For my part, I could think of two ways to interpret Orson's behavior. On the one hand, my impression of Orson was colored by the powerful imagery in Rilke's poem. Orson's behavior seemed consistent with Rilke's panther in many disturbing ways. On the other hand, it occurred to me how incredibly patient Orson seemed as he paced. He didn't appear agitated or rushed or neurotic. He looked like he just wanted to walk. A long way. Sometimes his path took him up over rough terrain, but, in general, he walked along on flat ground. And to walk a long way over relatively flat ground in a somewhat less than spacious space, Orson would have to walk and turn around, walk and turn around, walk and turn around. So be it.
The second time I saw Orson, he wasn't nearly as restless, although he was very much up and about. He yawned, loped a few slow loops around his enclosure, rubbed his face on a rock and then a log, and even lifted his tail a long moment to urinate. (This last reminded me of one time, long ago, when my aunt took me to a zoo. Back then, there was a particular lion, maybe 40 or 50 feet away from me, who peed a long arcing jet through the midday air right onto my coat. All over my coat. It was gross. I screamed and jumped away, too late. Just for the record, I'm mentioning this right here because you aren't likely to read it anywhere else. Big cats can really projectile pee. In other words, if the tail of a nearby tiger lifts up, and he's facing away from you, then you might better cut and run.)
So who'd seen Orson enough to really get to know him? Who could justify the ways of Orson to person?
Jo Ann Haddad is Orson's main keeper. A senior mammal keeper at the zoo, Haddad has worked with Orson off and on for the past four years. I reasoned that she had to have some insights on the big guy.
A mother of three (if you don't include her many animal children), Jo Ann Haddad speaks like a rapid-fire water pistol. Perhaps it's her way, in the face of curious zoo-goers and her own vocal youngsters, of getting a word in edgewise. For some reason, when I met Haddad I felt compelled to give her a big, warm hug, but not because she appeared as though she needed one; rather, she gave the impression that she could bestow good hugs. She looked to me like someone who cared.
"Orson's an awesome animal," Haddad told me. "He's very personable. Over the years, he's developed quite a following."
I inferred that because she was Orson's keeper, Haddad enjoyed perhaps the closest sustained contact with him, a closer relationship than Orson shared with any other human being. I wondered if she'd ever petted him. "The only time I've ever touched Orson was when he had to be anesthetized," she said. "I've worked with Orson off and on for four years. I've worked with him specifically for the past year, and in all that time, I've touched him once. And that was when he was immobilized."
Was this for Orson's own good? Haddad told me that it was, but mainly it was for her own good! "It works both ways, but it's more for us than it is for them. We want to keep our fingers. Yes, it's good for the animals to feel independent from us, not to be handled, but the thing to remember is that these are wild animals. If I got in with Orson, or with any of the large cats, even though he knows me, his instinct would probably take over. 'There's something in my enclosure, possibly a predator, and my instinct says to take it down.' I would at least get jumped on or knocked down, and if that didn't mortally wound me, I don't know that I could get out under my own power. I don't know that he would eat me; he would probably bite me and go, 'I don't eat this. This doesn't taste right.' And that would probably be the end of it. So we're very careful that something like that doesn't happen. Because you've only got one shot."
It was easy for me to play up the paranoia in these statements; to scoff and point to Orson's cuddly appearance and so on. But then, it did occur to me that going into Orson's space would be like sweeping in an old war zone for live land mines. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you'd be fine, but that hundredth time... Just think of Roy Horn, from Siegfried and Roy. He'd worked with that tiger for months, and then all of a sudden, one night, it lunged and bit him in the neck. For no reason. Now Roy lives on a respirator. Just like that.
I asked Haddad what she thought about Orson's mentality. Did she ever wonder what was going on inside his head? "It's part of my job to look after Orson's well-being," she said. "I don't want him to be neurotic. I don't want him to be stressed. And I'm always looking for signs of that. If I see fur loss, or weight loss, or any clues that might lead me in that direction, then I need to address it. I think Orson's pretty happy. Like I said, he's very personable. He seems to enjoy interaction with us. He seems to like to watch what's going on. But I don't know what he's thinking any more than I know what my one-year-old is thinking. All I know is what I'm picking up from his behavior. And I see that Orson likes to sit on this certain rock, near the back of his enclosure, where he can see lots of things going on. He likes to have a good vantage where he can see what's going on around the periphery of his territory."