The Cheetah Who Hated the Zoo
Written in 2002
Once upon a time on a nice summer day there was a Cheetah who wished he could go to California. He hated being stuck in the zoo. People always stared at him. One day he asked his friend if she could help him get out of there. “Okay,” said Bear, as she was getting out of her cage. Then she thought if they could climb over the gate? But they already tried it when they tried to get Polar Bear in. Then they asked Lion if he would and could help. “Okay,” said Lion. “Maybe you could ask the zoo keeper.” “No way,” said Cheetah. “The zoo keeper usually screams when she hears us talk,” said Bear. “Yeah, but maybe she will understand,” said Lion. “Maybe Lion’s right,” said Bear. “Well, I guess so,” said Cheetah. Then he slowly walked to the zoo keeper. “Zoo keeper, I… I… I… want… to… um.” “You want to what,” said the zoo keeper slowly. “I want to go out of the zoo,” said Cheetah. “Well, why didn’t you say so,” said the zoo keeper. “I don’t know,” said Cheetah. And the zoo keeper let Cheetah out.
“The Cheetah Who Hated the Zoo” is an evocative story written by my childhood self, an author who is known for her vague yet poignant storytelling and complex messages. Now, more than ever, her work speaks volumes.
This story opens up “on a nice summer day” and introduces Cheetah, a resident of the zoo. More than anything, Cheetah desires to go to California, a U.S. state which is often a destination for aspiring actors, directors, and folks seeking out some sort of American dream for paradise. It is quite an important detail that Cheetah longs so much for California—not its native lands of Africa (where the cheetah species is dying out), but a western American state. However, the author does not specify if Cheetah was kidnapped or bred in captivity, and so we are unsure of the Cheetah’s past, which would help us understand his motivation better.
Unhappy with his cramped quarters and the impolite constant gaze of zoo visitors, Cheetah yearns to escape. He seeks the assistance of Bear, who agrees “as she was getting out of her cage.” This phrase is slightly misleading because it could be interpreted that Bear is not bound to her cage like zoo animals are typically, however I have deduced from context that the author simply meant the Bear exited her cage-within-a-cage (as zoos often have cages that extend into private enclosures), and that Bear moved to the edge of her cage to better correspond with Cheetah.
Starting with the basics, Bear suggests climbing out of the cage the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, Cheetah reminds Bear, they had already tried and failed that “when they tried to get Polar Bear in.” Once again, this phrase raises some questions: Is Polar Bear not in a cage? Is Polar Bear even a part of the zoo? Why did Polar Bear want to enter the cage? Is this a typo (an ironic word for me to use, because this piece pre-dates the author’s ability to type)? As a scholar of this author’s work, I interpret this as an allusion to Bear and Polar Bear’s long distance relationship; Polar Bear had attempted to join Bear in her cage for bear cuddles one evening, yet was left “Wherefore art thou Bear?”-ing right outside her cage. (Two cages, both alike in dignity! In fair Metroparks Zoo, where we lay our scene…)
Cheetah must realize that they will need additional brain power at that point, so he brings Lion into the discussion, who I imagine was lazily lying about and flicking his tail, eavesdropping to the entire conversation from his cage next door, too apathetic to have previously joined in. In his cavalier way, Lion presents the most obvious yet ridiculous option available: to just ask the zoo keeper for release.
Immediately, Cheetah turns this down. Bear reminds them that the zoo keeper always screams when she hears them talk. Yet another complex word choice with little clarity—does the zoo keeper scream at them (“Shut up you wretched creatures!”) or scream from them (“Aaaaa! Talking animals! Help!”)?
Even though Lion is rather detached from Cheetah and Bear’s scheming, Lion likes to be right, and moreover, has the most amount of faith in humanity, ironically. He posits that the zoo keeper may actually understand Cheetah’s desire to escape if Cheetah merely confronts the zoo keeper directly, and grant Cheetah his wish.
Because Cheetah seemingly has no other options, or because Lion is quite the persuasive cat, Cheetah agrees it’s worth a shot. In the very next sentence, Cheetah addresses the zoo keeper, who was either passing by at that very moment, or had been standing nearby listening to the animals chatter amongst themselves. Although, not well-practiced in the realm of speaking to humans, Cheetah stutters quite a bit, and the zoo keeper feels compelled to prompt Cheetah towards his point, saying “slowly,” “You want to what?” Now, at first read, I thought that the zoo keeper asked this with a pointed tone, as though impatient with Cheetah; however, the more I pored over the words, I feel inclined to assert that the zoo keeper was asking slowly out of fear, not annoyance or condescension.
“I want to go out of the zoo!” Cheetah blurts! With Cheetah’s desires spoken, the zoo keeper seems almost relieved and casually replies, “Well, why didn’t you say so!” Although a rhetorical question, Cheetah responds honestly that he doesn’t know why. Without any paperwork or further complication, the zoo keeper allows Cheetah to walk freely out of the zoo.
At this point, I imagine Bear, Lion, Polar Bear, and all the other zoo animals incredulously watching Cheetah’s rear as he runs at a Cheetah sprint, never looking back. Their jaws are dropped as the dust clears, and after looking among one another for a silent moment, they all begin asking the zoo keeper if they, too, can leave the zoo! (And what does the zoo keeper do then?)
I wish this young author had written the sequel “Cheetah in California,” because I would love some more answers about this mysterious Cheetah. From the text, I don’t suppose him to be an actor, judging from the timid way he stutters to the zoo keeper and detests the stares of humans. But why California, if not to be an actor? Perhaps Cheetah is a screenwriter, longing for his stories to be produced into a movie or TV show, and after all this time in captivity, his masterpiece is finally complete! The zoo keeper, who has fearfully been overhearing the animals converse among each other, and who notices Cheetah’s scribbled papers protruding from below his belly (because his script also doubles as a delightful object for Cheetah to lay upon), has an inkling of Cheetah’s brilliance. Thus, when Cheetah wants to take a leap of faith, the zoo keeper believes in Cheetah, and releases him to be the brilliant Hollywood writer (and hopefully not end up as a brilliant Hollywood writer’s fur coat)!
Or, I can see it another way: Perhaps the zoo keeper is screaming angrily at the animals. When they communicate, they can scheme together, so the zoo keeper silences the animals whenever possible. Cheetah has heard zoo visitors speak of “California,” this magical land where the American dream is realized. They speak with their friends while gazing with boredom at the depressed animals, “I really want to move to California after college,” or “California is so beautiful.” Cheetah begins to form a picture in his mind, an oasis where happiness pervades. To be free, and run, and live merrily—Cheetah falls in love with the fantasy. When he finally asks the zoo keeper, the zoo keeper has a moment of clarity, in which she sees that animals have hearts as well, and lets Cheetah go!
Then again, on that same note, maybe the zoo keeper doesn’t change. Maybe the zoo keeper is quite conniving, and knows something that the sheltered Cheetah does not. The zoo keeper knows that the Cheetah can go, run, seek—but Cheetah is still in the United States, and sooner or later, he will be noticed and hunted. It won’t take long for Cheetah to accidentally stumble across a farmer’s land, get a little too comfortable, and quickly become a rug. Cheetah is so grateful to the zoo keeper for this amazing favor, for allowing him to accomplish his dreams! Thinking that the zoo keeper was empathetic and understanding, Cheetah feels fondly towards her. And yet, by letting him go free, the zoo keeper has enabled a double-edged sword to cut through Cheetah: It’s hell if he stays, and hell if he goes. The zoo keeper knows that California is a false American dream, where unhappy people flock towards for a seed of meaning, yet become even emptier as they realize it was all an illusion and fall brainwashed to the same vapid ways of life while struggling financially. And she also knows that Cheetah won’t make it very long on his own on American territory, before he’s either captured or killed. Cheetah is doomed because he is a cheetah, and he was stolen from his homeland and placed in a foreign land where imprisonment and freedom both mean suffering, because of people’s total lack of empathy. Maybe, even then, once Cheetah’s out of sight, the zoo keeper calls up animal control, and Cheetah none the wiser to this betrayal.
I suppose we may never know this story’s true implications, though it offers many possible interpretations, depending on the reader’s perspective, but this is yet another classic, multi-layered tale from the insightful young Brittany Cole.
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