Vail Daily column: Pacing the cage
None of us were born with fear. We learned it. We learned how to see risk. We were taught, for better or worse, what to fear. We get so good at learning fear, we learn to fear things that aren’t real. We imagine all the terrible things that could happen, rather than, perhaps, all the wonderful things. We allow fear to shape us.
I remember seeing my first tiger as a child. All my impressions of tigers had come from cartoons and children’s books. There was no fear in me for a tiger then. I could only marvel at him. I had my hands on the glass while the adults stood a few steps back. He walked majestically, only a few inches on the other side. The tiger seemed extraordinarily large for such a small room. He didn’t fit there. The room he stood in, full of painted fake concrete rocks and simulated plastic grass, was only just deep enough for him to turn his body at the wall. He was on display. He paced back and forth, ignoring me, but staring out into the distance, seeing things I could not see. He paced endlessly, flaring his whiskers and holding his mouth just wide enough to see the teeth that were meant to take down the prey he would’ve hunted in the wild.
I remember the anxious posture of the keeper’s body as he entered the room to slide a portion of pre-cut meat to the tiger. He pushed the tray hesitantly, nervously, in the great cat’s direction. He held a stick, and kept it pointed at the tiger to give himself sufficient space. The tiger would swat at the stick in annoyance, almost as if the presence of the stick itself was a condescension. He snarled, and I remember realizing I was watching a spirit that did not belong on that side of the glass. Even as a boy, I wondered why the tiger did not attack the keeper. I could not help but imagine the ease with which the tiger could pounce on the keeper and run for the open door behind him.
The tiger did not pounce. The keeper left the room and closed the door. The tiger left where he had been cornered for a moment, padded over to the closed door, and stood contemplating it. A second or two later he resumed his dejected pacing.
As I stood there, I imagined making a break for the door labeled “employees only” just a few feet away where the worker had walked out. I saw myself realize with excitement that the inside door to the tiger’s room had been left unlocked. The adults call after me, but I open the door, and calling to the tiger, I stand against the wall. He rises, and rushes past me into the ridiculous stamped concrete paths of the zoo. People scream and scatter. Pandemonium. He ignores them all, glides through the parking lot and into the deciduous forest full of deer and elk and shade and water and life. They never find him.
But as I came back to reality then, I looked over at the tiger to see his beard and whiskers stained red with his easy meal. He lounged now, casually burying his nose into the cuts prepared to ensure his comfort. I felt my eyes become wet as I watched the tiger. I wanted to call to him through the glass and tell him about the forest just outside of the zoo.
Then I felt anger. I felt a fury for the tiger, even as a boy, that he did not rise up and pounce upon his keeper when he had the chance. I wanted to yell through the glass. I wanted to throw a rock through that glass, if only it were possible, and provoke that tiger myself. I would chase him away from his meal, anger him, make him run after me into the forest, even if he killed me.
The tiger’s eyes met mine and we understood each other. I would understand even more as I grew older.
I was a boy then, and in spite of all my visions, I could not then fulfill my plans. The adults called to me, and I followed, as I had been taught to do. I think back often to that tiger and wonder if he is still pacing in that little room. I think back to that boy, too.
More than anything, though, I think about the dead leaves crushed under the tiger’s easy stride, the smells of the river and the dirt, and the breeze blowing through the trees just outside the walls of this zoo.
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.