The Mission Animal Rescue had been formed to care for injured and confiscated wildlife. Every animal had a history, typically a sad one. Simon, the rhesus monkey, had his teeth pulled out by an inconsiderate owner. His food had to be liquefied everyday. Daisy, a Florida panther, had been caught while guarding her sister’s skinned carcass, which was left to rot by poachers. Ricky Ricardo and Lucy, the ostriches, hadn’t been abused, but their story was strange.
A rich woman who owned an ostrich farm in upstate New York donated them. She told Will she had a dream in which Ricky ran up to her, flaring his short, black and white wings, screeching over and over in Spanish, “Take me to Cuba!” The woman was so struck by this vision that she got on the phone the next day to export him and his mate. The condition of US-Cuba relations would not allow this regardless of her wealth and influence. She settled on shipping them to the Mission, which was as close to Cuba as she could send them.
Bemel the Tiger had his own strange story. He was rescued from the hands of an incompetent stripper named Princess Glitter-Cheeks. This exotic dancer thought she could garner more attention and tips if she incorporated a tiger cub into her routine. How he was involved, no one really knows. The only known fact is that shortly after hitting puberty, Belem playfully pounced on Princess Glitter-Cheeks. She had made the mistake of turning her naked backside to him during her show. Her stilettos slipped beneath her and she landed face-first on the glossy stage floor, losing a tooth in the process. The toothless stripper with nominal relations to royalty dropped Belem off at the Mission shortly after the painful, embarrassing incident.
The other tiger, Sass, joined Belem exactly one month after we moved in—the day Karkus showed up.
At first, I forced myself to like Karkus. His pasty-white skin, greasy strawberry-blonde hair, and the layer of filth that clung to him nauseated me. His crass manner grated against my personality like heavy-duty sandpaper. But he made Sandy laugh and he worked hard. She took to him very quickly. That irked me. I did not trust him, but other than his vulgarity, he made no overt attacks on me. In fact, he seemed fond of me, and the Mission benefited from having him around.
Karkus only came around when Sandy worked. She got up at six every morning and headed to the feed room to prepare meals for the carnivores. Without fail, Karkus would be waiting for her outside the tiny air-conditioned building. If I happened be helping that day he would greet us and find something to fix around the property, but if I didn’t show up, he’d follow her in to help prepare the meals. This bothered me, but I did not want to argue with Sandy.
“He’s just a fun guy to work with. Get over it,” Sandy would growl when I finally tried voicing my presentiments. “Am I just being jealous?” I’d ask myself out loud when I was alone. I didn't want to admit that Karkus received more of Sandy's attention than I did. It cut into my soul.
Sass' homecoming kept everyone distracted. She was a purebred Bengal, young and full of life, replete with the viciousness of birth outside of captivity. It took a forklift to move her small cage from the truck bed to the back of the property where Belem lay panting in the shade. His ears twitched when Sass’ guttural growls reached him.
Sandy opened the pen neighboring Belem’s enclosure. His body sprang to massive life as Sass’ cage was carefully placed inside. Only a chain-link fence separated the newcomer from Belem, but a gate had been built that would allow access from one enclosure to the other. The forklift moved out. Sandy closed Sass' pen and used a rope to open her cage. The tiger didn’t dash out. She hissed and growled in a corner, fearful of her new surroundings; she retracted her lips to reveal two sets of long fangs.
Everyone watched in anticipation, breaths held, waiting to see if the two tigers would take to one another. Slowly, Belem strolled up to the fence to get a better look. He sniffed loudly trying to catch Sass’ scent. Sass stopped growling, but her fangs remained bare. She looked like corporeal venom coiled up into a tight, demonic spring.
Belem broke the tension. He got as close to the fence as he could, lifted a hind leg, and shot a stream of strong-smelling urine towards Sass. Sass sniffed Belem’s musk, hiding her fangs. It was over. After a few minutes, Sandy pulled a second rope that lifted the gate separating the tiger enclosures. Within an hour the pair lay side by side, licking each other’s fur.
It shocked me to see how small she was compared to Belem. I had grown so accustomed to the oversized, hybrid male that I forgot how big an actual Bengal was. Yet, what Sass lacked in size she made up with ferocity.
For the next few months I worked, cared for Jeremiah and Salem, and watched my wife from afar as the Mission Animal Rescue bloomed. Often, I spent my evenings in front of Belem’s and Sass’ enclosure while the boys slept and Sandy continued to work. Karkus followed her around like a dog. Each night, before she went to bed, he disappeared. He returned every morning just after I drove off to work. Karkus had a way of knowing when I was around, but weekend mornings were all mine, thankfully.
I’d wake up just in time to follow Sandy out the door. Jeremiah and Salem remained behind, snoring lightly in their sleep, the baby monitor hissing gently beside them. Our morning was spent feeding the larger animals. We’d walk towards the feed room where we’d fill up five metal bowls with raw meat and four buckets with donated produce and grain. One bowl was for Belem, one for Sass, one for Daisy, and two for the wolves, Tyson and Michelle. The buckets were for the pigs, the black bear, and Chantee the Camel.
Chantee loved palm leaves, in addition to his grain and produce. I fed him by hand, petting his short, tan coat in the process. He didn’t like it very much, but he put up with it as long as I had something to feed him. Sometimes I brought him apples, but he’d even eat raw potatoes. I didn’t really start liking him until the day I fell for one of his pranks.
That particular morning I walked towards his enclosure with a bucket of apples dangling in my hand. Usually, he'd bring his massive head over the fence and watch me, stomping his feet impatiently. I expected the same behavior, but he was nowhere to be seen.
At first, I thought he had escaped, but I quickly realized I would have noticed a wandering camel on the property. I ran up to the fence, searching every corner of his habitat with my gaze. Finally, I saw him, covered in dirt, lying motionless on the ground.
My heart sank. Chantee was dead, but I couldn’t think of anything that could have killed him. He had plenty of water, he ate every day, and he hadn’t shown any symptoms of illness. I had to tell Sandy what happened.
As I turned around, one of his legs twitched. I froze, watching to make sure my eyes hadn't played tricks on me. Within a few seconds Chantee’s massive body began rolling from side to side. He kicked his legs wildly, covering himself with dirt. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. I yelled his name and he ran to me, taking a red apple out of my hand. At that moment, I couldn’t have been happier.