By Shauna O’Meara
Aiming his camera carefully, a little boy photographed the world’s last tiger.
At the flash and click of the device, the tiger stopped on the track he had worn in the dirt beside the finger-smeared glass of his enclosure and regarded the boy with mournful green eyes. “What do you see when you look at me?” the tiger asked.
“A tiger,” replied the boy.
“What makes me a tiger?”
The boy blinked at that, the question seemingly obvious. “Your orange and black stripes, of course.”
The tiger studied his coat’s reflection in the enclosure glass: long, branching lines of black cut through with burnished gold, like a forest at day’s end–the sunset of an entire species marked upon his flanks.
Stripes for camouflage, stripes to warn both prey and competitor alike to give his ferocity wide berth; though there was little need for either anymore: the zoo had long rendered his patterns redundant, a sign of remembered majesty. The cat asked, “Is that the only thing that makes me a tiger, what I look like?”
“Well, I heard you growl before, and I bet you could purr if you tried,” the boy replied.
“I was raised by humans. I have never spoken to another tiger in my life. I am not sure how one is to act, what one is to say. Tell me, can I still be a tiger if I’ve lost my language and my culture?”
“I don’t know,” the boy murmured. He sat down on the ledge at the foot of the enclosure window and put his hand against the glass. After a while, the tiger sat down opposite, and, lifting his great golden foot, laid his pads against the boy’s palm, just the pane of glass between them.
A woman passing by the tiger alcove with a child in a stroller clicked a photo of them and moved on.
The boy studied the tiger’s foot, where just the white tips of the claws were visible. “How about hunting?” he suggested. “I mean, I know other species hunt, but tigers are the biggest cats in the world and everyone knows cats make the best hunters.”
The tiger withdrew his paw and studied it, flexing the scythe-like claws. “My food comes to me dead. I have never had to kill.”
An awkward silence fell between them. The tiger listened to the background hum of human visitors admiring the zoo’s rare and elusive animals; heard them clamouring for ice cream, for toilets, for the animals to come out of their vegetation and sleeping quarters for photos.
They hardly looked before clicking and moving on. The tiger studied the black camera slung around the boy’s neck. He wondered if the images were something the humans admired over and over or if the visitors merely hoarded them in preparation for a day when pictures were all that remained of his kind.
A bucket banged and otters twittered, snapping the tiger out of his reverie. Their feeding time always drew a crowd: people laughing, children squealing, the snap, click and boop of images being preserved.
In the distance, a lion roared.
“It seems I am not much of a tiger, for all that I look like one,” he said.
“You are! You are!” the boy protested. His face creased with concentration as he tried to think of some other feature that would confirm the animal before him a tiger. “I know! You can make baby tigers! That definitely makes you a tiger!”
“Not alone I can’t, and not as a male.”
That brought the boy up short. “What are you then, if you look like a tiger, but don’t know anything about being one? If you can’t speak tiger or hunt like a tiger or even make other tigers?”
The tiger indicated the camera. “I am what you all wanted–a picture of a tiger.”
Shauna O’Meara is an artist, writer and veterinarian based in Australia. She was a winner of the 2014 Writers of the Future contest and her short stories have appeared in several Australian anthologies and magazines. Her work and links to her art portfolio can be found at:
Photo credit: BENGAL TIGER. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Jun 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/138_1152503/1/138_1152503/cite