Zoo Stories

Another couple of shorts for the Unfinished Tales folder. Or possibly a new cycle of tales in its own right.

Johanna Smith-Rhodes sighed and poured a cup of tea. The Zoo Trust meeting had gone as most committee meetings usually do – ten minutes of useful content and decision-making, and fifty minutes of blather and hot air. She thanked goodness it was all over for another month, and checked the clock; just time for a cup of tea before making her way back to the School to take a class.

Lifting the cup to her lips, she reviewed the useful decisions that had been made. The surplus litter of leopard cubs, once weaned, would go along with their mother to the Quirm city zoo. In exchange, Quirm was sending some of its surplus animals that the Ankh-Morpork Zoo was deficient in. She wasn't yet sure which species, but Mr Grinchlow had an idea of what gaps the Zoo had and which new animals would be of scientific interest, as well as attracting visitor attention.

She felt she could leave the veteran keeper to make a decision and strike a bargain: Grinchlow had been in the animal business all his life, and in fact had been senior keeper at the Palace menagerie before it was closed down and all its resident animals had been gifted to the care of the Zoo by Lord Vetinari, who had seen an admirable cause worth sponsoring as well as an opportunity to close down an inherited liability and open the space it occupied for rebuilding work.

What amounted to a three-day all-expenses jolly to Quirm was icing on the cake, although he would be escorting a secure cage full of leopards there, as well as whatever animals he negotiated in exchange on the way back.

And then Mr Dibbler had reported on Marketing: the range of stuffed toy animals designed for children to buy and take home with them were walking out of the souvenir shop(1), although Johanna had stipulated they should be of quality make and last quite a lot longer than five minutes after purchase, mr Dibbler, are you hearing me? Johanna, who as a girl had not had all that many toys, was losing the fight over the animal toys. A shelf in her bedroom was gradually populating itself with "samples", a thing she was determined only her very best friends among fellow Assassins would ever get to hear of. She looked at them at night and wistfully remembered the barefoot farm girl on the Howondalandian veldt, who had loved a single doll made out of an old mealie bag and stuffed with rags. At least, until real life intruded and she'd been sent away to school, where the doll did not follow.

Johanna glanced at the two painfully new framed scrolls on the wall. One was her degree in zoological studies from the University of Witwatersrand at home, conferred for her exceptional achievements in the field. She'd also had to write a verdammte thesis for it, which had revolved around the establishment and management of a zoological garden, with particular reference to the scientific opportunities it presented and the gaps in human knowledge that it could fill. As she'd established a thriving Zoo from nothing, the consensus was that it had been deservedly conferred. The second was her honorary Doctorate from Unseen University, conferred by Arch-chancellor Ridcully to add gravitas to any scientific papers she wrote on animal management.

Yer scientific papers will carry a dam'sight more weight if you're a Doctor, m'dear! he had said.

Ridcully had fielded her objection that she didn't have a magical bone in her body by pointing out the work she'd done alongside the University's Department of Crypto, Para, Quasi, Meta and PseudoZoology, especially her special interest in the Ambiguous Puzuma, the Drop Bear, the Camelopard(2), and the Shadowing Lemma(3).

"Not only dangerous animals but also magical ones." Ridcully had said. "You don't need to be a magic-user yourself to deal with things of magic, m'dear, which is why we're makin' you a Doctor, d'y'hear? Professor Morris at Zoology agrees and thinks you're fit, so that's what we're givin' you the degree for. Animal Magic, m'girl! That's what old Johnny Morris called it!"

Johanna smiled, an sipped her tea. It was the last quiet moment in her morning, however. Her office door resounded to a furious knocking, then burst open under the knocks. She sighed.

"Whet is it, Shtetl?"

"You Must Come, Miss Smith-Rhodes. There Is An Emergency With The Elephants."

Johanna sighed, put down her teacup, and followed the golem towards the sound of distant roaring. An elephant emergency that not even golem keepers could deal with… she vaguely wondered where Ashphalt was. He was one of her troll zookeepers. He wasn't outstanding as a zookeeper and in some senses was woefully inept, but he had the saving grace of loving the animals. She frowned. She'd heard of Hodgesaaargh, the falconer in Lancre. It was his tragedy that he loved and adored the birds of prey in his keeping. But their reciprocal love for him involved living for the day they could eat his other ear. She suspected the elephants had much the same sort of regard for Asphalt. Johanna was sure she'd seen them sniggering to each other and winking prior to inflicting some pachydermian indignity or other…

Well, he begged me for a job tending the elephants, she thought. He stressed he'd worked with them before, in the Circus. So he must know…(5 ) But he needs help, somebody who's really sure of what he's doing around elephants.

Shtetl forced a path through an enthralled Ankh-Morporkian crowd gathered around the elephant house. Following in his wake, Johanna sensed street-theatre was taking place. The crowd of Zoo visitors were engrossed in a spectacle she could not yet share, with contented faces and some grins and sniggers that put her on her guard.

Worth the admission money on its own, is this!" somebody said.

Shtetl led her into the elephant enclosure. With an unrestricted view for the first time, Johanna took in the sight. An elephant, one of the juvenile bulls, whose eyes seemed to be crossed and who was trumpeting alarm. However, with two golems and a troll holding it fast, it was incapable of movement, although its legs skittered as if it wanted to run and put some sort of embarrassment behind it.

Johanna looked questioningly at the golem.

"The Problem Is Here, Miss Smith-Rhodes." Shtetl said. He led her to where a group of Assassins' Guild students were working at resolving a problem, under the direction of teaching assistant Jocasta Wiggs. Johanna had left these students with her, knowing Jocasta was capable.

"Now when I say pull! We all pull together on the left and right ropes, Ok?"

Johanna noted two teams of five student assassins, each holding a rope. She followed the ropes back under the elephant's tail, and goggled slightly. No wonder the poor creature was cross-eyed…

Each rope was tied to a leg which had a certain troll-like aspect to it. The legs, er, disappeared, at a point underneath the elephant's tail…


"Asphalt?" she asked Jocasta, who nodded.

"Asphalt." she confirmed. "We'd just started hosing down the pen and luring the elephants into the bay next door with food, so they'd be distracted and eating while we cleaned up their living quarters, and poor old Asphalt got a bit incautious, and didn't realise how near he was to the elephant. And Jeffrey here thought it would be a huge joke to sit on him. You know how the elephants are around Asphalt. Long memories, you see, and we did get some of them from the circus. And, er, Jeffrey got a bit more than he bargained for, and things got a bit messy…"

Johanna patted Jocasta's shoulder, kindly.

"I think you hed better pull on those ropes, then." she said, and stood back to watch.

Jocasta gave the command to pull!, and stood in the middle whilst the two sets of students dutifully exerted pressure on the stuck troll. Had Jocasta paused to think when she said things were getting a bit messy, she might have realised a situation like this had the potential to get messier still.

"One more good pull should do it, I think!" Jocasta said, while Johanna took a few more prudent steps back.

Jeffrey the elephant mooed in pachydermian protest as the ropes were pulled tight again. There was a sudden sucking sound as a vacuum seal was released. Jeffrey mooed louder, possibly in release. The two groups of pulling students fell backwards as the tension was suddenly released. A short, squat and somewhat conical troll, whose skin might have been black, but it was at that moment hard to tell, sat up and coughed and spluttered.

And a torrent of something that had hitherto been prevented from escaping poured out, largely all over Jocasta Wiggs. The crowd cheered. A troll stuck up an elephant's arse was one thing. This was a bonus.(6 )

"Oh, bad luck, miss!" said one of the students, sympathetically.

Johanna winced. Well, she must be getting used to this sort of thing by now. Jocasta must attract this sort of situation.

"Mr Shtetl, get a hosepipe, would you? And someone to men the pump?"

Asphalt wiped his face.

"You get used to it, miss!" he assured a dripping Jocasta, who was wiping her face. "It was a bit strange the first time it happened, but the elephants don't mean no harm".

Johanna sighed again.

"Miss Wiggs, after you've cleaned the worst of it off you, go to my office. Leave the clothing you're wearing end we'll see whet we cen do with it. We hev seen worse in this Zoo. I keep spare clothing in my changing room. There are weshing fecilites there. Take whet you need for now. I'll take over here. Whet is thet noise, by the way?"

She had a notion as to what it was. She'd encountered it on the veldt a few times. Her father and uncle had once had to load their biggest crossbows and had come home with tired grim faces, unspeaking, having completed a necessary task that neither of them had taken pleasure in...

Shtetl looked glum, or glummer than is usual for golems.

"That Is The Elephant Hendricks. We Moved Him To A Secure Paddock On His Own. Otherwise He Presents A Very Real Danger."

"Take me to him".

Bull elephants periodically go through a state called musht. Nobody knows for sure what causes it, but for a short period of time even the most placid and friendly creature can become moody, evil-tempered, irrationally violent, and homicidally insane. A bull elephant in musht will trample, gore and kill even the keeper it loves. Admittedly it is also capable of expressing remorse, grief and loss afterwards when it regains its usual mind, but this does not obscure the fact that during musht it is homicidally murderous to other elephants, and indeed any life form around it, right down to trees. Good zookeeping practice dictates separation and isolation until the urge dies down, or can be medicated away. This may take a week, in which the creature needs to be securely kept and guarded constantly. And an animal capable of smashing down and demolishing even the strongest fences also requires a degree of restriction.

Johanna, watching from the edge of the sturdy concrete wall, knew this well enough. She regarded Hendricks, secured to a central post by a very solid heavy chain. Normally she could interact with Hendricks, an elephant taught to respond to basic commands in Vondalaans by his previous owners. But it was just too dangerous to attempt this now.

"Send a clecks to the Guild, would you?" she asked a keeper. "Epologies for my ebsence, I hev been detained here. Esk Miss N'Kweze to take over my cless. Thenk you."

Ruth N'Kweze was capable of covering her classes, she knew. It was the advantage of having teaching assistants. Especially ones she'd taught and trained herself. She focused her attention on Hendricks. Yes. The moody restless behaviour. The goring of the ground with his tusks as if setting out a challenge. The lesions on his head around the temporal lobes just behind the eyes, like burst boils, oozing an unhealthy-looking maroon-red mess, which she knew wasn't blood and pus but a symptom of some sort of raging hormonal imbalance causing the glands to secrete. Intrepid researchers had got samples of this, at huge risk. Johanna had heard about thaumaturgists, the suicidally crazy men who went out gathering ingredients for the wizards. A despised and untouchable caste within wizardry, composed of failed wizards who were bloody-minded enough to think they had something to prove to those stuck-up bastards with the robes and staffs, the best of them were an elite who had time and again gone on impossible missions and come back with the goods. Even if it was a mandrake root, the real thing, in a sealed and soundproof box, or three cc's of tiger semen, or a pot of mermaid caviare. They went out, they fulfilled the order, they delivered. Gods knew how, but they prided themselves on it. And the best thaumaturgists were very rich men. Johanna suspected they were the Wizards' equivalent of career assassins – men who knew the risks, planned meticulously, came up with novel and innovative strategies, and completed the contract. Then banked the money.

Collecting a sample of musht secretions, known as temporin, from an enraged and insane bull elephant, she reflected, was a stroll in the park for a thaumaturgist. She employed one, as a consultant keeper, for moments like this.

And the samples, in the hands of a skilled Igorina to analyse them, had shown very high concentrations of stress hormones, testosterone, ketones, aldehydes, lipids, proteins and cholesterol.

An elephant in musht could be tranquilized and doped. It could be starved. That had the effect of restoring it to normal. But it still took days

Johanna swore. Something was happening..

"Mr Shtetl. Who is thet man climbing into the secure enclosure?"

"He Is Not Known To Me, Miss Smith-Rhodes. Shall I Intervene?"

"Yes. We don't went any more bed publicity!"

Recently, a man described afterwards, by the Watch, as bloody deranged, had got into the Hubland Bear enclosure and had sat down trying to make eye contact with the alpha bear, claiming that this was a sure-fire way of breaking through and befriending this most noble and magnificent animal. He had not known that unblinking eye contact, to many animals, is a challenge and an invitation to a fight. Or, as Commander Vimes had said afterwards, had he tried that method of placating Slaughter McKeefe in the Mended Drum, the end result would still have been suicide.

The bear had growled the ursine version of "you lookin' at me, pal?" and had promptly ripped the luckless dreamer to pieces before any keepers could reach him. Oh, the Watch had called it "suicide", but it had still led to a critical piece in the Times, about slipping security at the Zoo.(7)

And here was another one…

He was a slightly-built, brown-skinned man who was wearing nothing more than a ragged loincloth. Johanna winced, watching him sit, cross-legged, on the torn-up ground a few yards away from Hendricks, making no move, completely passive. Even though this was nominally a closed area of the Zoo, not open to the public for very good reason, the Ankh-Morpork public was streaming in to watch the street theatre, hoping for tragedy and bloodshed. A couple of powerless Watchmen had been swept in with them. She spared them a glare, even though she was a special constabel herself and knew thel imitations of the job.

"Get thet idiot out of there! And disperse those people!" Johanna hissed. Several golems and two Watchmen, recognising a female temper only slightly less fearsome than Adora Belle Dearheart's, lumbered hastily off to do her bidding.

But in the enclosure, something was happening… Hendricks, after a few seconds of roaring and threatening, was visibly calming down. The little coloured man in the loincloth, moving slowly but with purpose, drew nearer… and then said something in a low voice, in a foreign language, right into the elephant's ear. He then looked towards its tail and nodded. Hendricks looked at him. The little man, radiating purpose, nodded back.

Then as three golems burst into the enclosure, the amazing sight of a previously unmanageable bull elephant kneeling… and the little man climbing on his back, settling into a cross-legged position on its neck, just behind the head. The golems stopped, looked at each other, and allowed the elephant to rise, seemingly at a word from the little man…. then it began walking, semingly docile and under bidding.

Much later that morning, Johanna looked the little man in the face.

"Name your price." She said. "You now have a job here."

He bowed to her.

"Goodness gracious me! Such kindness, mem-sahib." he said. "It makes my heart go boom-biddy-boom. I heard at home in Ghat that Ankh-Morpork is a city of richness where a humble immigrant may find home and work."

His voice was a sing-song Morporkian, with an inflection not unlike Llamedosian. Johanna, who these days was uncomfortable with being called baas-lady by coloured or black-skinned people, heard mem-sahib as coming from the same place, and winced internally.

"Do you hev a place to stay? This cen be provided." she said. "I wish to employ you here. You hev skills. With the elephents. I hev never seen such a thing before!"

"I have to admit I was concerned that my friend Hendriks is a Howondalandian elephant." said the little man. "I learned my skills with the Ghatian elephant, which has smaller ears. But the symptoms of the musht were familiar. I know the musht, mem-sahib. I told myself if an elephant has the musht, my skills will suffice."

"So I perceive! What did you do?"

The little man smiled.

"It is, forgive me, a secret among we mahmouts. Here your blacksmiths have the Horseman's Word, yes? Well, some of us in Ghat, we have the Mahmout's Word that works for elephants!"

"You're hired, mr?"

"Swathi Aramphit, mem- sahib!"

Johanna grinned. Experienced help for the amiable-but-inept Asphalt. It was shaping up to be a good day, after all.

(1) As often as not towards the shelf in Johanna's bedroom, it has to be said.

(2) A mythological beast on Roundworld said to be half-camel and half-leopard. On the Discworld, a sad and unhappy creature at war with itself. The camel half complains about the indigestion caused by too much meat on a ruminant stomach and deplores the hoof-rot caused by damp jungle vegetation underfoot. The leopard half scorns a wimpy vegetarian diet, says "stuff that!" to the idea of deserts, and to cap it all is not very good at maths. Its preferred method of hunting, however, draws both halves together: the camel half spits cud in the eyes of the prey which, blinded, is no match for the leopard half. Rumour has it that the original animal was bred on a whim by Rogis – dark Igors – working for the Dark Empire. Animal psychologists and conflict resolution specialists are working with the last few extant specimens in the City Zoo to get them to resolve their differences.

(3) This had involved staking out a camel as bait and waiting for it to start making higher-mathematical calculations of the probability of being stalked by a hunting Shadowing Lemma, a creature attracted to discharges of mathematics and ususally responsible for thinning out the numbers of mathematicians of any species. The Watch had found the remanants of several extremely deceased theoretical mathematicians, and had with Johanna's aid deduced a Shadowing Lemma was active in Ankh-Morpork, hiding in a lair in a parellel universe and slipping down a rope composed of woven superstrings when hungry. After losing a camel to the world of higher mathematics, Johanna had thought again and used a troll as bait, locking Sergeant Detritus in the Pork Futures Warehouse until his mind had supercooled. A mathematical brain encased in a rigid silicon shell was not one the Lemma could bite into, even with its multi-dimensional fangs, and in the subsequent moments of existential confusion Detritus had made the bust on behalf of the Watch. A multi-dimensional cage devised by HEX and Ponder Stibbons had done the trick, and Vetinari, assuring himself he was dealing with a warped mathematical genius that was utterly dysfunctional in any other area of sentient endeavour(4), had given blesing to its being securely confined by the Zoo in the care of the University Zoological department. Another stellar moment of co-operation between the Watch, the University and the Assassins' Guild had paid off. Even as the Lemma, recognising a side-order of Theoretical Physicist, had snapped its fangs at him, Ponder had sighed and reminded himself that field study alongside his Assassin girlfriend was likely to have lots of little moments like this, of extreme danger matched with trouser-dampening terror.

(4) If you've been to a university and met mathematical geniuses, you will have noted they universally have difficulty getting their shoes on the right feet in the morning. Like Dustin Hoffmans's character in Rain Man, they tend to the unworldly...

(5) Asphalt the troll trades in his day job of elephant-wrangling to be a rock band roadie in Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett. Zookeeping would seem to be the ideal job for him, with his experience of elephants…

(6) A You-Tube clip exists of a zookeeper in exactly this position, being sat on by a mischievous elephant who then realises the essential truth of the verse about elephants in the Hedgehog Song. The keeper is saved from life as a pachydermian butt-plug only by an unstoppable flow of alarmed pachydermian diorrhea...

(7) Although in the aftermath of the incident, visitor numbers had actually tripled, from those hoping for a repetition of the incident. This is Ankh-Morpork, don't forget. Real-life incidents of this sort are not uncommon in zoos and are a situation keepers are briefed in. Zoo security isn't always abut stopping the animals getting out... A deranged woman in the USA wanted to get closer to those adorable little kitties in the lion enclosure. The enraged mother did not want to share the joys. A man in Holland thought he could be at one with the polar bears by establishing eye contact. Bad move. And the man in Belgium who wanted to run with the timber wolves...