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Two summers ago, my wife and I took our daughters to the zoo. As we walked the grounds, we saw a sign advertising the park’s big event: the Cheetah Run. We headed toward the families scouting out their viewing spots and found an empty stretch along the route. Our youngest, Amma, hopped up on my wife’s shoulders for a better view.
A peppy blond zookeeper in a khaki vest appeared. She held a megaphone and the leash of a yellow Labrador retriever. I was confused. I don’t know much about animals, but if she tried to convince my kids that this dog was a cheetah, I was getting a Cheetah Run refund.
She began, “Welcome, everybody! You are about to meet our resident cheetah, Tabitha. Do you think this is Tabitha?”
“Nooooo!” the kids yelled.
“This sweet Labrador is Minnie, Tabitha’s best friend. We introduced them when Tabitha was a baby cheetah, and we raised Minnie alongside Tabitha to help tame her. Whatever Minnie does, Tabitha wants to do.”
The zookeeper motioned toward a parked jeep behind her. A pink stuffed bunny was tied to the tailgate with a fraying rope.
She asked, “Who has a Labrador at home?”
Little hands shot into the air.
“Whose Lab loves to play chase?”
“Mine!” the kids shouted.
“Well, Minnie loves to chase this bunny! So first, Minnie will do the Cheetah Run while Tabitha watches to remember how it’s done. Then we’ll count down, I’ll open Tabitha’s cage, and she’ll take off. At the end of the route, just a hundred meters that way, there will be a delicious steak waiting for Tabitha.”
The zookeeper uncovered Tabitha’s cage and walked Minnie, eager and panting, to the starting line. She signaled to the jeep, and it took off. She released Minnie’s leash, and we all watched a yellow Lab joyfully chase a dirty pink bunny. The kids applauded earnestly. The adults wiped sweat from their foreheads.
Finally it was time for Tabitha’s big moment. We counted down in unison: “Five, four, three, two, one…” The zookeeper slid open the cage door, and the bunny took off once again. Tabitha bolted out, laser focused on the bunny, a spotted blur. She crossed the finish line within seconds. The zookeeper whistled and threw her a steak. Tabitha pinned it to the ground with her oven-mitt paws, hunkered down in the dirt, and chewed while the crowd clapped.
I didn’t clap. I felt queasy. The taming of Tabitha felt…familiar.
I watched Tabitha gnawing that steak in the zoo dirt and thought: Day after day this wild animal chases dirty pink bunnies down the well-worn, narrow path they cleared for her. Never looking left or right. Never catching that damn bunny, settling instead for a store-bought steak and the distracted approval of sweaty strangers. Obeying the zookeeper’s every command, just like Minnie, the Lab she’s been trained to believe she is. Unaware that if she remembered her wildness—just for a moment—she could tear those zookeepers to shreds.