Andi's Animal Kingdom


by Roland Goity

It started with a wildlife program on the tube sponsored by Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company. Andrea was only five, all energy and spunk with a mop top of flaxen hair and hazelnut eyes as big as cable car tokens. When Wild Kingdom was on she would sit in lotus position before the television set and watch in unblinking awe as a cheetah raced like a funny car across the Serengeti plain to slay a gazelle, or as an anaconda descended from Amazon vines to throttle a peccary.

From then on, every few months, we took Andi to the city zoo. Apparently, we had our very own Doctor Doolittle. She communicated so easily and naturally with the animals, just the same as if she were speaking to us. For instance, she devised an odd sequence of hand signs and tongue thrusts that could corral the inhabitants of "Monkey Island," get them to line up in single-file rows and clap and screech in synchronized rhythm. When visiting the hippo pool, she'd wink at the animals and they'd throw their two-ton selves onto their backs and skim along the water's surface as if they were river otters. Zoo handlers said they'd never seen anything like it. And in the reptile pavilion Andi showcased her unique whistle. A pair of king cobras, newly acquired from a wildlife refuge in Pakistan, wriggled and writhed their way vertical, charmed by Andi's tune through the double-paned glass. The sight drew loads of amazed visitors who huddled around as if to witness the Second Coming.

We, of course, marveled at Andi's rapport with these caged creatures, and tried to honor her requests to visit them whenever possible. But her desire to do so came more often than we could handle. So on Saturday mornings we'd see her off on the number 19 bus, with Luella from two doors down as hired chaperone. Andi would arrive home by late afternoon, all toothy smiles and cotton-candy fingertips, and Luella would chuckle nervously as she waved goodbye, having no doubt seen things not easily explained.

In time, Andi pet-named her favorites among to the zoo's denizens. She knew their quirks and tics, could detect whether one felt giddy or dourly downbeat. So we never felt Andi's kinship with the animals would cause problems. But a classmate was to celebrate her birthday there and invited Andi and all the kids from room seven. That day the birthday girl's parents were overwhelmed, having never before been to the zoo, unaware of its vast network of paved crossroads that sucked you into one habitat and spit you out into another. Children untethered might get lost for hours if not days. And the fear of human predators was always a greater concern than the danger posed by predators roaming the exhibits. Such were the thoughts of these parents as the day got rolling, and when their daughter told them that Andi had gone missing, that no one had seen or heard from her since they'd left the polar bear "plunge," well, the father panicked.

Zoo security was put on alert, and walkie talkies were set into action: Be on the lookout for a fair-skinned, tow-headed girl wearing a powder blue sweater and white leather wheelies. Possible foul play. Over and out.

Every exit was soon blocked, every corner of the zoo ready to be combed. The kids from school shrieked Andi's name with annoying frequency, never once listening for a response. But after a spell of mass confusion, a whooping crowd led everyone back to the polar bear plunge. What they saw was something of which I still can gaze upon and ponder when passing through the bedroom hallway. I have its indelible image in a news article, now framed and matted, that appeared above the fold in our daily paper the following day. The headline ran: ZOO MISHAP: GIRL SURVIVES WILD SCARE IN BEARS LAIR. The accompanying photo, however, belies the alarming words. It shows Andi riding bareback on the zoo's largest polar bear, barreling down a giant waterslide while clutching a shiny beach ball globe of the world. At that exact moment she was on top of it.


Andi's Animal Kingdom (Alternate Version


by Roland Goity

It started with a wildlife program on the tube sponsored by Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company. Something in Andrea finally switched on. Under a mop top of flaxen hair, her hazelnut eyes grew bigger than cable car tokens. So it became a weekly ritual. When Wild Kingdom was on she would sit in lotus position before the television set and watch in unblinking awe as a cheetah raced like a funny car across the Serengeti plain to slay a gazelle, or as an anaconda descended from Amazon vines to squeeze the life from a peccary.

Andi was five then, and had been as withdrawn as the young mutt, Jester, we'd brought home from a nearby shelter. We thought we had tried everything. We got her a Big Wheel, a bike with training wheels, and a foot scooter, but nothing spurred her interest. We used hand puppets, candy rewards, and role-playing techniques, but we couldn't get her to "engage." Andi was essentially mute, mostly responding with yeses and nos, even to open-ended questions. She saw specialists, was prescribed medication, and was enrolled in an after-school program for kids with special needs. Nothing helped. We began to wonder if she was borderline autistic, but the doctors said no.

Then Andi discovered Wild Kingdom, and her excitement for the program was only matched by ours to her newfound interest. "Would you like to see animals up close?" we asked, not expecting a reply. "Yes, good," she said to our surprise. "I like very much." For her, that was a grand soliloquy.

From then on, about once a month, we took Andi to the city zoo. Apparently, we had our very own Doctor Doolittle. She communicated so easily and naturally with the animals, quite unlike the difficulty she encountered when speaking to us. For instance, she devised an odd sequence of hand signs and tongue thrusts that could corral the inhabitants of " Monkey Island," get them to line up in single-file rows and clap and screech in synchronized rhythm. When visiting the hippo pool, she'd wink at the animals and they'd throw their two-ton selves onto their backs and skim along the water like fiberglass surfboards. Zoo handlers said they'd never seen anything like it. And in the reptile pavilion Andi showcased a unique whistle we never knew she was capable of. A pair of king cobras, newly acquired from a wildlife refuge in Pakistan, wriggled and writhed their way vertical, charmed by Andi's tune through the double-paned glass. The sight drew loads of amazed visitors who huddled around as if to witness the Second Coming.

We, of course, also marveled at Andi's rapport with these caged creatures; she had found an everlasting connection to the world around her. We tried to honor her requests to visit the animals whenever possible, but her desire to do so came more often than we could handle. So on Saturday mornings we'd see her off on the number 19 bus, with Luella from two doors down as hired chaperone. Andi would arrive home by late afternoon, all toothy smiles and cotton-candied fingertips, and Luella would chuckle nervously as she waved goodbye, having no doubt seen things not easily explained.

In time, Andi pet-named her favorites among to the zoo's denizens. She knew their quirks and tics, could detect whether one felt giddy or downbeat. So we never felt Andi's kinship with the animals would cause problems. But a classmate was to celebrate her birthday there and invited Andi and all the kids from Room Seven. That day the birthday girl's parents were overwhelmed, having never before been to the zoo, unaware of its vast network of paved crossroads that sucked you into one habitat and spit you out into another. Children untethered might get lost for hours if not days. And the fear of human predators was always a greater concern than the danger posed by the predators roaming the exhibits. Such were the thoughts of these parents as the day got rolling, and when their daughter told them that Andi had gone missing, that no one had seen or heard from her since leaving the polar bear "plunge," well, the father panicked.

Zoo security was put on alert. Walkie talkies were set into action: Be on the lookout for a fair-skinned, tow-headed girl wearing a powder blue sweater and white leather wheelies. Possible foul play. Over and out. Every exit was soon secured, every corner of the zoo ready to be combed. The kids from school shrieked Andi's name with annoying frequency, never once listening for her response in return. But after this spell of mass confusion, a whooping crowd led everyone back to the polar bear plunge. What they saw was something ultimately horrific. Counseling was later made available to all the children who witnessed it, and Monday's class would be cancelled for the kids from Room Seven.

But an indelible image from the scene is something l can gaze upon and ponder when passing through the bedroom hallway. It's from a news article, now framed and matted, that appeared above the fold in our daily paper the following day. The headline ran: ZOO TRAGEDY: GIRL MEETS END IN BEARS LAIR. The accompanying photo, however, doesn't foreshadow the fateful ending, the claws to the face, the ripping apart of a human rag doll. It simply shows Andi riding bareback on the zoo's largest polar bear, whom she called King Vanilla. Together they are barreling down a giant water slide and Andi is clutching a shiny beach ball globe of the world. At that exact moment she was on top of it.


BIO: Roland Goity edits fiction for the online journal LITnIMAGE. Recent stories appear in Fiction International, Blue Lake Review, Necessary Fiction, Raleigh Review, Caper Literary Journal and Grey Sparrow Journal. He is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology EXPERIENCED: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction (Vagabondage Press).