MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM
The Traveling Menagerie
The six-bunk sleepers had shrunk enormously since my last encounter with them at Lao Cai. Four cages, backpacks and two days of food for nine hungry mouths filled almost every available space. A passing conductor bent over to peer through our torn curtain and came roaring through the door, spoiling for a fight. I froze and scanned our gear. The cages were well camouflaged but emitting the curious scratching sounds I had come to associate with leopards in need of entertainment. If the eagle let rip one of his shrill whistles then the entire train from end to end would know what we were carrying. Despite the permission papers I'd had made up, complete with fake official stamps, we were still smuggling illegal contraband. If the conductor discovered our animals, he would either confiscate the lot or simply dump them out the window.
We talked loudly. Jochen hummed the German anthem under his breath. I crumpled and uncrumpled a letter I had been writing. The conductor inadvertently helped our cause by shouting and pacing back and forth in front of us. Why were there three people in the compartment with only two tickets? he demanded. The odd man out, unfortunately, was Jochen. He was quickly made to disappear.
Could we, I asked cautiously, switch Jochen's bunk for Jay's for the duration of the journey?
Could Jochen return to visit us from time to time if the other bunks remained unfilled?
Completely out of the question. And further, where were we planning to sleep ourselves? The top two wooden slats, our assigned bunks, were lined with gear.
The other four bunks were empty, I pointed out, perhaps we could make use of --
"Forbidden," the conductor snapped.
The floor, I suggested quickly, we could spread a blanket --
If necessary, I lied, we could share a single bunk --
It would most certainly break under so much weight, the conductor insisted with painful candor. He left us with orders to condense our yards of gear into a few square feet and store it in the alcove over the door. I spent the next hour experimenting with new iterations of the ancient corn-fox-duck game, trying to fit a gibbon, eagle and leopards into a tiny space without allowing a razor beak to make contact with a careless tail or curious fingers to pluck feathers from an already balding crown.
The hours passed to the swaying rhythm of the tracks and frantic, covert feedings in the dead of night. The leopards, responding to their healthy diet, developed surprising energy. The infant gibbon needed as much love as food. With Jochen banished from our carriage, the task of feeding, cleaning and entertaining an increasingly unruly crowd fell to me. I hung towels from the middle bunks to create a kitten jungle gym and discovered, way too late, that eagles instinctively direct their streams of excrement outside their nests to keep from soiling their own space. The compartment gradually shrank as nine unwashed bodies competed for both space and air. The growing stench of uncouth cats now added to our risk of getting caught. From time to time I experimented with an open window but the memory of Tilo's tales of baby gibbons catching cold at dusk and dying before dawn kept us largely sealed in tight.
Halfway through the second day we crossed the DMZ and the sun abruptly disappeared. I glanced out the window and saw a landscape grim and dreary. During my southern month in the liquid heat of Ho Chi Minh I had conveniently forgotten the cold and wet I'd left behind in the north. The temperature dropped twenty degrees in as many minutes and the compartment went from hot and airless to frigid and damp. Nothing dried, not the towel I had rinsed and hung out the window overnight, nor the bedraggled kitten who had fallen into her water dish and now lay snoozing like a soggy ball of yarn against my ribs.
I woke up the final morning to find the eagle shivering in the bitter cold. The last of my socks were sacrificed to make overcoats for the kittens. The gibbon took up permanent residence in a sling around my neck. Six more hours. The final countdown had begun.
We were just thirty kilometers short of our destination when a furious hammering signaled yet another visit from our unfriendly conductor. This time he was flanked by two evil-looking army types. I could hear him through the door, loudly cataloging our orphan cargo, their market value, and our apparent destination. I panicked, whipped off several layers of clothing, and let them catch a glimpse of one bare shoulder through the curtain before calling out that I was still sleeping, could they please return in half an hour? Bless their Buddhist hearts, they withdrew gracefully and the race to Cuc Phuong began. I realized they were expecting us to disembark at Thanh Hoa, a half-hour's ride beyond Cuc Phuong, due to our unexpectedly helpful Saigon ticket agent.
Cuc Phuong station pulled into view and we exited with military precision, tossing packs and cages out the window and clambering out behind them. My relief when the train pulled away with its cargo of suspicious conductors was quickly replaced by a growing sense of unease. The station was deserted. We stood shivering on the grassy embankment, grainy-eyed with lack of sleep and surrounded by far more baggage than we could carry.
At last, we heard a distant hail and there was Tilo, standing by his Mekong van, with Manuela by his side. I nearly fell into his arms. He nearly knocked me into the gutter in his haste to see which cage held the infant gibbon. She disappeared at once inside Manuela's jacket while Jochen watched, a helpless look of displaced motherhood etched across his face. Tilo glanced at the other cages, picked them up and walked away without a word. The two were halfway back to the van before it occurred to us that we were being left behind. We scooped up our packs and gave chase, and caught them just in time to be grudgingly offered rides into the park.
I listened to them discussing the fate of my beloved bird and kittens in their muttered German. Wolfgang had been somewhat optimistic in his assessment of Tilo's willingness to take on strays. The eagle he had no use for. The leopard kittens would go to a convenient new arrival, a Ph.D. student by the name of Sheila who was doing research on civets and had some experience with wild cats.
We helped unload. As I put the eagle down he let out an inquiring squawk that sent the nearby langur cage into a frenzy of activity. Tilo immediately ordered the unruly bird back into the car. I scooped up my unwanted cargo and made off in search of the mysterious Sheila, in the forlorn hope of a less wintry reception.
I knocked on her guesthouse door, the leopard cage behind my back, wondering what on earth to say. In the end there was no need for words. Her eyes opened wide at the sight of the little kittens and, next I knew, they were disappearing inside her zipped-up jacket. She rummaged through her things and emerged triumphant, flourishing a tiny baby bottle complete with rubber nipple.
"It's been too long since I've shared my bed with cats," she said as she fished a kitten out of the depths of her bosom and applied the bottle. I glanced over at her single bed and wondered where she was going to sleep once they grew up, but wisely kept my questions to myself.
The next morning the station echoed with the inquiring hoots and whistles of the forlorn gibbons. Everyone had gone to Hanoi; Tilo, Manuela,... and the eagle. A short note explained that the eagle would be given to the Bureau of Forestry to do with as they wished.
When I returned to America I would undoubtedly unfurl my hang glider and once again set sail upon the wind, to swoop and soar as only birds were meant to do. I had seen a half-grown eagle with broken tail and balding head in the Saigon market, a defiant spirit who had known no life beyond a tiny cage and prodding fingers. I had wanted to give him a chance at flight, to spread his wings and feel the wind beneath them. Buying him had been an impulsive and foolish move. But more than anything I regretted the lost opportunity to release him to one long day of freedom, regardless of the consequences. He would never have that chance again.
Cuc Phuong held nothing for me now. I packed my bags and left.
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