by Kira Storm
“My story begins…“
“Our story, Rays.”
“Well, our story begins…”
“Actually it´s my story that brought us here.”
“Urf, fine. Then you start, Bella.”
“I´ll let you tell your part, promise.”
“I´ve never been tall, always the smallest of the group, but what do you need size for when you have a brother? Aries and I grew up with lovely moms. Although they looked strangely different we could feel their affection towards us and they had food. What was before I was taken in by the humans, I don´t know. I have little memory of my early days. Sometimes a certain smell triggered in me an undefinable longing which made me cry out but that´s gone now. All that stayed is a slight heartache.”
“Just say it, Bella, don´t beat around the bush. They´ve stolen you from your real mom. These people don´t deserve you sugarcoating it.”
“I don´t sugarcoat anything, that´s just how I felt back then. Aries and I didn´t have it bad there. Don´t look like that and let me continue.”
“When I first opened my eyes it was still dark around me. Warmth radiated from a large body next to me. I knew the smell well that filled my nose. Chanel had taken me to bed with her like always. In my sleep the blanket had covered me whole and I began to struggle to get air and fill the darkness with light. My movement woke Chanel and finally the cover was lifted and I could see a small room. On the far wall stood another bed where Aries and our other mom slept. “What´s up little one?”, a sleepy voice asked. Looking up to her I felt a rush of curiosity. All these pictures, this light shimmering through closed curtains… The world was made brand new. Crawling up her chest I tried to get a closer look at my mom who chuckled and suddenly stopped as she saw my eyes wide open. “Hey beautiful!”, she exclaimed and smiled. I nudged her in the head in response.
From then on the world was mine to discover. With Aries on my heels and under the watchful eyes of our mothers I set out to explore. As we grew older we started to get visitors. Our moms took us out to meet them. Each brought a new smell, a different vibe and sometimes, especially at the beginning, it was quite overwhelming. The strangers came and went, they rarely came a second time. All they wanted to do was stare at us, hold and pet us, and take photos, lots of photos. It quite exhausted me some days.
Then came a day, not long after the visits started, when I noticed a strange tingle down my spine accompanied by a pulsing headache. I did not think much of it at first but when I got up it set everything around me spinning. Shaking my head I tried to get rid of it but just made it worse so I quickly quit. Finally it stopped swaying, or I did, and I could take a few steps. Just walk it off, I thought but by the time visiting hours started the headache hadn´t gone away and heatwaves had begun to roll over me in intervals that got ever shorter. Shouting set my head aflame when people started coming in. Their voices were amplified tenfold and each step they took sounded like a trampling horde of rhinos.”
“Do you even know how a rhino sounds like?”
“Alright, alright, I keep my mouth shut.”
“Where was I? Yes. The headache got worse but I made it till the evening and soon fell asleep. Usually, when I feel bad, a good night’s sleep helps me get better, that time though it didn´t help at all, in the contrary. Seizures that shook my entire body woke me in the middle of the night. I was sleeping alone with my brother now so my moms didn´t notice as I lay there shaken by uncontrollably jerking limbs. Aries moved closer, sniffing me than began crying out for our moms. My own jaw was held shut by cramping muscles and I have to thank my brother for saving my life.
His crying brought them running and I was taken into a very bright sterile looking room with a metal table. The cold went right through my fur. In the meantime my seizures had stopped but breathing was still a struggle. Chanel talked to me in a soothing tone but I could feel fear in her. Am I going to die?, I thought. I knew the place I was at, it´s where they sting you with needles, touch you all over, and shine light in your eyes, ears, and mouth, it´s where sick cats go.
The vet came after some minutes, looking tired and disheveled. He began his examination, pressing his fingers down on my stomach, lifting my eyelids. All the while he kept talking to Chanel, asking her questions of my whereabouts, my eating habits, my stool. Their conversation mixed together into a swelling and receding background noise. My vision swam into unrecognizable shapes of color, everything pulsed with the beating of my heart.
More tests were run and I can´t remember half of them. Sometime that night Chanel wrapped me in a blanket and took me in a different, warmer room. There she sat with me on a rocking chair till the sun came up, always talking, promising that everything is going to be alright.
The results came in some time later. I had an infection of the brain, a virus which attacked my nervous system. My chance of survival, said the vet, was less than 20%. They put me in quarantine and under constant surveillance. Chanel didn´t leave my side for more than an hour at a time in the first days. She was often accompanied by a blond haired woman she called Lizaene, a friend of hers who supervises the big cat cubs at the facility. The two were my most frequent visitors, at least they were there whenever I was awake.
What I remember most about the time of my illness besides pain and numbness was how I missed my brother. We´ve never been separated like this. Thinking about him, his strong mind and loyal heart gave me the strength to hold on, fight through it, and after three weeks of struggle, medication, and worries on the side of my sleepless guardians I got better. Slowly the throbbing receded, the seizures stopped and my vision cleared. I was through the worst and getting stronger by the day. Soon I was to join my brother again.
We spent six more months at the facility until one day people with tranquilizers came to take us away. They didn´t have the license to keep grown tigers and so we had to be sent off to another place. When I came to, I was in a crate. Through holes in the wood came a wind that carried strange smells of a lot of tigers. Opening my mouth I tried to smell them better, tried to find my brothers scent under the new ones. Nervously I stood up, not knowing what would come next. Since my early days, since my illness I´ve grown not much in size but in strength. Still I didn´t know what to expect of this move. Behind these wall could linger everything.
Chatter and steps arose outside and then one side of the crate lifted. I sprang out ready to face whoever waited out there but I had to realize that the small cage waiting for me was empty besides one other tiger. I recognized his stripes and smell immediately and ran over to greet my brother, happy to have him with me. Together we would face it all, I thought.”
“Sounds like you two were truly inseparable.”
“You… you know we weren´t. If so he would be here…”
“Do you want me to tell the rest?”
“Yeah, I think that would be better.”
“When I met Bella she was a fierce little thing with her brother like a shadow behind her. They were lucky coming into the group together. The other tigers, and I don´t want to exclude me there, would have held together to show the newbies how things are run around here. Having each-others backs the two could establish themselves as a duo that was better left alone.
Over the years we lived together with six other tigers I have never really taken notice of her and Aries besides the day they arrived. Most of the fellow tigers I barely remember.”
“Ok, I don´t want to remember them. Actually I had a close friend but I don´t want to talk about her, not now. It´s your story.”
“So we lived together at this place which was a bit crowded but not as bad as it could have been. The food was enough, the cages clean, we could have had a worse destiny. That´s what I thought then. Everything started with two strangers. We´ve never seen strangers at this place, there are always the same few people who come to look after us, check, feed, and clean. But these two women I have never seen. They made me curious and I wandered up to the fence along which they would pass when they come our way. That´s when I first took real notice of Bella because she turned as soon as she heard the strangers´ voices and her nose twitched as if the scent she smelled was familiar. Quizzically I glanced her way. Could someone from her old place have come?
The small tigress fixed the women with her amber eyes and followed their approach with suppressed excitement and watchfulness. I got a weird vibe from her as if she was happy to see the humans but at the same time weary. That´s what happened to everyone there. We all felt abandoned, put in this place and left to melancholy and a stream of never ending boredom. Whoever these humans were, they apparently Raysd Bella but then abandoned her. Therefore her unsure look, her caution. She didn´t want to bring her hopes up just to be disappointed. It has never been that someone of the past came to visit, something must be special about this young tigress.
“You are lucky you contacted us when you did.”, said the man who led the way for the women. “We are getting ready to shut down and will sell the tigers to a zoo in the US.” Reaching our cage they stopped as they had done at the previous ones. The women stared intensively at us, slips of paper in hand at which they glanced from time to time. I trotted closer, breathing in their smell. In their clothes hung the scent of lions, fresh air, grass and wood, something I haven´t smelled in years and it made me inhale deeper. They smelled like freedom.”
“And that´s exactly what they brought.”
“Don´t get ahead, you skip the most important part.”
“But it hurts…”
“I know. That´s why it must be told.”
“Well these strangers were indeed from Bella´s old place. They´ve come to pick her and her brother up. With them they had brought a rattling can which sprayed a white cloud and stained the fur with a coat of white color. As soon as they spotted Bella her flank was marked with this sticky paint. In her the joy of seeing them had won over the suspicion. Happy little noises came from her that sounded like a cub´s ones when finally being reunited with her mother. It´s absurd to consider a human your mother, I thought. I should be proven wrong again.
After finding Aries and marking him as well the strangers turned to leave. Bella watched them go with a growing hope in her heart. “We have a nice place for you two.”, one of the women had said. “You´re going to be safe there, you´re coming home.” In that moment I wanted to go there too. Wherever this “home” is, if it brought the smell of freedom with it I longed to join them.
Lying next to my friend Cleo, I daydreamt about what that place might look like. I pictured trees lining a river, wind whistling through the leaves, and the taste of fresh green in the air. A place where I could walk without stepping on an other´s tail. Catching my far off look Cleo nudged me with her nose. “What are you staring at?” “Nothing.” I shook off the ghostly images of a place I would never see. “They are lucky, aren´t they?”, asked Cleo in a melancholy tone nodding towards Aries and Bella. Despite their efforts the white X on their coats wouldn´t wash off. “Getting out of here…” She also got a distant look on her face. Then she blinked and her eyes focused on me again. “Will you miss them?” “I barely know them. But I´ll enjoy the space.” A chuckle lifted her flews and she shifted closer. “You´ll be miserable that you aren´t going.”, she murmured dosing off. I didn´t answer but she knew she was right.
A few days passed and no one came to pick Bella and Aries up, nothing exciting happened really and I started to forget the strangers and their scent. Only the white markings bore witness to their visit. Finally, after a week or so, something happened. At feeding time a larger group of people than usual neared our cage. With them they brought tranquilizer guns and meat in black buckets. The smell brought all of us on our feet, pacing the fence.
A clicking sound turned my ears around and my head shot up as a thud followed it a while later. I just caught the flick of Bella´s tail as she went down unconscious. My gaze met the one of the human holding his gun up and leveling it now on Aries who stood not far from me. Another click and in that moment Aries moved. The dart passed its target and I felt a sting in my leg. Bewildered I stared down and saw the red feathers of a dart. Curses reached my ears as the world began to lose its sharp lines. I got the dart between my teeth and pulled it out. Nevertheless the figures around me kept getting blurrier. My muscles refused to follow my command and I toppled over.
“Just leave it, we got a male and female, didn´t we?” I wasn´t completely out, they didn´t hit me properly and so I was still awake as the other humans opened a gate and threw the meat into the neighboring cage. I watched how the tigers charged through the little tunnel and heard the gate shut behind them. Then they readied their guns and began shooting.
No tranquillizers shot out of the guns. What hit the tigers and colored their coats glossy red were bullets. Each shot rang in my ears and as the first body fell adrenalin overpowered the narcosis. Roaring I wanted to get to my feet. My vision was sharpening but my muscles were still numb so I merely took some swaying steps before reaching the fence and staring through it. Frantically I searched for Cleo´s distinctive pattern between the bodies of panicked animals. My eyes found her just as a bullet struck her side. I saw the painful shock in her beautiful face, disbelieve and fear. Then the light behind her eyes went out and she collapsed onto the heap of bodies which would never move again…”
“You can stop now, Rays. You´ve told enough, I think.”
“No I haven´t. I must finish the story…”
“They killed each and every one of the tigers who had fallen into their trap. But that wasn´t enough. From that cage they moved on to the next and the next and the next. Within minutes they shot every single tiger before continuing on their bloody path. And I´ve seen it all, I am witness to their lies. There had never been a zoo to which they were supposed to go. Death was the only destination for them and I would have been one of them if that shooter hadn´t missed. I was tranquilized in Aries stead and that´s why he died and I survived.
The bodies were taken away before Bella woke, she didn´t have to see the massacre but the smell of blood still hung in the air. Her clever eyes took in the empty cages, the wet floor, and me and without a word I knew I did not have to tell her. I saw it in the shadow that lay itself over her features that she knew what happened to her brother. Her pain was my pain, we both lost a dear companion that day and being the lone survivors of such a tragedy a strong connection of understanding was forged between us.
When Lizaene and Cat came to rescue Bella and Aries but only found her, they decided to take me with them, not willing to leave me at a place where tigers got shot for their bones. In the end my wish to see the place which smelled of freedom came true but the price was paid in blood. It took me some time to build up trust again. Approaching humans triggered in me memories of quieting roars and eyes that slowly lose their light…”
“We are safe here now though. We have a home for life where we don´t have a price on our heads.”
“We do, but so many others do not.”
“You´re right, we were lucky to have humans in our life that care and fight for us. Thanks to them we got our own enclosure,…”
“…a place to shake off the terrors of the past,…”
“…and develop into confidant individuals. Having Rays with me was a great comfort. We grew closer, settled into the new environment together, and found our own security, confidence, strength. Until you decided to pick fights.”
“I didn´t pick fights, I just wanted to have my own space, some alone-time!”
“You got what you wanted.”
“Don´t pretend to be sad about it, you are happy too.”
“No denying that. I enjoy living in my own enclosure next to Rays`. We share a fence and see each other quite often, we´re still the best of friends, bonded for life and through life.”
“The safety and care provided by the people at Panthera Africa allowed us to become tigers instead of goods, to develop an independent character, and turn into individuals that are not afraid to be alone nor forced to live with others.”