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On Tuesday, the media reported that overpopulation would soon become a crisis if the animals kept bearing young. In order for life in the City Zoo to continue, they said, everyone must stop procreating.

This shocking news was cast aside however when it went round that Gus the gilded elephant was to make a Very Important Announcement later in the afternoon. Gus was the kind who thought that every announcement he made was important, so nobody knew quite what to expect. The elephant could be provocative, so the possibilities were tantalizing.

Gus came from the circus along with his son Gus Junior and the reserved capuchin monkey Chichi, his longtime aide-de-camp. The monkey had worn what resembled a bellhop outfit when he performed with Gus in the circus. He no longer wore the ensemble, but he grew to prefer the red fez cap. He felt naked without it strapped to his chin. He was an older capuchin and did not care for lively Monkey Island, preferring instead to live a quieter life with his elephant friends in their elephant’s den. The meerkats swooned when Chichi described the high ceilings. “They really do make a space feel larger,” they enthused.

Gus was a builder. In the circus, his father had taught him all about pitching large tents and larger big tops, and creating other temporary structures. He learned how to create back yard villages for the circus folk by arranging baggage wagons and large crates. He learned his way around trains and train cars, horses, carts, and carriages, and he pulled many carts and carriages himself. The circus taught him discipline and balance, and several great party tricks. It was in the circus that Gus learned the delicate arts of promotion and performance. He took note of the way the ringmasters described the circus and every act in the big top. From them he learned of the extraordinary power of exaggeration and embellishment, and setting high expectations—and then earnestly seeking to meet them. The ringmasters always celebrated the circus as the Greatest Show on Earth! Likewise, that is what Gus tried to deliver with every performance. He admired the ideal of Greatness—and the unprecedented success of the City Zoo represented Greatness in his eyes. Gus had traveled all over the world, but he always maintained that the zoo was the “best stop” he ever made. He swore that he would never live anywhere else on Earth.

In addition to raising both the elevation and the profile of his own exhibit, Gus had been part of a group that spearheaded the building of the zoo’s water wheel on the Wild River, meant to mill grain and generate electricity. He was instrumental in enlarging one of the small barns for the growing animal school. This afternoon, he was to speak from the landing between Elephant Mountain and Rhino Valley. A rumor had gone round during the lunch hour that he was to announce a run for Animal Zookeeper. This was lent credence when the gossipy meerkats noticed that not one of the rhinos was in attendance. They gathered instead at the edge of nearby Rhino Valley where they could hear the proceedings while pretending not to care about it. All of the rhinos were hopelessly political animals, but Spike was the most well known. He was the current Habitat Representative for the Western Grasslands—and it was rumored that he too might announce another run for Animal Zookeeper this season. He huddled close to his loyal staff of Lance and Picket, who were always around to lend him advice or an ear.

Several prairie dogs made the trip from Prairie Dog Towne to see Gus in the plaza. The meerkats were not very keen on the prairie dogs, but they did enjoy being liked by others, so they waved them over to the Eagle’s Nest. The prairie dogs were grateful and said so. They sat up on one of the wrought iron tables nearest the plaza. They did not know much about Gus, but he was well known and well liked, and they looked forward to hearing him.

It had rained Friday morning and remained cloudy. The curtains in the MIX were closed. Tango’s Time would not take place for a while, but several production monkeys milled about on the flat roof of the structure. Some on Monkey Island seemed to be paying attention but most of the monkeys danced and cavorted as usual. They were slinging mud at each other today; a favorite activity.

When Gus emerged from his den, the sun appeared to come out with him. The red bricks glistened under the gaze of God’s watchful eye as the elephant marched confidently down the Grand Staircase from his exhibit. (Few besides Gus referred to it as the “Grand Staircase.” Many thought “staircase” was already pushing it since it was little more than a gentle slope with gentler slopes built into it, but it has been established that the elephant was prone to hyperbole.) In addition to his longtime colleague Chichi, Gus was accompanied by his son Junior, the bison brothers Jack and Jacques, and some random bears and cats. Their boss was Fej the towering giraffe, Gus’s head of security.

“It’s the highest head in the zoo!” Gus would say. The giraffe’s high vantage point and panoramic vision made him the perfect mobile lookout. A variety of other hangers-on always traveled with the elephant. Gus was a handsome beast with a somewhat stern resting face, but an ultimately pleasant demeanor. He had a tangle of orange hair on his head, and his left ear flapped somewhat awkwardly toward the top of his head in a distinctive manner.

Most conspicuous were the brilliant golden crowns attached to the ends of his tusks, which had been trimmed flat in his youth. Gus said the circus was able to sell the tips of his tusks for a lot of money, and that “beautiful ivory carvings” had been made from them, and those sold for even more money. He said the money was to help the circus, but he preferred the shorter length of his tusks; they no longer got in the way of his mighty trunk. Chichi kept the crowns polished to a mirror shine.

Today they flashed in the sun as Gus stood quietly at attention and waited patiently for everyone to settle. When the time was right, he stepped forward, and lifted his trunk to speak: “Hello, my friends. Thank you for coming.” A light cheer rippled through the plaza. “Thank you. Wow, this is some group of animals; thank you. What a big crowd. It’s great to be here overlooking beautiful Primate Plaza, nerve center of the unbelievable City Zoo…

“But unfortunately, it’s a zoo in serious trouble; we have a great zoo but it’s not the greatest anymore; we have a lot of problems; for one thing the food used to be better—and my diet is tree branches, okay? (I like roughage.) But we’re not getting quality food anymore; it’s cheap food is the problem.

“We’re also letting the city take advantage of us with taxes and fees; they tax our railroad and other shipments; they make the zoo pay taxes on other things too; they make more money on the zoo now than they did before the Revolution; did you know that?

Did you know that we send money and food to other zoos? Stuff we grow on the farm? Why do we do that? We give money to the county too; why do we do that? Everyone is ripping us off; people used to pay money to come into the zoo; now we don’t let people in, and we are the ones paying—figure that one out.”

Gus employed a stream-of-consciousness style delivery: his words came quickly, sometimes too quickly. He was prone to stepping on his own sentences. Critics used it against him, but those willing to give him the benefit of the doubt supposed that stepping on things was probably normal for an elephant. Gus gestured with his trunk as he continued.

“And the wall! All around us the crumbling wall. The wall is crumbling, especially at the north bridge and the south mouth of the river; the flooding is an easy fix frankly, but for some reason Balthazar doesn’t want to devote the resources; it’s terrible because the wall is falling apart. Other animals are coming in, animals who don’t know our rules; the bunny rabbits and raccoons are coming in from the woodlands; the rats and stray housecats from the city, some are feral housecats, wild as can be; these animals don’t know our rules; they consume our resources; they consume our food (maybe we should thank them for that one, the cheap food), but they’re spreading disease—and they’re consuming other things too, okay; these are not pet-store animals; they are lost and desperate vagrants. And some, I assume, are fine animals; but others steal food and crops from us, sleep in our hay, and defecate wherever they want; it’s not so good.” The crowd rumbled with agreement. “So the wall is crumbling, the soil underneath is being washed away, the north bridge is still out—how long has it been? The Safari Express can’t make deliveries; it’s harder for the animals who work at the farm to get to work—and that’s a lot of animals; a lot of you here today; you didn’t take the train; I can tell you that. It’s the ‘Safari Depressed.’ We have to improve our infrastructure, our railroad tracks but also our bridges, our paths, our moats; they’re old, but they could be in much better shape; the flooding has made the water level too high for the water wheel to work efficiently; and we didn’t use the water wheel enough in the first place; I got that water wheel built! And now we can’t use it. When the water level is up like right now, too much of the wheel is underwater; we can’t use it; and we can’t use the beautiful rafts we have when the water is so high; but the flooding is a big problem. And where is Balthazar? I transformed Elephant Hill into magnificent Elephant Mountain; the view is incredible; I can fix the flooding, too. But we’re not using the water wheel like we should. We could process a lot more grain and sell it for a lot more if we did it right; we are doing it wrong; we are doing so many things wrong; the farm could make a lot more money; no offense to my fellow pachyderms the pigs, Bubblegum and his group do a great job with the farm, but they’re hogtied by Balthazar’s administration; the farm no longer has the resources to deal with weeds and insects; we’ve got so many animals who eat insects, it’s incredible the farm has an insect problem! Let the anteaters do their jobs. Speaking of problems, Zookeeper Balthazar is the real problem; he’s the problem with all of this; he didn’t keep his promises; either he doesn’t know what he’s doing or he’s doing bad things on purpose.”

Gus and Balthazar had come to rhetorical blows before. After the previous election, a rumor percolated throughout the zoo that Balthazar was not actually a donkey, but rather a mule of unknown lineage and thus ineligible to serve as Animal Zookeeper. Gus seized on this possibility and sought to have the issue investigated. Members of the media belabored the quarrel, gently taking Balthazar’s side. They avoided insulting Gus personally, but they portrayed anyone else who questioned Balthazar’s donkeyness as nothing more than an addled conspiracist. It was a credit to Gus’s celebrity that he was treated with a measure of respect in those days.

Today would be the last of those days.

“Balthazar is all talk, no action; and when he talks, he forgets to mention the problems with the wall and the food and the farm, the rabbits, rats, raccoons, and housecats, the Watering Hole; our beautiful cascading fountain here is always broken; where is the cascade? It should have water cascading down like rain; I love the sound of the rain.

“Speaking of rain, we need to address our drainage infrastructure—look at that: some of you are standing in water; the north bridge is not the only bridge in trouble, we have so many problems, and we need a great leader; Balthazar has not been a good leader, he gives all right speeches, but…so what? Never mind; it’s rhetorical; he’s not cutting it, okay?

“We need a leader who will fix the crumbling wall, and keep out animals out who do not belong in our zoo; we need a leader who can make the farm more successful; bring back the good food; make the farm and the zoo profitable again… So, my friends and fellow animals, I stand with you today here at the foot of magnificent Elephant Mountain to announce that I am officially running for Zookeeper of the City Zoo—and we are going make it the Greatest Zoo on Earth!” The plaza crowd produced a polite cheer.

On Monkey Island, playtime curiously stopped. The monkeys crouched like gargoyles atop the castle and their little dog houses, watching. Meanwhile, Gus brought his announcement to a close and lingered to meet and thank others personally.

Spike stormed away from the edge of the Rhino Valley exhibit followed by Lance and Picket. At the Eagle’s Nest, everyone was happy to have their curiosity satisfied. The meerkats knew Gus as a popular elephant, but they were all great fans of Balthazar, and so could not imagine Gus posing any real challenge to him—but how entertaining the election would be!

Animals like the prairie dogs from the other side of Elephant Mountain had a different reaction: they were intrigued by the famous elephant’s speech and wanted to hear more. It turned out there was a fair amount of agreement about the wall. The rats were indeed a nuisance; they stole a great deal of food, their droppings crunched underfoot virtually everywhere. None of the animals appreciated all the sneaking and squeaking. Moreover, none of the predators liked to eat the rats either, said they had a wang to them, doubtless from the city and the remnants of the people-food they consumed, all the ketchup and cold French fries, pizza crusts, and half-eaten bagels. It was a shame really. The rats looked nice and plump, but torn open they exuded an off odor and such a rancid flavor that even the feeling of warm blood on the chin could not make one a bearable meal. The housecats were afraid of them—and they too could be a problem, along with the raccoons and the rabbits.

It was also true that much of the zoo was slow to drain after even moderate rains, and sometimes waste material backed up into certain exhibits. The prairie dogs in particular found this particularly irksome; they could fix it easily given the resources and the authority; they had neither. Most were unfamiliar with the other issues Gus mentioned, but they looked forward to hearing more from the illustrious elephant. Gus bid everyone a good afternoon and headed back up to the elephant’s den followed closely by his entourage. Halfway up his grand staircase, Gus whispered into Junior’s flapping ear: “Now we find out who our real friends are.”

Excerpted from CITY ZOO an unfairy story by Jeff Pedigo. Copyright ©2024. All rights reserved. Excerpted with permission from the author. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. Just send people the link to cityzoo.us for crying out loud.