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The Zookeepers

Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

Odds are, you’ve been to a zoo before.

If you’re like me when I was a kid, you might be disappointed to find that the lions and tigers don’t fight, roar, or do much of anything besides yawn and lounge around. If you’re really lucky, you might just see one of them lift their heads enough to nibble at an old piece of chewed up meat that they have lazily tucked between their paws. To an onlooker, it would seem like these wild animals have lost their natural ferocity. However, it is easy to forget that these animals, as well as many others, are nocturnal. You might be surprised to see what a zoo looks like at night. I consider myself very lucky to have had the privilege of seeing this firsthand.

I have worked as a zookeeper for almost six years to date. Like many zookeepers, in order to avoid interfering with the experiences of the guests, I did all my work at night after the gates were closed. After all, who wants to go to a zoo only to see a tiger get tranquilized and tested for disease?

Most of the time during my shifts, I would walk to and from enclosures, observe the animal life there, and write down in my log book about any strange behavior I might find. It is during these times that I see, from behind the security of a chain link fence or glass window, the incredibly active and brutal lifestyles of many of the nocturnal creatures. Males paired together will often fight and growl at each other. Big cats, especially, tend to eye me hungrily, despite being surrounded by uneaten food that litters their pens at all times. I’ve never been scared by them, but as I walk by their pens, it is unsettling to notice dozens of pairs of eyes gleaming back at me through the darkness, despite how safe I know I am behind the impenetrable fences. They must know it too as they have never attempted to escape or attack me.

During my free time, I made friends with the three night guards that were in charge of keeping out any teenagers dumb enough to try and sneak in after hours. We talked a lot about the zoo and popular rumors surrounding it. The place itself is old. Apparently, it was originally built to be a storage facility for circus animals in the 19th century. Combine that with the fact that it’s situated on the outskirts of a small town in rural Nevada, and it becomes easy to believe some of their more outlandish tales and theories.

They told me about accidents that apparently took place years ago, like the time when a worker was feeding crocodiles until he slipped from the catwalk and joined his chickens as a part of the crocodiles’ diet. They even told me about how an inexperienced night manager once accidentally set loose a wild grisly bear that killed him and snuck into town, killing several others under the cover of night before being shot by the police.

But by far the most interesting thing they told me was about how some of the animals would just disappear in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. This especially caught my attention because, not only had this phenomena been documented in the log books of previous night managers, but I myself had encountered this same issue within my first month of working there when a resident of the monkey cage had vanished between my first and second routine inspections of the night. After double checking, I had assumed that it had somehow gotten out, but when I brought the issue to head management in the morning, I was floored when they frankly told me not to worry about it. Unlike the night guards who thought that ghosts were involved, I had a feeling that zoo management had something to do with it. Nevertheless, since my employer didn’t seem to care, neither would I. As months passed, I noticed that more animals seemed to vanish almost systematically. But not even the disappearance of an elderly lion seemed to worry management at all.

Aside from rumors, the night guards introduced me to the facilities. I have a lot of good memories within the employe lounge and their “secret” lounge, which was just a cramped little room with a TV. They showed me every bathroom and maintenance building that I would need to use in order to perform my duties. Just when I thought I had a good grasp of where every building was and what they were each for, I noticed at the end of my shift one morning, as the first gleams of the sun illuminated the horizon, a distant building that could only be seen if you looked in just the right direction from a certain corner of the zoo. It was absent on every map we had and my boss would just brush me off if I ever asked him about it. The structure was only one story high and, upon closer inspection with some binoculars that one of the night guards lent me, it had no windows at all. There were no roads or paths that lead to it, and I had never seen anyone use it in any way. It was decent in size and I thought it was strange that a building like that would be inaccessible and nearly invisible to visitors and workers such as myself.

Of course, the night guards had their theories, ranging from a power station to an animal breeding chamber. I, however, had remembered how some animals in the zoo had gone missing and it dawned on me that, of the instances I could remember specifically, the animals that had disappeared were always old aged, ugly looking, or otherwise unpopular with guests. I shared with the night guards my theory, about how management knew that particular animals were an eyesore, but they also knew how hard and costly it would be to get permission from the government to put them down or transfer them, not to mention the bad publicity. In order to keep things quiet, the unwanted animals were kidnaped at night and euthanized in the mysterious building where their bodies could be cremated and disposed of without law enforcement catching on. We all laughed at my idea, but I decided to stick to that theory if anyone were ever to ask, even though no one ever did. As months turned to years, more animals began to disappear, only to be discreetly and quickly replaced with younger ones. My theory didn’t seem so farfetched after all.

All the while I was perfecting my nightly routine. After just two years, I had memorized every enclosure space, created a mental list of animal populations, and minimized the amount of time it took me to complete each task. Eventually, I had over an hour of free time before the end of each shift. At first, I spent the time with the night guards. All the while, we never stopped wondering about the mysterious building and the missing animals.

Then, one night, my curiosity got the better of me. It compelled me to discover the truth, like an itch that had been building with each missing animal. As I arrived at the zebra pen for the early-night inspection, I found that one was missing. While I would usually just make a note in my report and forget about it, I decided to walk down the path surrounding the enclosure and do a quick inspection. When I reached the farthest corner of the pen, a strange movement caught my eye. I could see something in the far distance lumbering through the underbrush. Through the darkness, I could see that it was large, black, and definitely not a zebra. As I squinted, I could make out that it was dragging something behind it.

I placed my clipboard aside, hopped the fence, and followed from a distance. The figure hadn’t noticed me, but I could see that it was hauling the body of one of the zebras behind it. After a short while, I realized that we were headed in the direction of the mysterious building that I had wondered so much about. This seemed to confirm my belief that old animals were taken and executed at night, but I had to know for sure.

As we got closer to the building, I realized that the building had been made out of concrete and was not decorated with paint, tiles, or anything at all. As the figure approached a solid steel door along one of the sides, a security light flickered on and illuminated him. I could finally make out that he had a tranquilizer gun slung across his shoulder and he wore a torn and dirty lab coat that had turned brown with age. He knocked four times and, after a few moments, a mechanical whirring was heard as it slowly swung outward. He inched his way in, dragging the zebra behind him. After several seconds had gone by, the security light turned off and the door began to close automatically. I sprinted over and slinked inside just in time and managed to avoid tripping the light. The door behind me made a hard, mechanical clink as it locked itself. The inside of the building was filled with bleak and empty hallways. Dull, florescent lights lined the ceiling. Strong metal doors dotted the walls, each with a wire mesh window.

I saw the figure as it turned a corner down one of the many hallways. The building was deathly silent except for the shuffling of the worker who was still dragging the zebra. I followed along quietly and peeked around the corner to see the worker shove the animal through an open door. Another person, wearing a much cleaner lab coat and holding a clipboard, emerged from the same door and closed it behind him.

The man with the tranquilizer crossed his arms and said, “I hope you’re making progress doctor. They warned me that we can’t keep taking test subjects like this anymore. People are starting to ask questions. Unless we see some real results today, they may cut you from the program.” The other man, apparently a doctor, replied in a hushed tone and I couldn’t make out what he said.

The two walked down the hallway and disappeared behind a pair of swinging doors. I quickly shuffled down the hallway and started looking into the doors. Each room was identical and was little more than a concrete cell. Some were empty, but others had animals in them. Their condition was horrific. Nearly all of them looked like they were starving and were lying down, panting heavily. Black bruises covered their bodies. Most of them, while conscious, wouldn’t look at me when I would lightly tap their glass window. Others were missing their eyes altogether.

As I progressed down the hall, it only got worse. A lot of the animals were dead. Their bodies seemed partially dissolved by a strange tar substance. By the time I had reached the door where the zebra had been pushed through, the surrounding cells held nothing more than small puddles of bubbling black goo. In the cell where the zebra lay, I could tell that the room had been hastily cleaned and that the concrete interior was a darker shade than most of the others.

Angry at the cruelty that I had seen, but still a little curious, I passed through the swinging doors. I found myself standing in a long hallway and I could make out a distant conversation coming from one end. As I approached the voices, I recognized one of them as the man with the tranquilizer that I had seen earlier. As I got closer, I could see that a scientist and a large, hairless lab rat were in a room behind a large glass window. The man with the tranquilizer and a few other scientists were sitting on metal folding chairs, watching.

“It had better work this time,” the man with the tranquilizer said.

“According to my calculations,” said the scientist behind the window, “the transfusion of foreign cells should result in a functioning symbiotic relationship.”

The onlookers nodded in approval and the scientist withdrew a syringe that was filled with a dark fluid. He injected it into the rat and took a few steps back. Within the cage, the rat began to run around frantically as a black substance began dribbling out of its mouth and ears. It screamed and began convulsing as dark blotches covered its skin. After a few agonizing moments, the creature collapsed and lay motionless as a viscus puss that had been oozing from its face began to cover its skin. It looked like it was coated with bubbling tar.

Several seconds went by and no one moved or spoke. I figured that whatever experiment they planned had been a failure, but the scientist watched on expectantly, as did the onlookers. Everything was silent and I stifled my breathing to avoid being caught.

Then, I saw the rat twitch. Its mouth began to open and close very slowly and a low growl resonated throughout the building. It rose to its feet and looked around, despite how its eyes were completely coated with sludge.

“Well, This looks promising,” one of the onlookers said, “how long is its lifespan?”

The scientist behind the glass began explaining his research, but none of them noticed the creature pressing itself against the bars of its cage. He ranted on as the black tar melted off the rat, leaving behind clean, white bones. It seeped through the cage and crawled towards him. It was not until he had felt something cold and slimy that the scientist realized that the strange substance had engulfed his shoes and was crawling up his legs. He screamed and tried to run away, but the sludge held his feet in place. The onlookers began to panic.

“Seal the room,” one of them said. The man with the tranquilizer sprang up and began locking the scientist inside the test chamber. His screams became muffled as the slime reached his face.
That was when I knew that it was time to get out of there. As I ran down the long hallway, I could hear an incredible commotion behind me. When I reached the swinging doors leading to the animal containment cells, I pushed against them, only to realize that they had been locked remotely.

It was then that I heard the distinct sound of crashing glass, followed by a chorus of screams and a guttural roar. I was so terrified, instinct took over and my adrenaline kicked in. I booked it down the hall and found myself in a warehouse full of shelves and cupboards. I ran down one of the isles and hid behind a large filing cabinet. By then, the screaming had stopped. The only sounds that could be heard was a shuffling and an occasional scraping sound coming from deep within the hallway. As I looked around, still trembling, I noticed in the dim light that each shelf was crammed with jars and vials. Suspended within them, horrible monstrosities floated with petrified scowls.

Peeking out behind the cabinet, I saw a steel door. It looked strong, but unlike the other door that I had foolishly snuck in through, I could see a keyhole and a handle. Hoping and praying that it lead to the outside, I inched toward it. I retreated back to my hiding place however, when I realized how close the scratching had gotten to the room I was hiding in. It sounded like dozens of people were dragging metal pickaxes across the concrete floor. As the sound became deafening, I could also make out a heavy breathing. Whatever had made its way to the doorway, judging only by the noises it made, I could tell it was huge. As it approached me, I realized that it was sniffing the air.

Just then, something caught its attention. In an instant, it spun around and bolted through the doorway towards the animal chambers. It must have caught wind of the larger animals that had been kept locked up for so long. I heard a crash as it burst through the double doors. I ignored the squealing of its victims and ran to the door. To my dismay, it was locked. There was no where to go. As I heard the thing tear down door after door and gorge itself, I knew it was only a mater of time before it found me. I banged on the door and yelled, “let me out! Somebody help me!”
The creature heard me, and my heart dropped as I felt the floor tremble with its eager approach. But as I turned to the door for one last desperate effort to escape, I found the door open. Without thinking, I jumped through. I was able to get one look at the thing before the door closed behind me. It was in the shape of a rat, but was so large that it scraped the ceiling with its back. The creature was pure black and the light shined over its glossy layer of dark slime. The beast lunged for me, but the door was shut just in time and was able to withstand its flurry of vicious attacks.

Leaning against the closed door, the head night guard was catching his breath. As he locked the door with his master key, he explained to me that he hadn’t seen me all night and I failed to meet them in the lounge as I had always done. When he found my clipboard lying on a path that was close to the mysterious building, he had assumed that I had been taken for asking too many questions. Finding the front door sealed shut, he went around back when he heard my frantic banging. The other two guards weren’t far behind. He looked at me as if to say, “You saw that too, right?” But I didn’t think to respond. I ran straight to my car and drove home. I never wanted to see that place again. At least not at night.

Hours later, as the morning sun blanketed the town with a comfortable light, I swallowed my fear and returned to the zoo one last time to formally quit in front of my boss and collect my last paycheck. On the way there, I couldn’t help but try and see if anything had happened to that mysterious building since I left. To my surprise, it was swarmed with a massive construction crew. Cement trucks lined the building and I could see workers pouring concrete in through the chimneys. They were working so fast. Accompanying them, a couple men in suits stood outside a black, spotless van and watched anxiously. They exchanged a few words, but kept their focus on the building. By the amount of cement that remained, I could tell that they were almost finished with their coverup project. One of the suited men noticed me and exchanged a menacing glance, the same kind of look a bully gives to someone who just ratted him out. I snapped my head away and continued along the path towards the zoo offices.

When I found my manager, before I could even say a word, he fired me for “irresponsible behavior.” Perhaps I should have asked him exactly what specific behavior he was referring to, but I was so sick of that backwards zoo and its psycho management, I just turned around and walked off without a moment of hesitation.

As I was leaving, I passed that terrible building again, only to see that it had been completely abandoned. The construction party and the men in suits were already gone, with no trace of their work besides the cement that topped the chimneys. As much as I hated that building and how much it had mentally scarred me, I needed closure. When no one was in sight, I hopped the fence into the same zebra pen that I had traversed the night before, and approached the building.

Rapidly drying concrete seeped from metal plates that covered the doors. A familiar fear returned to me as I found the door that I had miraculously escaped from the previous night. Less than a day ago, this door was all that stood between me and a hideous creature so terrible, it could not have been from this world. I clutched my heart as I fully realized how close I had been to sharing in the horrible fate of its other victims.

But then it dawned on me. I had never seen the creature leave the building. Those men surely knew about the incident, but why didn’t they get the military involved? Why was there no sign of containment? Is it possible that that creature could still be inside, hastily buried as a last resort to hide a terrible secret?

I pressed my ear up against the metal door. I plugged up my other ear with a finger and strained to listen. Perhaps it was only the screaming children in the park, or even cries from the animals in the zoo, but within the deep confines of that concrete prison, I could faintly make out the muffled roar of a beast that seemed to carry all of its rage and hunger through its voice. But it was only for a moment.
I have no answers. I don’t know what that creature was or what has become of it. If it is trapped inside that lab of atrocities, I pray that it stays buried within its cold and gruesome tomb for eternity. The day it escapes, will be our last.

As for the zoo, I will never go back. I have already had nightmares and it probably wont stop anytime soon. I’m considering seeking formal therapy. I don’t even care about how much I used to get paid, how well I got along with the night guards, or how convenient and easy the job was becoming. I am never going back.

On the bright side, I heard that our local Starbucks is hiring. Surviving a monster attack might look good on my resume.

Credit: WanderingRiverdog

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