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By Julian Drury
Since I was a child, my dad never liked the way I looked at him. He would take me to Audubon Zoo when he was able, and commented that I had “eyes like a zoo animal.” I loved the zoo as a child, while my dad wasn’t as enthusiastic yet took me anyway because he knew I enjoyed it. Because of my natural affinity with the animals, my dad claimed that I had the same look in my eyes. Since childhood, my dad referred to me as “Zoo Eyes”, and I warmed to that name. My dad died two days after my twentieth birthday. Cirrhosis of the liver. That was the last time anyone called me Zoo Eyes. I still called myself that, however. No one understood the reason I called myself Zoo Eyes, and I never bothered to explain it properly. Perhaps I was like the animals, in that way. Predators and prey never have names.
My favorite animals in the zoo were the Komodo dragons. I remember the day their exhibit opened. My dad and a friend of his took me to the zoo, yet they started drinking beer and wound up losing me near a small playground. I saw signs for the new Komodo dragon exhibit and decided to view these creatures for myself. The dragons were displayed behind glass walls that encased the artificial habitat. Rocks, shrubbery, and fake bones were meant to fool the dragons, yet they weren’t fooled. They knew they were being watched, and knew it was for personal amusement. I sat on a bronze statue of one of the dragons outside the exhibit.
At first contact the creatures lanced me with their gaze, an ancient stare that sang ballads of prehistoric times, times before man, before civilization, before laws, before judgment. The eyes of the dragon are intricate, with a primal script that spoke of a lineage of great power, of a time when dragon ruled man. In the near center of a Komodo dragon’s eye is a small golden ring, which seems to act as a protective barrier. The golden ring may seem to some observers as a halo, an object of holy significance. Yet, the rings are something more than that, and even as a child I knew that there was something far older and stronger to these creatures than religion. My dad eventually found me two hours later, in the custody of zoo staff who scolded him for leaving me alone.
The zoo was of course full of many animals, some I related more to than others. I generally had a greater interest in reptiles. As a child this originated as an interest in dinosaurs, and out of this I found myself visiting three areas of the zoo the most; The Reptile House, the Alligator Swamp, and the Komodo dragon exhibit of course. The alligators were interesting of course, yet they seemed much more menacing than the Komodo dragons. They always seemed conniving, scheming, and treacherous. Alligators have those blackish eyes, and always creep their way through water covered in green swamp muck. They would gladly bite the hand that fed them. I found the snakes of the reptile house more interesting than the alligators, mainly because they reminded me of the Komodo dragons in the sense of their attitude. The snakes rarely performed, usually lying still coiled up in the corner of their prisons, aware of their situation.
The mammals were the least interesting, save for the jaguars at the Jaguar Jungle. They seemed much like the dragons too, always aware, always watching. Jaguar’s eyes are different though, like spiked emeralds. They also had a tendency to show off, which did not always interest me. The monkeys sometimes gave me moments to laugh, but I found them to be spiteful and full of false pride. They were creatures who somehow were never truly aware of their captivity, never accepting the reality of their fate.
As an adult, I continued to visit the zoo, with the main focus being the Komodo dragons. I started going every other weekend, then every weekend, which soon turned into a multiple days a week. I visited the zoo so much that some visitors believed I worked there. As an adult, the dragons are the most graceful animals imaginable. They aren’t attention cravers, they usually lie still and bath in the sunlight. By doing so they deprive their human audience of that excitement, that carnal pleasure of watching a creature of nature perform. Instead of showing off, the majestic dragons lay on their bellies and gaze upon their captors with those golden rings, reading our thoughts as they process. I appreciate this more from the dragons as an adult than when I was a child. The skin of the dragons shine, and offer assorted ridges that appear as golden sand dunes, reflecting the ancient treasures of dragon kings and queens, gold forged by natural growth rather than by metallurgy. The claws of the dragon are like scythe blades, the tail like a fallen mountain. The dragons are always aware of their surroundings. I learned from them how powerful and rich they truly are. I learned this through endless visits into the realm of their eyes.
One could say the animals could speak to me, yet they did not speak in a way that humans would speak to each other. There were no words or language. The Komodo dragons had unique communication. The way they spoke was more in the gleam of the eyes, a nod of the head, or slight swish of the tail. The inward and outward movements of the forked tongue signaled frustration, and flicks of the eyes signaled curiosity. The eyes are like blueprints, a great insight into the history and knowledge that the creatures held. It seemed that I had the ability to read into their thoughts, the way they could read into mine. I could see their pain and their languished spirit. I wanted to help them.
I lost my job after missing too many shifts, mainly due to my visiting the zoo. My job required me to type ad slogans onto word documents while surrounded by a glass cubicle. My bosses always looked at us through the glass, and overtime I began to feel imprisoned. Behind my cubicle was open glass which looked out onto the street. Sometimes kids would run by and throw rocks and debris at the window. Occasional weird men in thin white shirts and green short-shorts would stare and press their freckled faces against the glass. Someone was even stabbed by a homeless teenager in plain view, through the glass. Someone was always there, watching. No one truly knows humiliation until they become a public spectacle and a private shadow.
Being fired put me in dire financial straits and I wondered what course of action to take. I thought about my dad, specifically his funeral. I remembered how painful it was that no one would ever call me “Zoo Eyes” again. It was a terrible feeling, to lose a piece of myself. I never had friends, nor dates, or any sense of the world outside of home. After the funeral, I finally had to be “my own man.” I never was, nor ever could be. A caged animal does not sing when fed by a strong hand. Visiting the zoo was the only way I could cope. I worked to escape with the animals, especially the dragons. My escape was now threatened. Everyone has an escape, an irrational half that can never be separated from the whole. I had to become Zoo Eyes again.
I had only a small pool of money left. I visited the zoo one last time. Instead of going straight to the dragons, I decided to pay homage to all of the animals. After all, I despised none of them per-say, and all of them were equal victims. The animals needed to know that I had a mission, as a courtesy. The first to be freed were the Komodo dragons.
My hand touched the glass wall of their prison. I told them of what I planned. They were certain it would end in failure, as the golden rings of their eyes coiled inward and glistened with doubt. Their forked tongues bolted out of their mouths, and it seemed that my old friends no longer trusted me in my judgment. I felt neither betrayal or doubt. They would come to see that I was not patronizing them. That’s when I decided to lift my pistol in the air and aim toward the glass wall of the dragon’s prison. I could set them free and become one of them. It was time for me to become a dragon, a zoo animal, what I was always meant to be. My transformation started with my eyes.