The Red Panda

By on Jul 19, 2017 in Fiction

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Red panda and raccoon

We were lying together on top of the garbage. I barely noticed the smell anymore.  I felt the need to make conversation. “Have you ever been to the zoo before?”

“No. Most wild animals avoid it.”

“That’s too bad. You might enjoy it. For starters there are some very poorly guarded trash cans…”

“Just because I’m a raccoon doesn’t mean I make all of my decisions based on access to garbage.”

“I’m sorry, that came out the wrong way, I’m just trying to find a way to relate. There are also a lot of interesting animals that you probably don’t get to see otherwise. Like koalas. Koalas are hilarious.”

“You sound like you miss the zoo.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. There are things I like about it, but I’m not planning to go back.”

“So you plan to stay here in the wild the rest of your life?”

“I guess – but this isn’t really the wild either, is it? No offense, but this is a human-made park, right? It’s sort of a halfway house between the zoo and the real wild, isn’t it?”

“Well, this part of the park is. You’ve only just been on the edge, the human borderlands. For those of us who feed on human scraps it’s a good place. But there is a wild part of the park. Just woods. No rangers, no security, just the woods. You could live out your natural life there without human contact.”

“That sounds like what I’m looking for.”

“It’s not hard to get there, you just need to go west for a few miles, over a hill near the main creek, and you’ll be there. It might be a short natural life for you though. That part of the park tends to be full of coyotes.”

“Well, maybe that’s fine. Maybe a short life in the wild is better than a long life in a cage.”

“You know, most zoo animals are actually very fragile creatures. The cages are there to keep out predators as much as to contain you. You’re having a nice little adventure, but I think you’ll be back in the zoo in a few days, and it will be by choice.” She stood up. “I need to leave now. My mate will be wondering where I am.”

“I think you’re wrong about me and the zoo. But on the off-chance you’re right, you should come and visit my cage sometime.”

She didn’t respond, and climbed out of the trashcan. Within moments she had disappeared into the park.


When I emerged from the trashcan, the sun was almost directly overhead. I had only been intending to nod off for a few hours, but it’s amazing how you can lose track of time in a dark enclosed space. Anyway it shouldn’t have been a surprised that I slept for hours – I was probably more exhausted than at any point in my life.

I wandered around, trying to get my bearings. A middle-aged woman in a garish exercise outfit and her daughter were strolling down the path near the bench. When the girl noticed me, she walked towards me, out of her mother’s reach, the way so many zoo-goers have done. Her mother yelled something to her – probably about not approaching a wild animal, even if it looks harmless – but then the girl grimaced and stopped on her own accord. They both backed away. I realized that I must smell terrible, having spent the entire night sleeping in garbage. Ordinarily they would have considered me cute and harmless, but in my current state they wanted no part of me. Just for fun, I bared my teeth at them and hissed. The girl shrieked and they both ran away. Somehow, in mid-stride, the girl turned back towards me and took some pictures with her phone. In retrospect it was probably a dumb idea to provoke them, but God, it felt good. I wandered back to the woods in search of food.

After a pleasant but ultimately unsuccessful search for bamboo, I came to the creek that ran through the center of the park. I pondered whether to go for a swim, and maybe try to eat some small fish or crustaceans. I had never eaten anything like that before and was worried it would make me sick, but I was resigning myself to the lack of bamboo and needed some other options. Anyway, it was a hot day and the creek looked cool. I waded in, feeling refreshed and cleaner than I had been in a long time. I lay there for a while, motionless in the water.

The sight of a man with sunglasses and a dark green uniform on the other side of the creek awoke me from my reverie. He was a park ranger, and I knew he had to be avoided. However, in trying to push myself to a less conspicuous place, I accidentally splashed the water and caught his attention. As soon as he saw me, he pulled out a walkie-talkie and started shouting into it. I should have never provoked those people; I should have avoided all contact with humans for at least a few days. Now I was seen a wild animal on the loose, and the whole apparatus of human authority would close in on me. I turned and started running west, towards the wild part of the park where Sonya had told me. I had never run this fast in my life. Come to think of it, I had barely run at all over any kind of distance, I never had the need nor space to do it. My muscles were tired, but I pressed on. I stayed close to the creek, and saw the ranger running alongside. Maybe I should have tried to escape from his view, but I knew my only real chance to escape was not to disappear from this particular ranger into the woods, but rather to make it to the wild section of the park, so here I was, running in plain sight of my potential captor so as not to lose my bearings. Soon, I noticed the ground sloping upwards, I realized I must be climbing the hill that Sonya had told me about. The ranger across the creek had now disappeared from view but, turning my head briefly downhill, I could see two more rangers coming. One carried a net, and one carried what I assumed was a tranquilizer gun. Now the woods seemed to be thinning out, and I saw birds flying overhead. Within moments, I was in a clearing at the top of the hill. Looking down I saw the deepest woods that I had ever seen, comparable only to the few fleeting images I kept from my earliest childhood. Behind me, the two rangers were trudging up slowly, breathing heavily. I stared down towards the woods, preparing to make a break for it. These two humans were spent, there was no way they were going to follow me down there. It would just be a short sprint, and then I would be free.

And then I saw it: a coyote wandering, barely visible, between two patches of deep wood. It might have been an illusion, but I felt as if he was looking back towards me. In that instant, the abstract ideal of living in the wild until I died a natural death was replaced by an image of a coyote’s teeth tearing through my neck, ripping my limbs from my torso, clawing open my chest until my intestines spilled out, and perhaps inadvertently mangling my genitals in the process. I apologize for this gruesome imagery, but I am only trying to convey to you the brutal reality of how I could have died in the wild. Before you judge me as a coward and a traitor to every zoo animal who dared to believe he could escape his cage, I ask you to consider how you would feel if it was your chest that might be clawed open and your genitals mangled. I hesitated at the top of the hill and, when the net came down over my head, I felt a mixture of shame and relief.


These days I spend most of my waking hours at the far end of the cage, by myself. I no longer have any illusions about being a wild animal, but at the same time, I feel that I have less in common with the zoo animals than ever. Even the koalas seem dull now. Sidney told me that this happens to all animals that temporarily escape, and that eventually we re-adjust to our routine, mate with our own species, occupy ourselves with various health problems, and eventually it becomes as if the escape never happened. That makes me even more miserable.

At night, I gaze towards the edge of the zoo, fantasizing that Sonya’s face will appear between the stalks of bamboo as the smell of garbage wafts over me.

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Aaron Sokoloff is an attorney in San Diego. His short story "The Red Panda" was published in Wild Violet in July 2017. He was the editor of The Brown Jug humor magazine, and his ranking of the entire Pink Floyd discography was published in under his pen name, "Aaron Sokolof." He wasn't just trying to be controversial by listing Atom Heart Mother at #3; that is actually his opinion. He is currently working on a biography of his brother entitled Other Peoples' Cars: The Life and Times of G-ron Sokoloff.


  1. Congrats, Aar!!! Fabulous story showing great talent and creativity!

  2. Nice story. You are talented!

  3. I liked this much more than Catch-22!

  4. loved this!