Gustav the Lion's Great Escape

SUCH a queer combustion is banked within the fragile bones of a cat. Such a contradictory mixture of wholesomeness and sinisterness. There were times when, as a child, I felt like punching a playmate in the nose, but then I saw a cat watching me as if it expected better of me, and I was saved.

But I also saw, once, a cat licking its paws in the still smoking debris of a building where arson was suspected, as if cleaning up after a job well done. Consequently, I was highly wary on the subject of cats.

Just once did I feel an unadulterated emotion toward a cat, and it wasn't an ordinary cat but a lion named Gustav.

Gustav belonged to a rather shabby traveling circus. He was a lean, pokey-ribbed portion of eternity, a shy, chrysanthemum-headed old Bert Lahr of a lion.

When he roared, the flies didn't even bother to fly off his flapping tail and ears. Offstage he amused himself by playing with balls of yarn, like a kitten.

And onstage he perched on a red block and opened his practically toothless mouth, like a thoroughly bored king bemoaning the tedium of being revered, and let his trainer poke his head in.

One night - as the papers later reported - his trainer forgot to lock the cage, and Gustav wandered off from the circus. You couldn't really call it an escape, since he'd grown quite attached to his many naps and of course the food. It was more like a stroll.

Unfortunately, he wasn't prepared for the blinding lights of the cars, the harsh honking of horns, the panicky screams of those who saw him. Spooked, he took refuge in the courtyard of an apartment building.

To what happened next, I was a witness myself. My parents had an apartment in this building, and from the window I could look down and see everything.

The lion just paced back and forth, back and forth, flapping his ears as if trying to flick off the cries of the tenants, and occasionally producing a roar that sounded like a little air-filled paper bag suddenly hit and popped.

Meanwhile, police arrived. Through bullhorns they warned everybody to stay inside, and then they cordoned off the area and turned spotlights on the lion, driving him into a corner.

When they took out their guns, I closed my eyes. I didn't want to see them shoot Gustav all at once. I didn't want to see the old lion topple over like a riddled target in a shooting gallery.

But the sound of gunshots didn't come.

I opened my eyes. Someone had thought to fetch the trainer! Here he came, a short, bandy-legged man in a rumpled coat, apology written all over his face, pushing before him a single cage mounted on wheels.

Even before he reached the lion, cheers went up from all the apartments and from the police and onlookers below, too. A few moments before, everybody had been frightened. But most people by nature are not bloodthirsty, and when danger is gone, they give voice to the goodness in their hearts.

The trainer stopped a few feet from the lion and opened the door of the cage. Not with a whip did he drive Gustav in, but, taking from his coat pocket a big chunk of meat and tossing it into the cage, he enticed him. In one leap, Gustav was inside. Safe.

Nothing senseless, nothing needless, happened there that night. Panic had no victory over persuasion, nor the gun over help to what was hapless. How beautiful it can be, in our fearful world, when there is mercy to the innocent.

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