On September 21, 2012, twenty-five-year-old David Villalobos purchased a pass for the Bronx Zoo and a four-dollar ticket for a ride on the Wild Asia Monorail. The ride, built in 1977, promises on the zoo’s website to take the visitor “above mud wallows and pastures, forests and riverbanks to the heart of Wild Asia.” After leaving the station, the train first crosses the mud wallows of the Bronx River, a shallow and polluted urban waterway, before making its way quickly into said heart of Wild Asia for a twenty-minute ride.
In September 2014, when I took the ride, the conductor and tour guide, Devin, a twentysomething kid in khaki pants and a retail haircut, told us that the Bronx River was home to a pair of beavers, the first wild beavers spotted in the river in hundreds of years. One of them, Devin told us, was named José. The other beaver’s name, voted on by the public, was originally Justin Beaver, but then they realized Justin was likely female and changed it to Justine.
Everyone laughed at Devin’s joke and stared down, searching for the beavers below, hoping to catch sight of the local native celebrities. The monorail’s cars are built so that everyone sits on the same side, facing out to the left of the track instead of toward the front of the train; and though the train cars have a single rear wall and roofs with translucent skylights, they are otherwise open to the elements, bordered only by a short railing of metal tubes. You ride along in what feels like a moving couch or section of sports bleachers. On this day, we saw no celebrity beavers.
Devin drove the train, talked into a microphone, and played some prerecorded narratives about the animals and the zoo’s conservation efforts. The track circles the perimeter of the Wild Asia exhibits, and it feels like you’re waiting for a show of some kind. When he took the ride, Villalobos positioned himself in the last car, far from the conductor, and listened patiently along with the rest of the visitors, waiting for his chance to express himself.
The exhibits in Wild Asia consist mostly of various species of deer and cattle, all of which look only slightly different in size and shape from the deer and cattle familiar to most Americans. If he had been looking for them, Villalobos might have seen spotted deer and Taiwanese Formosan deer and one called a hog deer. There are also wild horses, massive buffaloesque cattle, hairless jungle pigs, rock-climbing goats, and a rhinoceros named Cali. But the king of the mountain—so to speak—and the animal most of us were waiting to see was the Siberian tiger.
The day Villalobos visited in 2012, a four-hundred-pound Siberian tiger named Bashuta was on exhibit. The tigers are the only apex predators in Wild Asia, and their habitat is separated in part from the monorail and the traffic on the nearby Cross Bronx Expressway by a tall fence that looks like something out of the movie King Kong. This is one of two tiger habitats in the zoo, the other being a place called Tiger Mountain, where visitors view the cats not from above but through thick panels of glass.
As the monorail curves past the fence, the exhibit slowly reveals itself, almost like a curtain parting on a grand green stage set for drama and the existential business of witness. The train runs right along the top of the chain-link boundary fence, sixteen feet up in the air, and passengers can look directly down into the grassy hillside habitat.
On the day I visited, the weather was perfect—sunny and about eighty degrees with a slight breeze—and the paddock looked like some kind of idyllic picnic spot or campsite. The air felt freshly washed, the light extra bright. Several tigers live in Wild Asia, but because they are solitary and fiercely territorial, only one of them is on exhibit at any given time. Devin told us that one of the tigers liked to lie up against the fence, just beneath where the monorail passed, and thus was hard to see unless you leaned out over the edge of the car.
During my ride, a Siberian tiger named Yuri was lounging on the hillside in the sun, and raised his head to consider us as we passed. It took me a while to spot him, but I followed where Devin pointed. Strangely, it was easier to see the tiger if I didn’t look directly at him. Yuri was enormous and regal, a striped king reclined on a blanket of green; not hiding but still somehow camouflaged against the background, his stripes creating a veil of color and shade.
Three young boys traveling in the same car with me drummed their feet against the fiberglass benches out of either boredom or excitement as their nannies and grannies squealed and pointed at Yuri. One of the boys, apparently uninterested in the tiger, kept staring at me as if I were the attraction. I waved, and he turned away.
Though Yuri seemed to be napping like a common house cat, he was also menacing in a way that’s hard to articulate. Even from a significant distance he seemed dangerous. Something about his body—the size of his paws and his head, in particular—broadcast power and violence. Yuri was fun to look at, and it sent a little tingle up my spine to see him there in his habitat. But I was fine with seeing him from afar. As an object in a cage. Contained and controlled. I didn’t need to be much closer.
The tiger habitat is shaped like a short, fat football, and the chain-link fence along the back side of it, at the top of the hill, forms a boundary with the exotic cattle and deer habitats. I imagine this must be, for the tigers, like staring outside your prison bars to see not just freedom but also a buffet of all the food you could possibly eat, with a train that appears regularly, like a line of sushi boats floating just out of reach.
David Villalobos didn’t care about the Formosan deer or the hog deer or the wild horses with their short, bristly manes. He positioned himself in the very last car and waited for the ride to go past the jungle pig and Cali the rhino and the wood-pike fence. He waited until the car was creeping along the top of the tiger enclosure. He’d planned this. He knew exactly what he was doing. He had to have taken the ride a few times, gauging the distance, timing the tour and the movement of the tram. I imagine the zoo employees had come to know him, to recognize his face in line. Maybe they’d started to wonder why he came so often.
Villalobos knew what was about to happen: the guide slowed the cars, trying to spot Bashuta in the brush and then pointing her out to the other visitors. Villalobos waited for his cue, for the opportunity. The ecstatic moment. As his car pulled up alongside the exhibit, Villalobos suddenly stood up. He climbed up on the edge of the car, reaching up and bracing himself against the roof with his palms. He paused briefly on the railing, rolling on the balls of his feet to get his balance right. Then he leaped, clearing three strands of barbed wire, sixteen feet down into the tiger’s cage.
Villalobos landed on all fours, then crumpled and rolled to the side.
People on the train gasped, pointed, and screamed.
Imagine the terror of witness. Think of how that moment must have shimmered and buzzed, electric with fear.
“He jumped!” someone called ahead to the tram conductor. “Stop the train! That man. He jumped down there! Into the cage!”
Is this part of the tour? Is this real? Is it some kind of show? Already the question rises, as if released from the earth upon Villalobos’s impact, like a cloud of dust: Why would he do that? The questions would linger, still floating in the air two years later when I visited the Bronx Zoo. I’d tried to imagine Villalobos’s leap as a way to get closer to understanding it, and I’d come to see where the story started.
Perhaps Villalobos looked up at the other visitors and saw their mouths stretched into dramatic Os, their arms and fingers extended, pointing, their other hands covering the eyes of children or waving frantically, telling him to run, to get away—sort of like you do when you’re watching a horror movie and the actors are doing things you know are going to get them killed; and maybe he smiled and waved back at the people above, his witnesses and his audience. Or perhaps he was so focused on his mission that he didn’t even acknowledge the spectators and their commotion, and he simply gathered himself to stand and face the tiger.
Bashuta, who despite a fairly domestic existence in Wild Asia still possessed all the instincts of an apex predator, made his way over to Villalobos quickly. I imagine David there, in the long slow seconds of those first moments with the tiger, turning and smiling, his shock of black hair standing out against the green background, his eyebrows arching into eternity. There is no sound to these images. Bashuta’s huge paws pad silently on the grass, covering the ground between them in seconds. But if we pause the scene, you will notice that Villalobos is a handsome young man. Tall and slender, with striking black eyebrows and high cheekbones—he could be a male model, he could be your boyfriend or classmate, maybe just the guy you see every day on the subway into the city, thinking to yourself that he looks familiar or famous or otherwise interesting. In these first few moments in the tiger’s cage, the sun dapples his face and he holds his arms out to the animal, as if to embrace Bashuta and, for a second, the scene is beautiful. Time gets sludgy, filtered through the thick lens of memory. Each witness to Villalobos’s leap must, inevitably, have his own story, his own burden of that day.
In the moment, only one thing was true: Villalobos wanted to touch the tiger. And he would. Bashuta would ravage Villalobos’s foot, puncture a lung, and more. But before that, the two of them would bond, if only for a moment, in that shared space between peace and violence.
Tigers typically kill their prey by biting it on the neck, snapping the bones, and puncturing vital arteries before dragging the body off to a secluded spot where they can feed. Villalobos spent close to ten minutes alone with Bashuta. Ten long minutes in the cage. And he did indeed suffer several broken bones, at least a few of which may have been the result of his leap from the tram and his apparently less-than-catlike landing.
It must have taken a while for word of Villalobos’s leap to spread in waves through the car, up to the driver, and eventually to zoo officials. The operator most certainly radioed ahead to tell them what had happened, would’ve likely had no choice but to leave Villalobos there, finish the route, and head back to the station, where he could get help. He had a responsibility to the other visitors. He had to get them out of there. The zoo certainly didn’t want a monorail full of visitors to witness a man being eaten by a tiger; and that’s exactly what everyone expected to happen. Villalobos didn’t stand a chance. He was dead meat as soon as he landed in that cage . . . or he should have been.
Zookeepers sprinted into action to try to rescue Villalobos, following a response protocol that they’d practiced but were rarely called upon to perform. They had to act fast and fearlessly. Rushing to the scene, one zookeeper blasted a fire extinguisher into the cage (a common method of intervention in such situations), frightening Bashuta away, as another zookeeper instructed Villalobos, who to everyone’s surprise was still alive, to roll under an electrified wire.
Villalobos was clawed and dragged around by his foot, and he suffered numerous bite wounds; but Bashuta did not break his neck and did not kill him. For whatever reason, the tiger displayed an unexpected and unpredictable level of restraint and patience—behavior that looks, in retrospect, a lot like mercy.
When I asked her about the incident, one zoo employee told me, “He was just lucky that tiger wasn’t hungry.”
In follow up news stories that I found, Villalobos was described by his attorney, Corey Sokoler, as “very intelligent” and “very caring,” and reports surfaced that Villalobos had told one of the responding New York City police officers, Detective Matthew McCrosson, that as the tiger mauled him, he’d stroked Bashuta’s face, petting the beast like a house cat.
Villalobos believed he’d forged a bond with the tiger and developed a connection that was hard to describe. Perhaps Villalobos imagined himself someone who lived between the civilized world and wild nature. Perhaps he believed he’d succeeded in bridging the divide between human and animal, that he had crossed over to their side, if only for a second.
Maybe he was right and I was a little jealous. Maybe that’s why I traced his trip to the zoo. I just couldn’t get his story out of my head. Ever since I had read the first reports of Villalobos’s leap, I’d been somewhat obsessed, losing myself down rabbit holes of research into similar stories.
Villalobos was arrested and charged with trespassing. His parents blamed Adderall for his behavior; and perhaps his mind had gone a bit wild and unruly, a bit savage, but Villalobos told officials that his leap wasn’t caused by drugs and wasn’t a suicide attempt. He wasn’t depressed or delusional. He wasn’t even really trespassing.
He was going home.
Villalobos told Detective McCrosson, “I was testing my natural fear. You would not understand. It is a spiritual thing, I wanted to be at one with the tiger.”
My September 2014 pilgrimage to the Bronx Zoo began with a long, dark train ride beneath Brooklyn, where I was staying at a friend’s apartment, and Manhattan; but as the train emerged from the tunnel up onto the elevated rail, the sun streamed in the windows and soon we arrived at a stop just a short walk from the Wild Asia entrance gate. I’d come to try to find some answers, or perhaps some new questions. I’d come to confront my own obsession.
I’d tried, somewhat halfheartedly, to find the real David Villalobos, but as a condition of his plea deal for the trespassing charge, he’d been confined to a mental health facility; and of course such places, because of patient rights, won’t even disclose whether someone is staying there or not. Part of me also knew that, by then, Villalobos’s understanding of his leap, and the larger meaning of it, would’ve probably changed, would’ve been colored by consequences and judgments, recriminations and regret. It would have been the subject of therapy sessions and labeling, language employed to explain and contain. Part of me wanted Villalobos to stay in the realm of myth and mystery.
Part of me needed him to stay there.
My biggest fear was that I’d find him, talk to him, and he’d tell me his leap didn’t mean anything, that it was all a big mistake.
Of course it was a mistake, but it is often in such imperfect expressions of ourselves that we find the truest vulnerability and something close to art, or at least ineffability. I thought maybe Villalobos would understand this, but I couldn’t be sure. I was afraid to risk that he wouldn’t.
My kids and I often attend the “keeper chats” about the resident tigers at our local zoo in Fresno, California. Once, when it came time for questions, I asked one of the zookeepers if she ever went into the cage with the big cats.
She gave me a funny look and shook her head.
“Nope, never,” she said.
The other keeper said, “I like life. I don’t want to die,” and then she kind of chuckled a little like you do with a child who asks a silly question.
The first keeper, who had two tiny dot earrings, a kind face, and long curly hair, wore rubber boots and held a pair of barbeque tongs that she used to feed raw hamburger to the tiger through the fence.
“Even when the cubs were just three months old and we had to go in to do some blood draws, we wore welding gloves and several long-sleeved layers, and they still ripped through the gloves,” she said.
Humans, she explained, just aren’t equipped to handle a tiger.
“The cubs used to run up their mother’s back with their claws out, bite her on the neck, and then roll off her shoulder. They were just playing. But if they did that to us, we’d be dead.”
Recently, zoos have begun to market “behind-the-scenes” experiences that allow visitors beyond the fences. For $35 you can toss fish to the sea lions. For $275 you can spend a day as a zookeeper’s apprentice. All of these experiences are designed not only to make money for the zoos’ educational programs but also to allow visitors to get up close and intimate with the animals.
Lyn Myers, an assistant curator at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, said in an interview promoting some of these new opportunities for visitors, “When you can get one on one with an animal and get close and ask questions and actually be in their environment, I think it brings a whole new idea to learning.”
I think David Villalobos would understand this, but I also think he wanted something deeper, something more meaningful, the kind of experience the Fresno Chaffee Zoo obviously can’t offer the casual visitor. They’re not tossing people into the tiger cage, or dropping them into the alligator pond for some wrestling, or letting them try to provoke the grizzly bear into a fight. But perhaps Lyn Myers and David Villalobos are separated only by a matter of degrees. Villalobos pushed the experience to the furthest end, to the apex of animal encounters, trying to achieve something spiritual and meaningful. If we can agree that we learn something unique from proximity to zoo animals, what is it that we learn from proximity to predators? What do we learn from life-and-death struggles with them? Are the lessons not greater, the consequences not more real?
Every time I visited the tigers at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo with my son or my daughter—standing there just a few feet away from Kiri or Paka or one of the others, some of the most dangerous and efficient predators on the planet—I swear I felt a kind of energy radiating from the tigers, some wild heat or barely restrained power that the nearby African elephants and giraffes just didn’t have. The feeling was both terrifying and intoxicating, not unlike being under the influence of a drug.
David Villalobos initially contested the trespassing charges leveled against him in court, insisting he’d done nothing wrong. How can you trespass when you’re going home? But he eventually pled guilty, in a somewhat strange plea deal brokered by Sokoler—a deal in which, because of his grand leap into a tiger cage, Villalobos traded what might have amounted to a hefty fine, a short jail stint, and/or probation for confinement in a cage of his own.
I tracked down a phone number for Detective McCrosson, one of the responding NYPD officers who interviewed Villalobos. McCrosson now works in the homicide division, and I was hoping he might be able to confirm a few things and clear up a couple of contradictions I’d found in the news reports. I wanted to know who’d found Villalobos first, what he’d said to whom, and most importantly whether he had leaped from the tram directly into the tiger enclosure or—as one report said—had climbed a fence to get in. I wanted to know what Villalobos had acted like in the moment, if he’d seemed crazy, agitated, pained, or peaceful.
I reached Detective McCrosson at his desk, and when I mentioned David Villalobos and the tiger, he chuckled and said, “Yeah, I remember.”
I explained that I just wanted to ask him a couple of questions.
“I’ll talk with you,” he said, “but you gotta go through the DCPI.”
“Public Information. You gotta get clearance first before I can talk.”
I called and was told I needed to send an email request. That request and a follow-up request and two more follow-up requests were all ignored. To date, I haven’t received any response. I don’t know if my requests have just been lost or ignored accidentally, or if there’s more intention behind the silence.
Most troubling of all for me in this search, though, was the Bronx Zoo’s response to my request for clarification. I sent an email and made a follow-up phone call to the Public Affairs Division of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the organization that controls the Bronx Zoo as well as the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo, and the New York Aquarium. Call me naïve, but I honestly thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, that I’d at least get some kind of official report or, if I was lucky, a behind-the-scenes tour. I clearly underestimated their desire to suppress any stories about the incident. I also clearly overestimated my own journalistic acumen and, quite frankly, my ability to remain objective about this story.
After a day or two, I received the following email response from the assistant director of communications: “Thank you for your email and voice mail today. We are going to pass on the opportunity to participate.”
Pass on the opportunity to participate.
Those words. I could hardly understand them, though I appreciated their euphemistic glow. This whole search for me was a way to participate in the story. It was all because I couldn’t choose not to participate, because the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t understand how or why anyone would pass on the opportunity to participate. And anyway, the zoo had already participated in the story, whether they liked it or not.
When I approached her at the Bronx Zoo tram station on that September day in 2014, Melissa (name changed to protect her identity) was eating a sandwich. She wore shorts and a navy blue Windbreaker over her zoo uniform shirt, and she had her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Waiting in line for a ride across the zoo grounds, I said hello and asked how her day was going, just trying to make some small talk. She told me things had been kind of slow, and we both watched a group of British tourists marvel and squeal at the sight of a black squirrel snoozing in a tree—not an exhibit.
“Hey,” I asked, seizing my opportunity, “is it true that some guy jumped from that monorail into the tiger cage?” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb back toward the monorail station.
Melissa looked over her glasses and up at me for what seemed like a really long time. She took a bite of her sandwich and studied me.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it,” she said, chewing her food, “but yeah, a guy jumped.”
She wiped her face with the back of her hand and didn’t take her eyes off of me.
“Why can’t you talk about it?” I pressed.
“I could lose my job.”
“Is it some kind of legal thing?”
“Yeah, you know we get like the paparazzi in here and they want to dig up the details.”
“And you’re not allowed to talk about it.”
“No. No I’m not.”
I climbed aboard the zoo tram, which shuttles visitors around the sprawling expanse of the Bronx Zoo, and as we headed for the bears on the other side of the park, I tried to imagine myself as “paparazzi,” a word that to me has always sounded so much more beautiful than what it actually signifies, as if it described a rare Italian moth drawn to the flame of story. And I suppose I was trying to dig up details, hoping to excavate something from my trip to the zoo, but I didn’t think I was chasing the sensational and horrific. I didn’t even have a camera and I wasn’t taking many notes. I was more interested in the mundane details behind the sensational story, and certainly wasn’t interested in getting anyone fired—so it was a little hard for me to understand why nobody wanted to talk about what had happened. Everyone’s stubborn refusal to talk made it all the more mysterious for me. Were they hiding something? Probably not. But the point was that I’d never know, would never hear the official story of Villalobos’s leap from their perspective. All I could do was ride the monorail, walk the zoo grounds, and try to imagine that day, try to see what he saw.
A couple of hours later, as I was standing in line for my second trip on the Wild Asia Monorail for “research purposes,” Melissa saw me there, clutching my ticket. She’d obviously left her spot at the tram station and moved over to work the monorail for part of the day. I waved and she recognized me, so I smiled and nodded in acknowledgement; and there passed between us some kind of moment, a quivering couple of seconds in which we entered a different relationship together, something darker than familiarity.
“I’m scared of you,” she said across the turnstiles.
“What?” I said, confused at first, thinking she meant that stuff about paparazzi.
But then the moment was gone, twisted to a joke as she chuckled and turned away, talking to her coworkers, ignoring me. And then it hit me. She thought I was another Villalobos. She wasn’t worried about me being paparazzi. She was afraid I’d be a copycat. She thought I might jump.
Don’t be scared, I wanted to say. That’s not my story.
My mother long ago stopped asking “why?” when it came to my writing projects; and when I told her I was researching people who jump into cages with apex predators, she didn’t flinch. Instead she asked me if I remembered our 1977 family trip to the circus in Topeka, Kansas, not far from our home in Lawrence.
“No, I don’t remember anything,” I confessed.
“Really? I’m surprised. It seems so much a part of what you’re writing and thinking about these days.”
Mom told me we’d been sitting close to the lions’ cage, waiting for the big cat show, which featured a hot young lion tamer and performer named Josip Marcan. The show had started and everything seemed normal, when suddenly one lion lunged forward and bit Marcan on the arm, then swatted at him with his paw.
Other lions soon joined in the attack, pulling against their chains, roaring and lunging as Marcan tried to gain control of the beasts, and the whole place surged with ecstatic emotion; but we didn’t see most of it, and probably didn’t really even understand if what we’d seen was real or part of the larger show.
Mom and Dad hustled my brother and me up from our seats and out of the arena.
“I don’t think we even talked about it,” Mom said.
We just climbed in the car and drove home. We are, after all, Midwestern at our core. We didn’t talk about the bad stuff. If we didn’t talk about it, didn’t name it, then it wasn’t real. I had no memory of the event, perhaps because we never constructed a story around it, never talked about it during family dinners. We never said, “Remember that time we saw the lion attack that man?” If we had, I wonder how the story might have changed over time.
What Mom remembers most now, though, is the noise and the way it echoed all the way out into the halls of the venue. All the other lions and tigers began roaring and yowling, too, a chorus of them bellowing for more, more blood, more vengeance or justice or food.
“It was haunting,” she told me. “I can still hear the sound.”
I was six years old, roughly the same age as my daughter is now, and just coming out of a long stretch of childhood illness; perhaps my brain hadn’t fully recovered from my febrile seizures and wasn’t cataloging memories the way it should. I cannot today even conjure the faintest impression of this experience. It’s true that most of my memories before the age of seven or eight are fuzzy with fiction, hazy and out of focus; and no matter how much I twist the eyepiece, they never come clear. This is one I’d like to see again, if only through the lens of imagination.
Though I can’t claim any memory of the lion attack on Marcan, it seems likely it imprinted itself on my young mind and had some influence on my lifelong interest in animal attack stories, particularly those stories in which the human seems to have had it coming, in which a man leaps into the cage and asks for such intimacy and violence. Begs for it, even.
These leaps. These tests. These spiritual encounters. These stories. They scroll across my newsfeed, my television, my phone, my computer, my consciousness. People send me links and quotes; they tag me on Facebook and share stories on my wall. They know that I am a moth to the flame. Perhaps I am paparazzi.
I’ve come to understand that David Villalobos is an archetype. He is Daniel, a classic character in an ancient story, a tale retold over and over again. The tragic figure cast into the pit, facing the lions. We create and sustain such archetypes because they speak to some universal truth about human life, because they become vessels for our own stories and can be adapted or revised to reveal new truths; but how do we handle an archetype we can’t imagine or understand, a character with whom we cannot empathize? What do we do with archetypes we don’t want to talk about? How do we handle the taboo as archetype, the forbidden but seductive role of intentional victim, the man or woman or child who leaps into a cage with an apex predator? What do we make of a willing Daniel who throws himself into the lions’ den, he of a savage mind who calls such violence down upon himself? The story shifts into the absurd, with headlines using words like “zooicide.”
Mostly, I think, we call these stories, these people, aberrations, anomalies, freaks, outcasts, psychotics, or suicides. But why? I think we try to define their leaps, name them and control them. But we cannot always contain the reach, the viral spread and depth of their stories. We can’t truly understand unless we, ourselves, take that leap, or at least acknowledge the temptation to “be at one with the tiger.”
David Villalobos, vessel and archetype, character and caricature, charismatic barbarian, has become both real and unreal, an amalgamation and composite, a creation of my own mind as much as a citizen of the real world. I don’t mean to diminish his actual existence. I know he is greater than I can possibly imagine.
I can see the edges of the puzzle picture bleeding out, fading into the surrounding noise; and I understand that no matter what his leap meant to Villalobos at the time, it will never mean the same thing again. I don’t want to reopen old embarrassing wounds, or victimize Villalobos by appropriating parts of his story—though I realize that I’ve perhaps already done this.
I want for Villalobos, I suppose, what I want for anyone: to humanize the choice to leap, to face the savage, the wild, and to normalize the need to get intimately close to predators, if not simply the need for something spiritual in our everyday lives. Maybe, a zoo gives us such opportunities if we’re paying attention. I want to understand the desire to dwell in the hazy boundary between human and savage, a boundary that may define itself most sharply in those moments of extreme and ecstatic violence; and I’ve come to believe that, no matter how much research I attempt, no matter how close I get, it is perhaps only through imagination that I can approach this boundary.
No matter how many thousands or millions of visitors pass through, this place will always belong to Villalobos in some way. This zoo. This island of trees and hills, this green space of thought. This Bronx. He claimed it that day. Planted a flag with his leap, even if nobody wants to admit this. They want to believe Villalobos never landed, that he leaped into the ether and disappeared into history, that his story needs to be lost or forgotten, not adapted or revised. Perhaps David Villalobos wanted to be closer to death—but if so, he wanted it because, sadly, immortality exists only in such fleeting moments, when a person can be most fully and terrifyingly alive. In such liminal spaces—between human and animal, between life and death—however briefly, anything is possible; and that possibility is powerful.
For twenty years the circus has come to Forest Park in Queens, New York, setting up near the band shell where they still stage concerts and shows in the summer. And for many of those years, on the Saturday when the circus was in town, the Berean Missionary Baptist Church choir also held their annual picnic in the park. It had always been a day of fellowship and faith, something choir members looked forward to all year.
On July 31, 2004, choir members gathered for food and communion, not far from the circus tents. The temperature was in the high eighties and humid, as it can be, that time of year. People stood in small clusters, talking and smiling, holding paper plates that sagged under the weight of their food. It was your typical Saturday picnic in the park. Plastic cups and perfume, sweaty brows and pit stains. Friendship and laughter. Communion with Jesus and the Holy Father . . . and a white tiger.
It was just after 1:00 p.m. when a white tiger weighing around 450 pounds escaped from the Cole Brothers Circus in Forest Park as they were moving him in an unsecured cage. Apollo, the rogue beast, was a white Bengal tiger named for the patron Greek god of music and poetry, the god of healing who also possessed the power to cast down plagues and illness.
Though he’d been lent to the Cole Brothers under a performance contract, Apollo was actually owned by the now infamous and controversial big cat breeder and trainer Josip Marcan, the same man I saw being mauled by a lion in Topeka, Kansas, in 1977.
According to some who witnessed the tiger’s run for freedom, Apollo’s trainer (not Marcan) tried to stop the big cat but managed only to chase him across the park. As the tiger ambled past the Berean choir festivities, at least one choir member was able to enjoy the rare sight of an apex predator loose in the urban wilds of New York City. She compared the experience to being on a safari. For her, it seems, seeing a tiger out of its cage was thrilling, possibly even transcendent. She was transported to another place, to a safari in a city park.
Other people weren’t so excited, especially when Apollo made his way onto the Jackie Robinson Parkway, causing a five-car pileup. He was soon captured and contained, his taste of freedom having lasted only about half an hour. That’s the truth, the facts of the incident. But reflecting on the wilder, more savage, unruly, and ecstatic truth of that day, I like to imagine someone else there in the park, another connection, another thread tying all of this together, all of us together. The story might go like this:
In the park that day a young man, seventeen years old, tall, with thick black hair, high cheekbones, and dramatic eyebrows—a handsome boy who exudes confidence and success—has brought his girlfriend with him for a picnic, some talk, and maybe some flirting. They sit together, chatting and laughing. And as he’s brushing a strand of hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear, he looks over her shoulder and sees Apollo, the white tiger, loping across the grass. He tells himself that this isn’t happening, that it is some kind of hallucination. It’s just his mind playing tricks. His mind has been doing that more lately. The girl, noticing that he’s no longer looking into her eyes, turns to see what he sees, expecting perhaps another girl as the object of his gaze; and at first the image doesn’t register with her either, and it doesn’t seem real that she’s staring at a tiger, a sublimely alive and terrifying tiger, loose in the park. So close she could almost reach out and touch him. The image registers, so she screams. It’s not one of those stage screams, fake and melodramatic. No, it’s an honest scream, born of terror; and the boy can feel it ripple through his guts, severing the threads between the two of them. He wants her to be quiet. The tiger glances in their direction. She gets up and starts to run away. She looks back at him, as if to say, “You’re coming, right?” But David stays there in the ecstatic moment, lingering in the penumbral glow. He sits there watching the tiger, as all around him the seismic wave of fear spreads through the park. David stays and stares into the void, the center of the tiger’s being, as the waves roll past him, and he swears the animal sees him, knows him intimately. He watches the tiger breathe, his whiskers trembling in the tree-dappled light; and it isn’t fear he feels but something more elemental and unnameable, a connection that David will spend the next few years trying to recapture. It is an experience of the sublime that will pull him back again and again until it finally pushes him over the edge, into the waiting grasp of Bashuta at the Bronx Zoo.
I can imagine all of this as some kind of attempt at an answer, an explanation of an archetype, or the end of the mystery, a knot tangling up David Villalobos and Marcan and me. Such speculation can be narratively satisfying, even if it isn’t true. But every attempt at explanation leaves more questions than answers and still falls short of the complete picture—which is perhaps exactly as such stories should be, each a fragmented puzzle with holes and missing pieces, its edges blurry with time, bleeding into other stories, until someone else again makes a leap into the cage.