s lion is named Kevin and there is also a large plaque with his name and fun facts about him outside his enclosure.
Kevin would or would not be Harper Zoo’s last lion.
When Harper T. Harper returned from making his fortune in the Congo, he began his new career of naming things after himself with a grand palace to knowledge and man’s mastery of the universe. On the land left over, he built the college. They would both turn out to be embarrassments to him: the school, almost immediately; the zoo, eventually.
Harper T. Harper loved looking at animals. Unlike most of the men of his day, he was not a hunter. They every much right to live as you or me, Harper would tell people, but “existence” was where the animals’ rights ended for Harper. Or maybe they had the full complement? If animals did have rights, then certainly mine supersede theirs, and it is my right as a Christian to make condors and gnus to live at my house.
35 acres on the Upside in between the Main Drag and the sea, the zoo is the shape of home plate with the sharpish bit facing south. A walking path runs around the inner perimeter; there are exhibits on both sides of the path. Two trails cut through the interior of home plate from north to south at just the parabola at which the stitching curves into a baseball. (Harper T. Harper famously loved baseball; his architect secretly loved charging as much as he could get away with, and figured catering to the old hand-chopper’s hobbies would do the trick.)
Nestled underneath the zoo is Harper College. Directly under. During The Bake, the college can small the zoo, and when the college gets baked, the zoo can smell that. The two similarly-named institutions are separated only by a fence hidden by bushes and ivy, and there is a sidewalk along the fence that is, in places, poorly lit. There had been deaths, yes, but all of them occurred within the animals’ enclosures and, well, that was on you. Carter Spants mentioned it in his Orientation address every year for four decades; alumni could recite his speech by heart:
“You’re going to break into the zoo because you’re all wicked children, but further illegal entry once within our neighboring cousin is strongly disadvised. Anyone who monkeys with the snack shop or horses around with the souvenir stand will be ferreted out.”
Dean Spants would pause for mild laughter here.
“And summarily expelled and forced into the military.”
Dean Spants paused here, too, but there was no laughter because it was the past and kids who fucked up could totally be forced into the military.
“I continue with a reminder and a warning: you don’t need to get eaten, and everyone will make fun of you for years if you do. No matter how popular you are, trust me. Branquist was the Big Man on Campus, big strapping fellow with a mop of blond curls. Everyone loved him, but Branquist didn’t know two things: 1, you shouldn’t mix tequila with jazz cigarettes; and 2, you can’t alligator wrestle a crocodile. Far more cantankerous species. Did we mourn him? Yes, of course. But did the students start called breakfast “Branquist?” Also yes. They did that immediately. The next year, the school’s mascot was the Crocodiles and the logo was a cartoon croc and would you like to guess what color the cartoon croc’s curly hair was?
“If you are eaten, you will be mocked.”
Dean Spants would then usually talk about the life of the mind, and sign-ups for the intramural leagues.
Kept from meddling with the school by the school charter Dean Spants had tricked him into signing–he still contends that Spants jerkoff hypnotized him–Harper turned all his energies towards his menagerie. Animals were easier to buy in the 30’s, and Harper knew mercenaries all over the world from his days in the Congo. It turns out that mercenaries are well-suited to the business of kidnapping megafauna and don’t even pretend to act indignant when you ask. Harper trusted mercenaries more than military men; it was always a chore to figure out precisely what the latest buffoon in a general’s uniform wanted when they sent for you, but mercenaries just wanted money. They were far more honest criminals, Harper thought.
His collection, most of which was lacking paperwork of any sort and had been delivered in the middle of the night in exchange for an envelope full of cash, grew. The vets tried to keep everything from dying, and the keepers tried to keep everything from killing each other. If either failed, well: you could always buy some more zebras. The cages were steel bars and poured concrete floors with metal drains embedded in them for when the animals were bathed with cold water hoses. Most were mangy and some were crippled or clearly dying and it was the 30’s, so there was also the occasional cage containing an ethnic.
But it was a dime to get in, and another nickel for popcorn, and in the Depression it was a day passed well to sit in a manicured meadow and look at animals that did not belong in that particular meadow. Even during the darkest days, with war brewing across the ocean and nothing in your belly or pockets, you could sit on a bench and look at an anteater. Used to be, you had to live where the anteaters did to look at them. Then, kings and queens got to look at anteaters. But now, the common man could look at an anteater for as long as he wanted. That’s the American Dream.
Harper T. Harper strolled around every day in the morning at then again after lunch. His driver would sit in the idling Stutz right outside the entrance and Harper would make a clockwise orbit. The keepers called him Mr. Harper and told him about the condor’s wing, or the orangutan’s tooth, and the children all knew that if they smiled and said, “Hi, Uncle Harper,” then he’d give them a nickel. Twice a day every day, even when the zoo wasn’t open to the public, for years. By 1963, he was being wheeled around, still clockwise, and the driver still sat outside in the idling Stutz. He said hello to Nancy, who was a yak, and felt his left side go light and his head felt airy. The last thought Harper T. Harper had was: I wonder how big the headline will be? Vain to the last, but he should have picked a different day in November if he wanted to make the front page. His obituary, written years earlier, noted his philanthropy, and charitable works, and the hand he had in building Little Aleppo, appeared on page B5. A line in the ninth paragraph notes that there were “…always ethical concerns about the source of Mr. Harper’s wealth…” but continues “…which Little Aleppo decided to ignore.”
The zoo went on. The tapirs needed feeding, and the ostrich was picking at her feathers again, and the hyenas seemed depressed. The local rats were cross-breeding with the prairie dogs; both the veterinary and zoology departments at Harper College determined that it was genetically impossible for that to happen, but the keepers had been chasing down little mutant prairie rat babies for a week and drowning them in the tub, so they didn’t want to hear any shit from the professors.
And Congo wasn’t doing well.
Everyone told him not to buy an elephant. We’re a small zoo and we don’t have the room for an elephant, the keepers pleaded with him, but he didn’t listen to anyone even before he went deaf, and so a few years before Harper’s death, Congo showed up in the middle of the night with no paperwork. She was an adolescent, and should have been with her mother and aunts. Take something terrible to separate them. They don’t teach you in veterinary school that elephants have nightmares, and that the noises they make during them are remarkably human. They tried everything, even giving Congo away to an elephant preserve; the other cows rejected her and were so violent that she was shipped right back to her cage, even sadder and more shrouded than before. A new enclosure: bigger and open to the sky with a moat around it to keep her in, with several levels and places to hide from the crowd and stout trees to scratch herself on. Nothing worked until the dog, a goofy blue heeler named Shep, who took to Congo like she was a milkbone with a trunk.
The two became mildly famous. PBS came by to shoot some footage, and big newspapers from out of town came by to run articles about the interspecies friendship. Two generations of Little Aleppo’s kids grew up on the Congo and Shep children’s books; they solved crime, or filed for a lien against a contractor who had done shoddy work, or learned how to make gnocchi. The pair were made into a simple logo and placed on every piece of merch that the Harper Zoo souvenir stand could get its hands on.
But what gave an elephant life may have doomed a zoo. Seeing the elephant’s joy in the dog only underlined the sorrow she lived. Beginning that day, the zookeepers and staff of Harper Zoo stopped buying animals out of the wild, and the breeding programs stopped shortly afterwards, and since then the 35 acres in the sheltered wood of the Upside has been the final repository for around a dozen circuses-worth of broken, beat-up, and busted creatures. Roadside petting zoo in Petaluma goes bust? Harper would take some goats. Crazy asshole in Akron with a bunch of tigers out back dies? Send one over; there’s room somewhere. The reptile house had been stocked exclusively from the mansion of a dead rock star, and the chimp used to be on teevee. Bootsy the alligator used to protect a drug dealer’s apartment.
Last stop for the out-of-place.
The kids still came by and ate their popcorn, though the prices had risen quite a bit, and mothers rolled their babies around home plate on nice days. They pointed and named the world for their children. When the sun went down and the customers had gone, an elephant and her dog would slip their bonds–just a little bit–and survey their entire world, which was a manicured meadow in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.