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.
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.
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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".