A Species of Least Concern by Joanna Theiss

After three months of working at the zoo, Brian realizes that he doesn’t like zoos or people who like zoos. The zoo spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to coax pandas to breed but installs spikes in the eaves to keep native pigeons from roosting. The zoo elevates the weak and unfit over the strong. Zoo people worship inbred tigers while ignoring the hardy, adaptable creatures all around them.

Brian’s co-worker in the small animal house is a smiley, redheaded woman who, like a latter-day St. Francis, adores all of the zoo’s creatures. Kimberly will interrupt conversations to explain about the northern tree shrew’s symbiotic relationship with pitcher plants, which they defecate into and also eat. Kimberly doesn’t say that pitcher plants can’t survive without natural light and so the shrews in the dim, small animal house get rabbit food.

Worse than Kimberly are the idiotic creatures for which Brian is responsible. Take the red squirrel. An endangered species native to the United Kingdom. Brian assumed it would be as intelligent as the local eastern gray squirrels, since they look so much alike; the red squirrel only distinguished by its red fur and pointy ears. He was wrong. The red squirrel’s enclosure is small –– maybe four by four feet –– yet the squirrel doesn’t realize that there is food on its feeding platform unless Brian waves the dried plums in its face. No wonder this species is threatened. It would starve if it had to steal scraps like the local eastern gray, which is considered, insultingly, a “species of least concern.”

Brian does not understand why they are working so hard to prop up these animals, or why people like Kimberly can’t spot the irony in it. He spends his lunch break scanning employment sites on his phone, though he sees that zoology majors with three months’ work experience are not in high demand.

Brian is imagining the possibilities – pet store clerk, dog euthanizer at a veterinary office –– when he first sees her. He knows she is a female based on the distinctive markings under her fluffy tail. She smells his pizza. Brian rips off a piece of crust and places it on the ground. She moves slowly towards him, sashaying like a dancer. After more graceful movements of her lithe body, she tenderly paws it and scampers back to a nearby oak.

She isn’t just gray, but heathery brown and her generous chest and belly are the softest shade of vanilla. Her head is gently ovoid. She sniffs out Brian’s lunches, every day getting closer to him and staying longer while she eats. She likes peanut butter and jelly the most.

She is crouching next to his thigh on the bench, eating bread directly out of his palm, when Kimberly sneaks up on them. The eastern gray squirrel grabs the last bit of bread and scampers up on the table.

“You really shouldn’t feed the squirrels.”

“She’s the same as the red squirrel. Except she’s not a dumbass.”

Kimberly lunges towards the squirrel, who leaps off the table and runs back to her oak. “A lot of them have diseases,” Kimberly says, looking disgusted. She sits across from him. “Tomorrow’s my last day at the small animal house.”

Brian doesn’t pretend to be happy for her. He says sarcastically, “I heard. Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kimberly’s hair fuzzes out from her head in the late summer humidity. “Thank you! I’m so excited to work with the orangutans. Us redheads have to stick together!”

Brian loves animals. The eastern gray reminds him of this. That’s why, as Kimberly is prancing around with the La Plata three-banded armadillo in front of a school group, Brian removes the red squirrel from its enclosure and replaces it with his lunchtime companion.

When he releases the eastern gray into the red squirrel’s enclosure, she immediately snatches up all of the dried fruit lying around the base of the platform. Her delicate nose twitches in the air, sniffing both the evicted tenant and the absence of threats.

If orangutans ate squirrels, he would have released the red squirrel into their enclosure so that Kimberly could watch the show. Redheads supporting redheads eating redheads. But he selected the mountain weasel’s enclosure as the red squirrel’s temporary home, at least until the weasel remembers its instincts and hunts it down.

Next step: replace the Palawan peacock-pheasant with a vigorous pigeon.