Prologue | IT'S ALL HAPPENING AT THE ZOO
LOS ANGELES ZOO
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA
LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.
Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.
To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once—if you squinted, hard—it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.
By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot in the seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.
Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo’s female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.
Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa’s mate and the dominant male of the zoo’s two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.
Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick’s mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.
Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren’t.
For lions as for other social mammals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.
Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.
Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.
Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.
Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he’s enormous—five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.
TERRENCE LARSON, THE assistant big-cat zookeeper, opens the outer chain-link door of the lion enclosure, swings its hook into a waiting eye to keep it open, and drags the red plastic feed bucket inside. The sinewy, middle-aged city worker swats at flies as he lugs in the lions’ breakfast, twenty-five pounds of shank bones and bloody cubes of beef.
A dozen steps in, at the end of the chest-high wire mesh keeper fence, Larson, a former studio lighting tech at Paramount, dumps the meat over the fence and retreats a few steps. The meat plops onto the dirt in a tumble of wet slaps. Beside the open outer fence, he flips the bucket over and sits on it. He knows he’s supposed to stand behind the tightly locked outer fence to watch the lions feed, but it’s July Fourth weekend and all the bosses are on vacation, so what’s the fuss?
Sitting in the enclosure with the lions in the morning before the zoo opens is the best part of Larson’s day. Tommy Rector, the young head of the big-cat department, likes the smaller, sprier, more affectionate cats, the jaguars and lynx, but Larson, ever since a life-altering trip to a Ringling Brothers circus at the age of seven, is a passionate lion man. There’s a reason this animal is a symbol of might, danger, and mystery, he thinks; a reason that all the famous strong-men—Samson, Hercules—had to wrestle these guys. Their power, their physical grace, and their otherworldly beauty still amaze him, even after fifteen years of working around them. Just as he did when he was working on films, Larson often tells friends he can’t believe he’s actually getting paid to do his job.
He takes a pack of Parliaments from the breast pocket of his regulation khaki shirt, and as he slips one between his lips and lights it, the Motorola radio clipped to the pocket of his cargo shorts gives off a sharp distress-call beep. He reaches for it, trying to guess what the problem could be, when the reedy voice of Al Ronkowski from maintenance comes squawking through the static; he’s bitching about how someone’s parked in his spot.
Larson half laughs, half snorts, turns down the radio’s volume, and exhales smoke through his nose in twin gray streams as he scans the grass at the other end of the hundredby-two-hundred-foot enclosure. He wonders where in the hell the two lions could be. Mosa is usually waiting for him when he opens the gate, like a house cat who comes running at the sound of an electric can opener.
When he hears the splash, Larson flings away the cigarette and stands up. Panic.
What? No! The moat?
There is a raised berm and a protective platform to prevent the lions from falling into the water, but it actually didn’t stop one of them from falling in once before. It took the staff two hours to direct a terrified, soaked Mosa back to dry land.
That’s all he needs, with the bosses gone and the crew at half-staff. Play lifeguard to four hundred pounds of pissedoff, sopping-wet lion.
Going into a cage without backup: definitely a no-no policywise, but in the reality of a workday it’s done all the time. Quickly, he throws open the keeper’s gate and runs to the edge of the raised berm above the water.
He lets out a breath of relief when he spots one of the green Swedish exercise balls bobbing in the moat. He forgot about the stupid things. That’s all it is. Mosa somehow knocked the ball over the platform. Whatever. Whew.
Turning back around from the edge of the berm, Larson stops. He stands by the edge of the moat, blinking. Directly between him and the open gate in the keeper fence is Dominick, the male lion: still, tail swishing methodically, golden amber eyes riveted to Larson’s face. His breakfast lies untouched beside him. He sits there, huge, silent, staring at Larson with those flat, flame-colored eyes.
Larson feels his saliva dry up as the immense cat leans forward, then back, like a boxer feinting.
He’s posturing, Larson reasons to himself as calmly as he can, trying to keep his body perfectly still. Of course, the old tomcat’s simply surprised by his presence out here in the middle of his territory. Larson knows that in the wild, this grumpy twenty-year-old would have long ago been killed by a younger challenger who wanted the females in his pride.
Larson figures he’s in a spot of bother here. He thinks about the radio, decides against it. At least not yet. He’s been in the cage with Dominick before. The old man’s just throwing his weight around. He’ll get bored with this little game of chicken and start eating any moment. Dominick has known Larson for years. He knows his scent, knows he isn’t a threat.
Besides, if worse comes to worst, Larson has the moat behind him. Three steps and he’ll be over the side and safe. Wet and humiliated and maybe with a broken ankle, but by the time the other keepers arrive, his skin will still be covering his bones and his guts will still be on the inside of him, where he likes to keep them.
“There, there, buddy,” Larson says—in a whisper, a shhh, baby-go-to-sleep voice. “I like your Mosa just fine, but she’s not my type.”
Larson senses more than sees the movement at his left. He turns in time to see something burst from the grass, massive, tawny, throwing a column of dust into the air as it rockets at him, growing bigger, picking up speed.
The keeper isn’t able to take one step before Mosa springs. Her head slams into his chest like a wrecking ball. All the wind is knocked out of him as he goes airborne and then down on his back ten feet away.
Larson lies on his back, dazed. His heart is beating so fast and hard, he wonders if he’s having a heart attack. The thought goes away as Mosa’s low, compressed growl reverberates beside his ear.
He reaches for the radio as Mosa puts her paws on his shoulder and bites into his face. Her great upper canines puncture his eyes at the same moment the cat’s lower incisors slide with ease into the underside of his jaw.