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Homage to a Zookeeper and Thomas Bernhard

By sheer coincidence today I was in Cologne Zoo at the very moment when the 43-year old woman keeper was killed by the tiger, which was approximately midday. In the morning I had noticed the tigers were off at a distance waiting for their food near the tiger-house. Three or four tigers lay in a row flat on their stomachs, looking impatient, their heads fixedly towards the grilles. One of them had a threatening way of jerking its head and tail about. They appeared to be a lively set of tigers, so I planned to return later for a better look. 

When the public was evacuated from the zoo I was in the canteen waiting in line to pay for my bratwurst and potato. There had been a commotion behind the counter. The man who was serving me became distracted. A zoo employee in uniform, apparently senior and known to the caterers, was spreading some news. As I reached the payment point the woman who had been working at the till unaccountably disappeared. She returned several minutes later looking flushed, as though she had been crying or vomiting. 

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When the security man arrived and shouted very loudly everybody began moving outside straight away. I could not understand a word. Trying not to spill my tray of food, since I had not had time to find a seat, I followed the crowd. I stopped to ask a young zookeeper, in English “what is happening?” I thought I heard her say "there may be a terrorist outside". She was actually saying “a tiger may be outside”. 

The canteen is near a side entrance to the zoo, next to a fairground. I managed to find a quiet spot where I could balance the food tray on the the tailgate of a pickup truck. Then I heard the sound of the rifle shot. It was a single shot delivered decisively. And silence. A photographer arrived to take photos of the small crowd waiting to be allowed back in to the zoo.

I decided to walk right around the perimeter and back to the front entrance. I wanted still to see the elephants, the topi, and the seals. As I arrived I noticed a small group of journalists move respectfully towards a middle-aged white-haired man in a sleeveless kaki jacket as he emerged from the zoo to speak with them. I watched him shake hands with each journalist.

When the gates were opened again to the public everything seemed normal. But by then I had forgotten about the tiger-house and was thinking only of getting back to work. I did, nevertheless, look at the elephants and the topi. 

I learned this evening on the television news that the zookeeper died, and that the man I saw speaking to reporters was Theo Pagel, the zoo director. He himself had shot the tiger dead with one bullet through the skylight of the tiger-house. "Today", he told them, "is surely the most terrible day in my career".

Facts told without deliberation in a style of Germanic fiction.