Photo by Max van den Oetelaar

Tourists are lured through the doors of makeshift armoured buses by the promise of seeing big cats up close. Holding cameras, they hunch into each row, like oversized schoolchildren, limbs spilling everywhere. Everyone peers through windows reinforced with metal caging. Outside, the animals are pacing. Animals that once camouflaged into the temperate forest lands beyond the gates now collect around the vehicle. They know what’s coming.

Live chickens, ducks, pheasants, goats, and cattle can all be purchased at the park’s entrance. Visitors, as if ordering at a restaurant, buy entire animals. Except instead of herbed, halved, fried, baked, or BBQed, this chicken isn’t dead. After all, it wouldn’t be a live show if the bait weren’t still breathing. This process of feeding is the reason most people come to the park.

What is it about the act that is so worth standing in line for? We are, after all, a planet of impatient people. We fast forward through commercials, switch to shorter lines in grocery stores, and yet, here, we are willing for once to wait. To take a taxi, from a ferry, from a train, from a plane, from an entirely different city, from an entirely different country, just to feed a tiger. Just to see them with their three-inch-long teeth crack skulls like eggs shells.

Looking on from behind the safety of fortified glass, we have all been drawn from our homes by some urge. Is it merely the carnage? A deep blood lust, usually stemmed with boxing and full-contact sports? What has us lining up to buy the cats their lunch?

Perhaps something speaks, in a universal tongue from deep in our base brains. Bubbles up from that clutch of parts – the stem, cerebellum, and basal ganglia – and reminds us how old we are as a species. How long it’s been since we’ve had to try and stay alive. Since we first stood upright. Perhaps it is that initial caveman now cometh with wants not sated by a mixed martial arts match or rubbernecking a car crash. A dormant man that now looks for something more blood than sport.

We’ve built a world in which we are rarely threatened, unless the threat is actively sought. Perhaps we’ve come looking for something worth watching. Usually, the instincts of the carnivore when captive are shielded from the public. When fed, the lumbering leopard tares hunks of manicured, red flesh from a dish marked Humphrey. The lion is tossed what is called “a big, juicy steak” for the benefit of the second grade class on a field trip. Of course, they’re natural hunters, but only far away on the vast grassy plains of another continent. The only sign of their bone-crunching power or their claws that shred skin like curtains is in the placard beside their cage that promises that this is “the king of the jungle.” Even for royalty, there is no hunting, only prepackaged meals.

Except at petting zoos, where gumball machines are retrofitted to spew farm animal-feed instead of sweets. Visitors for the low price of a quarter can receive a small handful of musty pellets to thrown to the local goat population. The goats butt heads and scream as shrilly as their human counterparts. They bound atop their huts, shoving each other out of the way, exploring the same pen with the identical enthusiasm every day. They wear collars, like dogs, adorned with a bell. One is always called Billy.

At the park, Billy the kid is slid off of the back of a truck onto the bare dirt of the enclosure. The goat lands contorted in the path of the encroaching felines. They’ve been stalking the buses, following them at a distance since long before their power lunch hit the earth. They can smell the tourists and the half-bound calf due for expulsion next.

Their length is incredible in those first few moments. How they stretch across the ground towards the helpless animals. At eleven feet in length when fully extended, the tiger makes even a full-grown man seem small. Ten or more, each weighing anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds, are suddenly making short work of Billy, stripping him into unrecognisable pieces.

The contents of the bus are busy filming the encounter. They chuckle and coo in amazement, gasping as if this ending was any kind of surprise. One visitor has paid handsomely to have beef on the menu and points excitedly. A truck hoists its rear end while a second car circles it, honking to scramble the cats. The crowd emits an almost satisfied “Ahh!” when the second course, a cow, is pushed into the way of the oncoming predators.

There is little need to sneak up on their food in this instance, but the tiger’s instinct is to do so anyway. They crouch and slink then burst with energy. The first bite is dealt to the throat. The cats kill by clamping down on the windpipe, choking their prey, suffocating it, severing the spine, slicing an artery. This show of force isn’t necessary when a chicken is tossed from the driver’s side window onto the roof of one of the circling SUVs. From the bus, it looks like the bird is almost gingerly picked up by one of the larger beasts. The hen is enveloped and disappears.

It is an image that makes one want to test the strength of the window bars. And hope that the lunch from the back of the truck was enough for the tigers. Which lick their lips and watch the vehicles reverse back through the fencing.

The tigers are well fed, and if that is a measure of health, then they are healthy. The shows are daily. The tourists are constant. The supply must meet the demand. There are hundreds at the park. The cats are carefully bred, or is it farmed, for at best conservation and at worst entertainment.

And it is entertaining. In the way that race cars and slasher films are jaw-dropping, attention-holding spectacles. Sure, the park visitor could have opted to give a cow, through Oxfam or Heifer International, to some starving family in a similarly distant village, but how often does one get the chance to feed a tiger? Given there are only so many left in the wild, in the world.

About Zoe Grace Marquedant

Zoe Grace Marquedant (she/her/hers) is a queer writer. She earned her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her work has been featured in Olney Magazine, the Cool Rock Repository, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Talk Vomit. Follow @zoenoumlaut

Zoe Grace Marquedant (she/her/hers) is a queer writer. She earned her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her work has been featured in Olney Magazine, the Cool Rock Repository, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Talk Vomit. Follow @zoenoumlaut

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