Eva Knott 7:03 p.m., May 17
We were having fun, Daisy and I, but the knowledge that Honey Badger and the most beautiful squirrel in the world were both missing was still foremost in our minds, which produced a sense of remote longing in us that was reflected in our perspective of the other animals; whichever animal we happened to stop in front of was subjected to our distraction.
By early afternoon we had drifted toward the east side of the zoo near the koalas, which is where some of the older enclosures are. We busied ourselves by appraising a nice mongoose in one of the enclosures. The mongoose enclosure was joined on either side by identical bookend enclosures, like a strip mall. Each one of the enclosures is about six feet wide by six feet deep, consisting of a concrete barrier surrounding a grassy bit of land with a few bushes growing in it. At about waist-height the enclosures are capped with rounded metal mesh coverings that vertically extend the exhibits an additional four feet. As we watched the mongoose sniff about, I happened to look to the enclosure on the left. Nibbling from a stainless steel food bowl was the beautiful squirrel. “Look, Daisy!” I cried. “Look, it’s him! The squirrel. The beautiful squirrel.”
We moved away from the mongoose and stood directly in front of the beautiful squirrel’s enclosure. “Yup,” Daisy confirmed happily. “That’s him.”
But as we watched him, the horrible realization that it wasn’t him, not really, settled uncomfortably over us. He still had his gorgeous color and markings, but something was missing. He was lethargic and uninspired. He ate from his bowl with no enthusiasm. His innate compulsion to provide his body with sustenance was undeniable, but it almost seemed to be done with spite. The beautiful squirrel’s very essence had been removed.
The move away from Cat Canyon had been responsible, I was sure of it. The beautiful squirrel’s new home wasn’t terribly small, but it wasn’t terribly big either, nor did it have a tree; in all fairness, any other small animal, such as an echidna or a pine marten would have been reasonably content in the beautiful squirrel’s new home, but having once known the wide expanse of paradise and then being exiled to a small crater in purgatory appeared to be just too difficult for the beautiful squirrel to adjust to.
After he had eaten enough to preserve life, he trudged into a little wooden house and disappeared from view. He didn’t even bother to peek from his doorway.
“He looks sad, Daddy,” Daisy said.
I sighed. “He does. But maybe he’s just not feeling well today. Maybe he has a touch of squirrel flu.”
“Yeah,” Daisy said with as much conviction as she could summon. We both knew he was like this all the time, but we loitered in front of his home for another five minutes, hoping he would recognize us and magically be transformed into his old self. “We better go, Daddy,” Daisy said, touching my arm. “There are other animals to see.”
“Okay, sweetie,” I said. My stubborn hold on the past and the beautiful squirrel’s involuntary place in the present wove themselves together to form a tapestry of misery for both of us, and probably, to one degree or another, Daisy too. I didn’t want to go, but I knew I had to, there was nothing else I could do. It was as if I were somehow aware that as I let go of a coveted lover’s hand that it would be for the very last time.
“Maybe we should get some ice cream,” Daisy suggested as we walked away.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling and placing my hand on the top of her head. “That sounds like a good idea.”
I wondered if the beautiful squirrel truly understood that he was in a different and less desirable home. His behavior certainly suggested he was experiencing a profound sense of loss.
Do animals categorize and remember the past within the clear context that we do? Can they separate memories of a better life from whatever random thoughts course through their minds? Do they even have thoughts as we understand them or are their thoughts more abstract? Or perhaps their thoughts are composed of concepts that include no abstractions at all. Maybe an animal’s mind fashions thoughts entirely in black and white with absolutely no regard for gray: I'm hungry, I'm tired, I'm afraid, I should hibernate, I need to reproduce; thoughts that are so ingrained within them that they are not true thoughts that consist of awareness, judgment, and reasoning, but, rather, a defined arrangement of patterns and instincts; instincts that are turned on and off like a light switch and provoked by nothing more than opportunity and the arrival of the seasons. I’d like to believe this isn’t true. I want to believe that animals have cognition that includes memories, aspirations, and even wishes.
The beautiful squirrel misses his old home dearly. It’s only a quarter of a mile away but it might as well be on the other side of the world. His wonderful old home is now just a memory, distant and unattainable. He sometimes wonders if it had all just been a dream. Has he been in this smaller cage the whole time? Perhaps the smells of chicken fajitas and cheeseburgers being prepared for tourists 100 feet away at Sydney’s Grill, the mongoose next door (a nice fellow really), and he have been here all along. Perhaps the large and extraordinary cage he’d lived in with the easily frightened birds and his splendid tree with the deep hollow in its middle where he could nestle comfortably and hide from the rain, perhaps they never existed at all, it was simply a deep desire to be somewhere better, a desire not constructed from materials that exist in the sunlight of reality but instead are assembled from the fabric of fairy tales and stardust that form the interior of night.
He prefers to sleep away his life now and dream of somewhere else in time where he is, and always will be, the most beautiful squirrel in the world.