It was all over the news. Everyone was warned to stay inside. There had been an incident at the zoo. Well, more than an incident, actually. The entire zoo had been emptied out, and all the animals were roaming free — from the smallest animal to the largest. From the most docile to the most aggressive. Herbivores, omnivores, and most concerning, carnivores. All free and wandering around in the general vicinity of the zoo.
The Animal Liberation Front -- AFL -- had taken responsibility for the actions at the zoo. They had released a manifesto, stating that they would rather see the animals die after a short period of freedom, than to see them live long lives in captivity. So they had liberated them all, releasing over a thousand animals back into the wild. Only it wasn’t really the wild -- it was suburbia, and rural land beyond that. There were only pockets of forest land between giant swaths of settled land — where all the people were.
Not all animals left their cages. The sloths were still in their enclosures, as were the giant tortoises, the Dahl’s sheep. The penguins were found walking around their habitat, unwilling to leave the water. Most of the birds had literally flown the coop, but many were found perched roofs on the zoo’s buildings. But most of the animals had scattered to the wind.
The police believed that there had to have been an inside person, or maybe a former employee. It was too well-coordinated and the group seemed to have an excellent working knowledge of the layout of the zoo, not to mention keys for all of the cages. But the liberation had not gone smoothly. Two AFL members had been killed during the attack at the zoo. One had been trampled to death by the elephants, and another appeared to have been mauled by the polar bears. Her body had been found in the polar bear enclosure, floating in the water.
The police had warned people to stay inside, and keep their pets inside. People in the area complied. Not Bella and Omar, though. They didn’t live in the area, they were just visiting.
It was a wonderful spring day for a picnic. The sun was warm and the sky was clear, save the occasional big, white, fluffy cloud that gambolled across the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun. There was a slight breeze blowing, warm enough to be comfortable, but strong enough to keep the bugs away.
Bella had packed all of their favourite foods. And wine. And chocolate. Everything was stored away in a giant picnic basket, that she had hidden in the trunk. She hoped today’s picnic was going to be special, just like the last time. Little did she know, how special it was going to be.
It was going to be a surprise for Omar, who had kept his eyes shut, at Bella's insistence. They had been travelling on a gravel road for a fair distance before she slowed down and turned into a small parking area, barely big enough for two cars.
“Okay, you can open your eyes.”
Omar did as requested and looked around. “No! Bella, you didn’t!”
“Yup,” she replied. “Happy anniversary!”
Two years ago, Omar had brought Bella to the exact same spot for a picnic. It was the day he had proposed to her, and it had been wonderful. And romantic. It was the type of grand gesture that reinforced Bella’s love for her fiancé.
“I couldn’t think of anything that I would rather do, than spend one of my last few days as a single woman with the man I love. This is such a special place for us. I thought we could … you know … re-enact our last visit here.”
Omar laughed. “I’m all for that!”
“Before we go, let’s turn off our phones,” said Bella. “I don’t want to hear from the caterer, or the wedding planner, or my parents. I want to leave the world behind, and for one afternoon, pretend it's just the two of us, alone in the world.” Omar agreed wholeheartedly.
Their wedding was a week away, and Bella was right. Over the last few days there had been dozens of calls. She was getting weary of making decisions. Her mother had turned into a mother-of-the-bride-zilla — demanding, bossy and rude. Because her parents were “paying for this shindig” she had steamrolled Bella, and insisted on doing it her way.
Bella was tired of the drama and had even fantasized her and Omar eloping — running away and getting married in some small church, just the two of them.
Omar was equally stressed. His family, in particular his father, was not completely on-board with the marriage. It was not that they disapproved of Bella — she made Omar happy enough, and they did seem to be in love. But Omar’s father was not sure that love should be the deciding factor in a marriage. He wanted a business match for his son’s marriage. It had worked for him and Omar’s mother, and he believed it could work for Omar.
But Omar had had not relented. He and Bella were getting married in seven days, regardless of what anyone else wanted for them. And, for this afternoon at least, they were going to have a quiet, romantic picnic, just the two of them. All the decisions, concerns, and griping, could wait until they returned home in the evening.
They got out of the car. Omar grabbed the picnic basket out of the trunk, and Bella the blanket. Bella locked the car, and they turned towards the path.
“Omar, did you see that?” Bella was pointing to the trees. “It looked like a toucan!”
Omar scanned the treetops, and spotted the bird.
“I think you’re right!” He took his phone out of his pocket. He held up his phone and clicked.
“It probably escaped from someone’s house. I hope they find it soon. Something’s going to try and eat it if they don’t.” She had no idea how prophetic her words were.
They started walking into the woods. The path would take them to a lovely waterfall in a clearing, that was about a kilometre from the car.
They followed the path. The forest was quiet. Omar knew that the forest was never really this quiet — there were always birds singing, insects buzzing, and small animals scurrying away from the humans who were invading their territory. But today there was none of that. It was strangely silent. It was as if the forest was holding its breath, waiting.
Suddenly, there was a crashing sound to their left. Omar and Bella stopped, and turned toward the sound. This part of the country was fairly rural, and they both knew that there were deer in the woods. There were coyotes and foxes, as well, but whatever was in the woods was crashing through, not worrying about making noise.
Bella wasn’t worried. She knew that they were too far south to be concerned about the bigger, more dangerous animals, like wolves or bears. She was more interested in seeing the animal than frightened by it.
A giant pig-like creature crashed through the underbrush and crossed the path ten metres in front of them, looked at them, and continued into the forest.
“What the hell was that?” asked Omar.
“It looked like … well, it looked like a warthog.” Bella had been on an African safari, and she knew what a warthog looked like.
“Noooo. A warthog? No. It was probably just a wild boar.” Omar scanned the path ahead of them. He knew that occasionally pigs escaped from surrounding farms and lived in the woods. They could be aggressive and were considered dangerous.
“Maybe,” said Bella, “but it really looked like a warthog!”
“Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” They could hear the animal crashing through the underbrush, moving away from them.
They continued walking. When they reached the waterfall, they both stopped dead in their tracks.
“What the hell …” Omar stood with his mouth slightly agape, pointing with his free hand. He put down the picnic basket, and pulled out his phone, and started taking a video.
“It’s a zebra!” Bella whispered. “What is a zebra doing in the forest?”
Omar knew it was a rhetorical question, but he answered her anyway. “I have no idea.”
Bella looked around the clearing, while Omar videoed the zebra.
“Look,” said Bella, pointing. “Another one.”
Omar followed Bella’s gaze, spotting the second zebra standing back in the trees, watching as the first one drank from the pool at the foot of the waterfalls. Suddenly, both animals lifted their heads, turned, and bolted into the forest.
“Did we frighten them?” asked Omar.
“I don’t think so. We were pretty quiet.” She looked around. “What the hell’s going on, Omar? Toucans, warthogs, zebras. Something’s not right. I think we should get out of here.”
Bella spotted something at the water’s edge. She put the blanket on top of the picnic basket, and walked towards the edge of the pond. She looked down.
“Oh, dear,” she said, looking back at Omar. “You need to see this.”
Omar joined her, and looked where she pointed.
There was a giant animal print in the mud. It was bigger than Omar’s hand.
“I think we should leave, right now,” said Bella. She looked around, searching the immediate area.
“I agree,” said Omar, still looking around.
“Bella,” he whispered, “Don’t move.”
Not ten metres in front of them was a gorilla. It looked at them. They looked at it. Nobody moved.
“What should we do?” asked Bella quietly.
Omar ignored her question, and continued to stare at the gorilla.
Before either party moved, there was a trumpeting from the forest. The gorilla looked over its shoulder, and moved away from the sound, disappearing from sight as it moved deeper into the forest.
“Was that an elephant?” asked Omar.
“I think so,” said Bella, nervously looking around.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked. “It’s like we’re in Jumanji — the original movie, where all the animals are in the town? The one with Robin Williams?” His eyes continued to dart around the surrounding forest. “Let’s go.” He picked up the picnic basket.
“Are you insane?” Bella asked. “The animals can smell food for miles. Leave it!”
Before they left, Bella bent over, opened the picnic basked, and took out the knife she had packed, and the bottle of wine.
“You never know.” She clenched the knife in one hand, blade forward, and handed the bottle of very fine red wine to Omar. “Use it like a club.”
They started quickly walking back the way they had come less than half an hour before.
“Call nine-one-one, and tell them what’s happening,” Bella said, her eyes never stopping their nervous search of the forest.
Omar pulled out his phone.
“Damit. No signal.”
“Of course there’s no signal,” moaned Bella. “Why would we need a signal?” She looked at Omar. “I’m scared.”
“Me too,” said Omar.
They continued to move quickly through the forrest, being as quiet as possible. Without any warning, an ostrich ran past them. Bella screamed, and started running. Omar ran with her.
They heard the scream of an animal deeper in the woods. They didn’t know which animal, but it was definitely a scream of pain.
“Oh, God, Omar.”
They were running full out now, not worrying about noise. They burst through the trees into the small parking area. Bella pulled the keys from out of her pocket, and beeped the locks open, still running. Just before they reached the car, there was movement from behind the vehicle, and an animal jumped up on the roof the car. It eyed them, the way a cat eyes a mouse.
“Tiger! It’s an effing tiger!” yelled Omar, screeching to a stop. Bella stopped beside him.
“Oh God,” she said. “What do we do now?” There was full on panic in her voice.
“I don’t know!” yelled Omar, just as panicked as Bella.
There was rustling from behind them. Bella turned to look. “You are not going to believe this,” she whispered. “Another tiger.”
“We are so screwed,” said Omar. He paused. “Okay, I’ll distract them, and you run for the car.”
“Nope, we’re in this together.”
“No, live or die, we’re doing this together.” She took her eyes off the tigers for a second, to look at Omar. “I’m sorry about all of this. It was supposed to be romantic picnic, not Wild Kingdom.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re together. I love you,” said Omar.
“I love you too.”
They stood with their backs to each, each armed with weapons from a picnic basket, and waited for the circling cats to close in.
“I didn’t realize that the the zoo was so close,” said Omar.
“It’s only about four kilometres, as the crow flies. That’s why you saw so many animals. The area’s wooded, and there’s water.” said Detective Terry Waits. “Right now they have zoo employees, and troops trying to round up the animals.”
She pulled out her notebook, and prepared to to take notes. “So, tell me what happened.” Bella and Omar took turns telling Waits their story.
Bella spoke up. “We should have known something was wrong when we started noticing all the animals. Omar has photos of the toucan, and a video of the zebras. Who sees zebras in the forest?” She paused. “When the tigers had us cornered, I thought we were going to die.” She shook her head, remembering.
“That’s right,” said Omar. “The tigers were circling us. I thought we were going to be eaten. Then they both just stopped, then turned around and ran back into the forest. We ran to the car.”
Bella took over. “But before we could get the car started, this rhino came charging out of the forest, and rammed the car! It tipped us on our side. The air bags exploded.” She rubbed her face, where a bruise was forming. “We sat there for four hours, until you found us.” Bella looked at Waits. “Thank you.”
Detective Terry Waits looked out at the mangled Subaru on its side in the road. She couldn’t get over the fact that a rhino had inflicted so much damage. A rhino! Who the hell ever saw a car versus rhino? She shook her head.
She turned to speak to Bella and Omar. “You were lucky. There have been seven deaths, including two of the ‘liberators.’” She made air quotes with her hands. “Well, seven deaths that we know about. There will probably be more.”
They were sitting in the command centre, an armoured vehicle, supplied by the police. It was cramped, but hopefully it would be able to withstand an attack by a rhino.
“When can we go home?” asked Bella.
“Probably not until in the morning,” said Waits. “It’s not safe to travel on the roads tonight.”
Bella sighed. “At least we’re not spending the night in my car — my poor abused-by-a-rhino car.”
There was a thump on the roof of the vehicle. All three looked up at the ceiling, trying to identify the sound.
“Monkeys?” asked Omar.
“Who knows,” said Waits. “I just know that it’s going to be a very long night, so we should make ourselves comfortable.”