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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 76)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   76

  I got into the habit of cleaning up after Richard Parker. As soon as I became aware that he had had a bowel movement, I went about getting to it, a risky operation involving nudging his feces my way with the gaff and reaching for them from the tarpaulin. Feces can be infected with parasites. This does not matter with animals in the wild since they rarely spend any time next to their feces and mostly have a neutral relationship to them; tree dwellers hardly see them at all and land animals normally excrete and move on. In the compact territory of a zoo, however, the case is quite different, and to leave feces in an animal's enclosure is to invite reinfection by encouraging the animal to eat them, animals being gluttons for anything that remotely resembles food. That is why enclosures are cleaned, out of concern for the intestinal health of animals, not to spare the eyes and noses of visitors. But upholding the Patel family's reputation for high standards in zookeeping was not my concern in the case at hand. In a matter of weeks Richard Parker became constipated and his bowel movements came no more than once a month, so my dangerous janitoring was hardly worth it from a sanitary point of view. It was for another reason that I did it: it was because the first time Richard Parker relieved himself in the lifeboat, I noticed that he tried to hide the result. The significance of this was not lost on me. To display his feces openly, to flaunt the smell of them, would have been a sign of social dominance. Conversely, to hide them, or try to, was a sign of deference-of deference to me.

  I could tell that it made him nervous. He stayed low, his head cocked back and his ears flat to the sides, a quiet, sustained growl coming from him. I proceeded with exceptional alertness and deliberation, not only to preserve my life but also to give him the right signal. The right signal was that when I had his feces in my hand, I rolled them about for some seconds, brought them close to my nose and sniffed them loudly, and swung my gaze his way a few times in a showy manner, glaring at him wide-eyed (with fear, if only he knew) long enough to give him the willies, but not so long as to provoke him. And with each swing of my gaze, I blew in a low, menacing way in the whistle. By doing this, by badgering him with my eyes (for, of course, with all animals, including us, to stare is an aggressive act) and by sounding that whistle cry that had such ominous associations in his mind, I made clear to Richard Parker that it was my right, my lordly right, to fondle and sniff his feces if I wanted to. So you see, it was not good zookeeping I was up to, but psychological bullying. And it worked. Richard Parker never stared back; his gaze always floated in midair, neither on me nor off me. It was something I could feel as much as I felt his balls of excrement in my hand: mastery in the making. The exercise always left me utterly drained from the tension, yet exhilarated.

  Since we are on the subject, I became as constipated as Richard Parker. It was the result of our diet, too little water and too much protein. For me, relieving myself, also a monthly act, was hardly that. It was a long-drawn, arduous and painful event that left me bathing in sweat and helpless with exhaustion, a trial worse than a high fever.

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