Extremes of Human Endurance

by Rebecca Chekouras

Yellow sunlight crests the towering main gate and filters through the high branches of the acacia tree outside our night house. With little else to do, I laze in my nest bed, the only one awake; sole witness to the arrival of dawn at the lip of the window we can’t reach. In motion at first glacial then swift morning tips over the sill and slides like egg white down the wall to pool on the cement floor. Soon enough the day will stretch down the hill and rouse the gibbons. Their racket will swell out into the big world of people and free animals; the raccoons who eat as they please from dumpsters and deer who drink from pools of dark rain water in the parking lot. Morning is the last quiet of the night. Evening, when open people have gone home, is the first peace of the day. I sit up to stretch and grunt a soft acknowledgement to each of my eight mates who are now in various stages of wakefulness. The balloon sun has escaped the last of the tree line and sailed into open sky. Gibbons hoot and howl in their shrunken, pretend rain forest. In a great call and response representing all continents of the world, birds shriek or trill in reply, elephants hoist their trunks and make that sound humans think of as a trumpet, but I hear the scrape of a stuck wheel. Lions broadcast empty stomachs and nose the air for food, warthogs snuffle black snouts through green grass, and otters splash in their short river loop hunting for fish from the kitchen. All up and down the hill, the entire zoo is awake.

My mates fall in formation behind Jones, our alpha, for the morning routine. I amble over to join them. We scratch and pry broad avenues through the hair of the chimp in front of us to look for…I don’t know exactly what a nit is. I mimic several behaviors simply to fit in. In the lab, where I was born and spent my entire career, we were kept in separate cages; never touched each other. Eventually, when we’re all picked over, we collect in the chute and wait for the click that opens the gate to our day enclosure, the biggest space I’ve ever been in. Open space took some getting used to though it was intriguing for just that reason. I sometimes miss my lab cage or, if not the cage, the seclusion of that tiny, isolated redoubt where I knew what I was required of me. My first day here, at a loss for something to do, I carved a shallow bowl into the dirt behind the Fisher-Price pedal car. I must’ve been operating on instinct. Now I shit there, something of a bumpy line in the sand, to protect my interest in the car. I want something that is mine or, if not mine alone, something I can use regularly without having to fight for it.

Our enclosure hums with the pre-Open countdown. While we huddle in the chute, keepers fill the water stations and rake up our turds as if the people who come to stare at us didn’t just drink a cup of coffee and smoke a cigarette to do the same thing. Click. And we are clear to enter the enclosure for breakfast and sixty minutes of private exercise.

The nine of us climb two stories of scaffolding or rope to pick and pull breakfast, typically lettuce leaves, radishes, and carrots, through the latticed roof of the enclosure where our food is thrown. This arrangement, and I’m just guessing here, is meant to mimic our natural habitat. With the exception of Jones, none of us has ever lived more than fifteen yards from a human being. Drop me in ‘the wild’ and I’d die just as fast as any of you. And this is ironic, if I understand the term, or at best comical because I was bred to map the extremes of your physical and emotional endurance. My great grandfather, Bennett, was the first astronaut to travel into space. His portrait was displayed prominently in the lab. I never met him but in the photograph he looks directly into the camera, an affable smile on his handsome face (this is one of the hardest behaviors to learn because bared teeth are a trigger for chimpanzees). He’s wearing his NASA flight suit. So dashing and bold. His hair is parted down the middle and combed to the sides as though inviting an epic nitpick. His space helmet, tucked under one arm, gleams with adventure. He was The First to break the bonds of earth and soar into space for the United States of America. Not man, not primate, but ASTRONAUT. He went first. Don’t even start on the chimp/human dichotomy. One chromosome separates us. One. I’m stronger by far. You are said to be more intelligent. Marginally, in my experience. It boils down to this: You have guns, we don’t. You also have the key to the enclosure. In other words, you cannot win mano-a-mano and so you compensate. Go build your gas-guzzling SUVs and choke the ocean with plastic while I practice my three-point turn with the Fisher-Price and put some zip into it to liven up things. It’s called Enrichment. For my money (I have none, by the way) it would be more enriching if you took the females off birth control and stopped drugging the males with whatever suppressant is in the peanut butter. But instead of having a family I am the last of my illustrious line.

I pull a few radishes through the mesh and hunker down to peel back the red rind and get to the white flesh. I ate twice a day in the lab, my meals served in stainless steel dishes on a tray. Maisy, smuggled in through Florida as a birthday gift for a five year-old boy, claims she ate breakfast at the table with her human family and was served on a right proper plate. As she grew older and developed strong opinions about which clothes best expressed her identity she refused the airy sundresses her human mom preferred for her and began to raid the boy’s closet for chinos and polo shirts. When her family dumped her at a local rescue, she was wearing a dark suit, white shirt with bolo tie, and new Stan Smiths. Jones, the toughest of us, said at least his food was thrown right at him in his last gig, a low budget safari ride. He and several other chimps purchased on the Congolese black market were erroneously made part of the Savanna Experience and grouped on the open plain rather than up a tree where they could be safe from predators. It honed his wits he said. The food he enjoyed most was hurled from an open train of tiny cars jammed with big people. When the train rattled past on any of its eight daily excursions, Jones ran to the moat and gave riders the finger, a learned stimulus he discovered would provoke a hail of Snicker bars, M&M Peanuts, Slurpies, half-eaten hot dogs, and the occasional taffy apple. Jones could’ve had a brilliant career in research. As it is he has diabetes and his cholesterol chart is a jagged ladder to the stars.

We can get more food throughout the day by solving problems at the Enrichment Box. I’m in total command of the box. As the only lab animal, I am far more adept at puzzles than the others who come from shows and private collections. Whenever someone wants a tangerine or a handful of strawberries, they come to me. I toggle switches and match ridiculously easy pictographs. I get first pick. This is accepted because I open the box and then the several little compartments where food is hidden. I also have the presence of mind to be fair. It’s not rocket science but opening the box cements my standing in the social order and, just like you, once we achieve any degree of stature we are not about to give it up.

By Open my mates and I have been an hour at rearranging blankets in our day nests, bickering over sand shovels, fighting over grapes, and picking imaginary nits off each other to make up. Open people want entertainment. Ha, ha. When they collect at the big viewing window we nap and remain inert no matter how much noise they make. They gawk at us and make faces; scratch their armpits (okay, guilty), beat their chests and pant-hoot. The youngest ones bawl and scream and throw themselves on the ground and refuse to get up. It’s a long day.

By noon, when Open people are at the absolute end of their tether and I need a break from the constant staring, I like to visit the Enrichment Box in a shaded area tucked away from the viewing platforms. I like to know what’s going on. Today, there is nothing in the box. Score one for surprise. After five years, I didn’t think they could anymore. But my customers are lining up behind me and I don’t think they’ll believe me when I tell them there is nothing in the box. I know what you’re thinking: Just show them the empty box. It is laughable how naïve you are. Our bullshit meters outperform yours. We know we are being played every minute of every day. No self-respecting chimp is going to believe I didn’t game that box. Shit. I need to scamper away to where I’ve parked the car.

I’m examining my dirt bowl and just as I’m thinking about hurling the biggest piece at the viewing platform, I hear the smack of wood on wood come from the area closed to the public and look up to see the door to the kitchen building next to our night house fly back into place from where it hit the wall. I climb into the Fisher-Price and peddle over. Open people scream. They always do. At the box, a young woman I’ve never seen before hurries toward me, her arms full of oranges, almonds, and apricots, pits removed because Maisy had a fit last time and weaponized them.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m new.” Like I don’t know that. You can’t move a stick around here without us riffing on it for three days. “Aren’t you handsome,” she coos. I know that, too. There’s a mirror on the Enrichment Box and I was taught in the lab to recognize myself (it wasn’t difficult, I was the one with 20 wires sprouting from his head), something I’ve now taught the others just to relieve our perpetual ennui. I blow her a kiss to build some equity with this chick.

The new keeper comes in close to the bars where they give way to a re-enforced hurricane fence for just a few inches around the box. She opens her side. Okay, this is cool. I’ve never seen anyone load the box. She kneels down and places the fruit on the ground so she can peel back the lid on the almond tin. I stick a finger through the bars and tap an orange, roll it around a bit. I could curl it under my finger and squeeze it through the bars. The skin would break but it would still taste exactly the same and it’s while I’m running mental scenarios as to the cost of this perceived disobedience I notice something else. Her keys swing from her belt loop attached there by a simple snap clasp of the kind I work every day when I open the box. “Aren’t you smart,” she says as I roll the orange around. Again, I know that. If you stacked end-to-end the IQ tests I’ve endured they’d puncture the stratosphere as surely as my great grandfather’s historic flight.

 

#

 

We’ve been meeting at the box every day for weeks. Summer is waning though the days remain fiercely hot. She’s given us a wading pool. The others are wedged in tight as sparrows in a birdbath; outsiders on the edge screaming to get in, those in the water hogging it. Jill, she’s told me her name is Jill, calls me Mkuu the Swahili word for chief. Swahili isn’t spoken in our place of origin. The name is meant to up my crowd appeal and provide marketing tie-ins. In the lab my name was Bennett-4. Anyway, Jill has started to sneak me treats and today we spend a good half-hour sitting together in the shade on either side of the Enrichment Box drinking water and eating Cheetos. We point to the orange dust on each other’s lips and laugh. A ruckus comes up from the wading pool and I glance over to see Maisy, dripping wet, rolled out of the pool and not let back in.

 

#

 

All week we’ve baked under a late summer heat wave. Today is no exception. I’m squatting in the shade with Jill who is telling me about her boyfriend. She thinks he is seeing someone on the DL. This is quite likely as we see the same human male come back to the zoo with a different female and babies all the time. I take a few carrot sticks and pretend to listen but what’s more interesting is the training building next to the kitchen. A throng of keepers has come out and set up a white board in the shade. They place a semicircle of chairs around it. One man stands at the white board while six others take chairs and fan themselves with the handout. Jill is crying now and I put my finger through the bars so she can hold it while I divert my attention to the men.

Their training covers a Code Red, how to limit collateral damage. Yellow means something is going down in an enclosure. We had a Code Yellow recently when a stray cat perhaps thinking it saw other cats jumped into the lemur exhibit and was beaten to death in front of children. That might be the reason for today’s training. Code Orange means an unauthorized person has gotten into an animal exhibit. This is almost always a young male in baggy shorts, his hat turned backwards, who has jumped the too low alligator fence and is attempting a selfie before the gator attempts lunch. Code Red as the more adroit among you may already have guessed is an escaped animal.

Which do you think is the most dangerous animal in the zoo? One charging elephant can flatten an entire village in a minute. We have big cats, lions and tigers. Man eaters. Our grizzly bears stand eight feet tall and can reach higher. The timber wolves can take down a 1,500 lb. moose in less than five minutes. No. I think you know it’s me. Your closest relative in the animal kingdom is every bit as dangerous as are you. I’m faster than you. More agile and I can break every bone in your body. And here’s the kicker, I think like you.

For the second time in as many days, the pool is the center of a disturbance. Jill lets go of my finger and stands, her hand flat above her eyebrows to shield against the burning sun. The youngest females have clustered at the chute and are crying because an all-out fight between Maisy and every comer has upended the pool and now there is no soaking water. Jill leaves to attend to them. I am free to hide in the shade and audit the training as I did a thousand times in my lab days. The man at the white board draws a map of the zoo including out buildings and the parking lot. I have excellent spatial skills and recognize my enclosure, the monkey enclosures around us (we are the alpha apes at the zoo since the gorilla aged out and was put down), and the veterinary hospital we all detest.

White board man now marks the map with three red Xs. When done, he points in three different directions—to the hills behind us where the elephants are, to the meadow on the other side of the grounds beyond, and to the veterinary hospital just down the path from our enclosure. He goes back into the training building. When he does, I know he is in there despite the lack of confirming visual evidence. Object permanence. Just like you. White board man emerges with seven rifles, distributes six; keeps one for himself. An unmarked van rolls to a stop on the dirt road next to the training building, yellow dust settles around the tires. A woman hops from the cab and opens the back. She hands a small box to each man as he climbs aboard rifle in hand.

Jill has lost control of the pool situation. Ape screaming resounds from the hills and provokes answering roars from other enclosures. When I glance back to the van, white board man, one foot on the bumper, the other on the gravel, is looking directly at me. Me! I’ve done nothing. I do nothing. I open the box. That’s my life. I’ve never ventured into space, never held on tight as the rocket beneath me shook its fist at the sky, as needles trapped beneath glass rattled and spun, and riveted seams strained to breaking with lift off. The van drives over the hill and out of sight. I know they’re on the back side of the hill.

Keepers are now shooing humans away from our viewing area in an effort to calm every one down. Women clutch babies to their chests and hurry off to other, less rambunctious exhibits. Everyone in the enclosure is looking at Jill and pointing to Maisy who stands full height, defiant against them. They all have their teeth on display and that brings the big keeper and her whistle. Three short blasts and Jones grudgingly drops to his knuckles and makes his way to the night house chute. He is our alpha. We line up behind him. There’s the click and the gate swings open. We file in for a time out. From the far side of the hill comes the pop, pop, pop of rifle fire.

The others whimper in their little nest beds. The big keeper soothes them with flattery and grapes except for Jones who gets a high fiber biscuit he hides under a leaf because he knows I’ll give him my peanut butter later. I’ve been slipping him my peanut butter for months now because I hope to eventually get a boner and maybe take it to Bongo who has had a baby and see if she’ll say yes. After the big keeper leaves, I swing over to the air vent no bigger than my head and pry off the grid. Outside, Jill takes her key ring from her belt, unlocks the gate to the enclosure, and walks over to the wading pool now as useless as a punctured balloon. Arms akimbo, head down, she regards the hash we’ve made of her simple gesture of kindness. A minute later she wipes her cheeks, leans down, takes up the ruined pool, and drags it behind her to the gate. But now this. This! At the fence she unlocks the enclosure gate FROM THE INSIDE. With the same key. I pop the grid back onto the vent and hurry back to my nest where I curl into a ball, my mind racing.

 

#

 

Jill is late today and when she does come in I notice her shirt has the same purple stains from yesterday when we drank grape juice and ate Funyuns. Her hair is matted and a whiff of pee blows off her. It’s obvious she’s been crying. “Well, he’s moved out,” she says and slumps against her side of the Enrichment Box. A wail comes out of her like ones I heard in the lab at night, like a sound I may have made myself once. I stretch two fingers through the bars and wind her shoelace around one. We sit like this until lunch.

That night we’re given new branches and are at work reassembling our nest beds. At the far end of the night house Maisy is bitching about how many branches we are each allotted and how Curly, our youngest female, has to give one back when Jones comes over and sits down. For a while he just watches me work up my nest.

“Where’d a lab monkey learn to do that?” he asks.

“I watched you,” I say and it’s true. I’ve been confined my entire life. I’ve never done anything natural.

“How big was that cage?” he says.

“Roomy by university standards. Like the big cat cubes at the vet.”

“They did things to you.”

“Yes. They did things to me.” I finish making my nest and arrange a few last leaves just so.

“You ever want to just put it all on Red 7 and spin the wheel?”

“I’ve never even seen a Red 7,” I tell him.

“Bennett, you have to fight for it. You always have to fight for it.” His diabetes hardened feet are so stiff he has to lean forward and rock from one locked leg to the other to get back to his nest.

“Hey,” I call. He turns to look at me. I scamper up, press a puppy Kong loaded with 2 tbsps. of peanut butter into his hand.

 

#

 

The others are still asleep though free birds sing in the come-and-go trees. I stretch and think to rub one out but still can’t get wood. Instead I creep over to the vent and remove the screen. Morning filters through the bamboo encircling most of the enclosure and throws coins of dappled light onto the brown dirt floor. Jill is raking turds and picking up shreds of cardboard boxes we tore up and threw at one another for Enrichment. She’s worked up a sweat and has stripped down to a not-so-white beater. I consider her industry an excellent sign of improving spirits until she puts away the rake and climbs up to one of our day nests where she buttons on her uniform shirt, still splattered with juice stains, and I realize she slept here last night.

The big keeper lumbers out of the kitchen gripping in each fist the wire handle of a white tub. One tub brims with orange carrots, shaggy yellow-green celery in the other. She uses an underhand toss to launch them high enough to land on the mesh roof. Jill is filling our drinking stations along the fence. When she’s within reach, the big keeper squeezes her arm and marches her to the far end of the enclosure. They stand a few inches apart. Only the big keeper talks. Jill shakes her head no or nods yes. Snot glistens on her upper lip.

 

#

 

The zoo is crowded this morning with busloads of school kids and their chaperones. After two hours I’ve had it with being pointed at and ridiculed so I climb into the Fischer-Price. Open people whoop when I drive over to the Enrichment Box followed by staccato bursts of phone cameras until I can duck out of sight.

Jill is at the box loading a few last items. She is having trouble holding on to the bulk peanuts and some spill to the ground. She squats down to reach for a stray nut but winds up on her butt, her shoulder pressed against the bars. “Whoa,” she says. “You ever do Xanax?” Apparently it’s quite something because she is now flat on her back, one cheek waffled into the strip of hurricane fence. “Get over here, you,” she says and I scoot in.

Jill snores like a wildebeest but I hardly care for I am fixated on her keys only an inch from my long and dexterous fingers.

“Your thoughts?” It’s Jones.

“I was just thinking of my great grandfather.”

“And?”

“The significance of his work. The courage. He opened that frontier.”

“And where’s your moon shot?”

I snort and touch Jill’s keys.

Jones looks out over the sun washed enclosure. His back to me he says, “It’s a beautiful day. Feels limitless. Unbound. You know what I mean?”

“I do.”

“You need anything from me?”

“Set Maisy off. Just a little.” We both laugh at that. “You know. Just enough. Will you do that?”

He turns to me, reaches up and cups the back of my head, pulls me close. We stand for a while like that, our foreheads touching, eyes locked. When Jones takes a deep breath I do, too. We let go, straighten up. His hand still on my shoulder, he whispers, “10, 9, 8, 7.” I join him on, “6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” At T minus-zero Jones whirls around on legs like wooden posts and, taking up a sand shovel in each fist, storms the enclosure.

 

#

 

I am running, running down the hill on one knuckle, keys in my other hand, adrenaline pumping. I am screaming. I am pant-hooting. I have a mighty erection. I dart among strollers and dodge toddlers careful not to give a clean line to the white board men closing in on me. Police helicopters arrive on scene and swoop low. The down thrust bats people to the ground. Not me. Peanut butter free, I blast through the parking lot. At the gate I rise to my full height and scream WE HAVE LIFT OFF. A rifle pops. A terrible seam splits the bright afternoon. A burrowing wasp of pain stings my back and I go down roaring. All around me, animals return my call from the rim of our world. I pull myself up, try to keep running. So slow. But look! At last, the pure black of outer space. Glorious!


Rebecca Chekouras is an American fiction writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in numerous local, national, and international publications. She lives in California.