by Lucie Britsch
My phone buzzed and I ignored it. It buzzed again. My boss was calling me. I answered it.
I bought a zoo, he shouted. He was outside somewhere, on his way to the office, or in a mental ward.
What? I said. I was just getting to work, my eyes barely open.
I bought a zoo, he shouted again. Well, it was a zoo, it’s empty now.
I saw him then, crossing the road, waving at me. He was in white jeans and a blazer. He probably thought Miami Vice was a show about two cops, one called Miami, one called Vice.
You bought an abandoned zoo? I said, when he’d caught up to me.
Yes, he said, looking very pleased with himself and all his money.
Are you having some sort of breakdown? I said, showing my security tag to the security guard.
It’s my big new idea, he said, marching into his office.
Come in, he said, close the door. I don’t want to tell anyone yet. Even though he’d just told the entire city.
I went in and reluctantly closed the door. You weren’t supposed to close doors now, but the room had glass walls, so I felt as safe as I ever felt, which was not very.
Sit, he said. I sat.
Reality TV is so 90’s, he said, don’t you think?
Well, yes, I said, but it’s also what we’ve made for years now, and we have several shows that people still seem to watch. Our ratings were good. Consistent. Two underrated things.
I don’t, he said, spinning in his chair like a child. I’m watching a lot of Nordic crime.
I didn’t trust people obsessed with Nordic crime weren’t just learning how to do crimes, but in a classy way, in jumpers.
You said something about a zoo? I said, I wanted to say, shouted, but didn’t want him to start again.
Yes, he said, stopping spinning. I’m getting to that. Reality TV is dead, he said, I’m calling it.
Ok, but do I still have a job?
Of course, he said, laughing, at me, we’re just going to give people something new, he said. Don’t you think it’s time? To be braver? Bolder?
I do, I said. But he was still a middle-aged white man and his idea of brave and bold were different to mine. His was a new sandwich, mine a face tattoo.
People want something more than just some girl getting drunk and vomiting in her hair, don’t you think? he said.
I quite like those shows, I said. We make those shows, I said, and well.
We did, he said, but now we’re going to make something else.
Ok, I said, waiting for him to suggest boys getting drunk and vomiting in their hair. His idea of playing with gender roles.
I’m going to open a human zoo, he said.
Right, I said. Start the conversation.
What? He said, then, No, shook his head. It’s not a social commentary. It’s just for fun, he said. Ratings, he said, eyes glinting. He wanted enough money to not just buy a zoo but buy an ocean maybe.
Right, I said, my eyes still barely open.
We get people to live as animals and film it, he said.
Because people will do anything to be on TV.
Exactly, he said.
And because you just bought a zoo, I said.
Exactly, he said.
What animals? I said, getting out my laptop, like I was online shopping now.
Elephants, lions, I don’t know yet, the usual, he said, waving his hand around. I worried then he only knew those two animals, because they’d both been in movies.
I haven’t thought it through completely, he said.
But you bought the zoo already?
You have too much money, I said.
I know, he said, thinking too much was a good thing.
And I don’t just want these young wannabes, he said, I’m bored of beautiful idiots. I want families, he said. All people, he said, but couldn’t tell me any.
But we treat them like animals? I said, trying to get it straight in my head, for when he made me write it up, to pitch people, but also for court.
People might complain, I said.
Twitter will fucking love it, he said. We have them all sign things, it’s fine, he said.
Monkeys! He shouted then, like he just remembered another animal. We’ll need monkeys! he said. They’re always good for a laugh.
All the monkeys I’d see in zoos looked like they needed therapy.
Of course, I said, trying not to laugh at him now, clearly having a very rich person’s breakdown. One where you already had a yacht, so you bought a zoo.
Have a brainstorming session, let me know what animals people want, he said, standing up. We were done.
So, we’re actually doing this? I said, standing up, closing my laptop.
What bit of I bought a zoo didn’t you understand? he said.
He was opening his door then, calling everyone for a meeting.
I have a big announcement, he said.
The news went down well. People didn’t care as long as they still had jobs. As soon as the current season of our island dating show came to an end, we were doing the zoo thing. I realized then he probably owned that island.
Things moved fast after that, throwing money at things fast, but it wasn’t my money, so I didn’t care. An open casting went out to find people. The zoo was transformed into a zoo where people could live as animals. It was happening. I was making something happen.
I told my boss I wanted a creator credit, because I’d helped him make his crazy idea a reality. He basically just bought a zoo, shouted his idea at me, and I made it work.
Ok, he said, in case things went wrong, there’d be someone else to blame. Me.
Why not just throw some babies in a shark tank? the man I was seeing said.
That’s our next show, I said.
He liked shows with narrative and arcs and suspense and love. I liked to pay my rent.
There were millions of people just waiting to sign up for whatever crazy new show wanted people who didn’t care what they did for five minutes of fame. There were agencies full of people who would do anything, one was called We Will Do Anything. All they had to do was sign something that said they wouldn’t sue us, or kill themselves, if things went wrong.
But my boss had said he wanted a range of people. Families, he’d said, that were interested in being part of an experiment.
If we sold it as an experiment in behaviour, human and animal, we’d get a better time slot, more money, better publicity. An award maybe, if it worked and no one died, or accused anyone of inappropriate behaviour (it was all inappropriate).
What happened to that screenplay you were writing, the man I was seeing said, over tacos, over our laps.
It’s still there, I said. I’m helping someone else fulfill their dream right now.
Did he dream it?
No, he bought it.
I dreamt about it though. Dreamt about it descending into madness and pulling me with it but I welcomed it. It passed the time.
We did a survey to find out what animal’s people wanted to be, but it wasn’t helpful.
A lot of people were dumb. They either said cat, dog or panther. A few said wolverine, because they had never actually seen a real wolverine. What they meant was they wanted to be Hugh Jackman, and we couldn’t have a zoo that was cats and dogs, and then one panther and one man pretending to be Hugh Jackman, because that would be weird. I argued it would be great Tv, but my boss said no. If anyone was going to be Hugh Jackman it was him.
We changed tactics, gave people a list of popular zoo animals to choose from, then hired experts in those animals to over-see things. We customized the zoo enclosures for said animals, tweaked it for humans pretending to be animals, rigged up a zillion cameras, followed by several days of meetings to come up with every situation ever that might happen and how to handle it. It was mostly us worrying about how they would go to the bathroom and what would happen if any animals got out and there was interspecies sex, or any sex.
I busted a gut working all hours to make the show a reality. I wanted to show this man that I could work with madness. That I knew madness. I wasn’t an ideas person; I was a making other people’s ideas reality person. It was why I worked in reality TV. Why I worked in TV. I didn’t want there to only be a manbe man behind the curtain. I wanted to be exhausted at the end of the day so I couldn’t possibly work on my screenplay.
At the last minute we remembered zoos had zookeepers, so I hired some out of work actors to play them, giving the show a whole new element. They were allowed to have sex but not with the animals obviously, same as usual.
The animals chosen were meerkats, wolves, tigers and bears. We argued about whether to have primates. I thought it would be too easy, someone else thought it might be offensive. But my boss said he wanted monkeys, because he’d shouted monkeys at me in his office, wanted to retain some control over this thing, that was quickly escalating into a farce.
The people auditioning had to say what animal they wanted to be. We told them they wouldn’t be wearing costumes but they would have a shirt that said what they were. They would be treated the same as zoo animals, fed and cleaned out and checked etc. If they didn’t want an out of work actor playing a vet to check their temperature, now was the time to say. Most were cool with it.
I suggested that if it went well, we could open the zoo to visitors, give it an interactive, immersive feel for viewers. Charge admission obviously. Merch. Maybe another country would open a human zoo and we could do breeding programs I said, spiralling. I was just throwing ideas out there now, as a joke mostly, adding to the madness, giving in to it.
I was surprised how many people wanted to take part. We explained how hard it would be, or I did, my boss was on his yacht, how they wouldn’t be allowed to talk, how they’d only be allowed to do what their animal would do, eat, etc. But people were still up for it.
Each animal would be taught how to be their animal by an expert before we started filming. We would of course be filming that too, use it for other shows, back story. We would see the people in their ordinary life and then see them saying why they wanted to do this then see them coming to the zoo and training to be their animal and then what happened next. Madness was my prediction. I was glad to be too dead inside to get too attached to these morons but new viewers would be just the right amount of dead.
Contestants could leave at any time. It was only me trapped in my contract and trapped in my need to not let this rich powerful man down.
The first episode was the humans getting ready, leaving their human lives behind, and entering the zoo. The second episode was them being shown by the experts how to live as their animals. The third episode they had to live as their animals, and if they did anything human, like stood up, or said anything, they were given a red card. Three red cards and they were replaced. After an hour I would have needed a Twix and been sent home. The contestants could break character for diary room entries where we got to mostly hear about how much they missed McDonalds.
Everything was going well. Viewing ratings were good. There was a buzz. Only a few people had issue with it. Most people were desperate to see some people playing at being meerkats on TV, and never knew till they saw it.
It became a huge word of mouth hit. One of the humans playing a bear had a huge following. Someone started a twitter account for him. He got really into it. He just sat there most of the time, refusing to move. All he did was eat and scratch a lot. People tuned in to see if he’d moved yet.
And then something weird happened. Wild animals started turning up. Birds, rabbits, coyotes. All trying to get air time. The wolves would be doing wolf stuff and suddenly a rabbit would be in the enclosure and one of the wolves wouldn’t know what to do, instinct would be to killbe kill it, but they weren’t real wolves, they were people, so they ignored it. People wondered if it was part of the show, part of the experiment. But it was just a rabbit dicking with us. We had security remove the rabbit from set but another one came back, with his friend. Up till then the only real animals we had to deal with werewhere birds, who gave zero shits about boundaries but shat on most things.
Then a big cat came. I forget which, it was a cat, and big, and we couldn’t ignore it. It broke into the zoo.
Thankfully it was caught on camera and security were alerted who freaked out and called me who called animal control who came and tranquilized it before it mauled any contestants. But it was a close call.
They think it was one of those wild animal’s people kept as pets and then released into the wild before they got arrested or mauled. There were tonnes of them out there, one for every idiot.
I got the call when I was in a movie with the man I was seeing. He said, go, this is your baby, and I said, no, this is some man’s baby who handed me it and now I’m trying not to let it die.
But then more animals showed up. Like they heard there was a zoo for humans and wanted to see. Like the animals were telling their friends and they didn’t have TV’s so they had to come and actually see for themselves. Animal control had to be on hand at all times, using the budget we usually used for cleaning up vomit or breaking up girls pulling each-others hair out on our other shows.
The humans in the zoo started to get freaked out, started to have existential breakdowns, but it was all on camera, so it was good TV.
Isn’t it marvellous! My boss shouted at me from his yacht.
The contestants started to say they didn’t feel safe and were talking about leaving. We ensured them they were safe and then I went and cried in the bathroom because none of us are ever safe with the possibility of madness always looming.
Maybe it’s not right what we’re doing, one of the wolves said, off camera, and our response was, if you don’t want to do it anymore there are plenty of people who do, and the wolf rolled his eyes, scratched, got back on all fours, went back to being a wolf.
We opened the zoo to the public for one day, as a trial. Family and friends of the contestants came to see their loved ones and they had to stay in character or risk getting thrown off. It made great TV. There were a lot of tears. From the families. Mums saying things like, I put you through college for this?
Then someone threw a donut at one of the bears. The bear didn’t appreciate it and threw it back, only it hit a child and things escalated fast.
One of the wolves got out, fucked one of the bears, we were taken off air.
Why would you film it? I shouted at one of the camera men.
How could I not? He said.
We went out on a high, ratings wise.
I went back to working on the next season of the island dating show, glad to be working with humans for once, even ones that wanted to go on an island dating show. I had more time to think about writing that screenplay.
My phone buzzed. My boss.
What about animals on yachts? He shouted, and I hoped he got eaten by a shark, only no one filmed it, so no one cared.
Lucie Britsch’s writing has appeared in Catapult Story, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Split Lip Magazine, and The Sun, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Sad Janet, is available now from Riverhead Books.
Image source: C.C. Pierce