Dr. Eleanor Shields was a piece of work. She had become a vascular surgeon in the days when medical schools only admitted a couple of women a year. After med school she had served in the military and then settled in Las Vegas after her retirement. She enjoyed telling us about the Las Vegas celebrities she had become chummy with, but why she was on the teaching faculty was beyond my comprehension. In six weeks I had never learned a thing from her.
Dr. Shields was a short, grey haired opinionated woman, with the abrasive personality of a drill sergeant. She threw me out of an operation one day because I couldn’t name all the branches of the carotid artery; not that I wasn’t relieved to have been dismissed. Another day at the VA she told me to write up a history and physical, but to use another student’s notes because the other student’s were better than mine. I felt like a pound of chopped liver, cut and wrapped.
One day after vascular clinic, I was surprised when Dr. Shields called us all together. “I want to take you all on a field trip tomorrow night, if you are free. Meet me at the Las Vegas Zoo at six.” She winked at us, “I know someone and we are getting in for free.”
The following evening, I drove my little Suzuki Swift along US 95 headed northwest out of the city. I hadn’t ever ventured into North Las Vegas, so I was feeling nervous about getting lost. The road was lined with cheap hotels and deserted looking auto body places. Dead looking Joshua trees and creosote bushes made up the rest of the landscape. Finally I spotted the sign and pulled off into the open space which served as a parking lot.
The zoo was surrounded by a rusty red brick fence which someone had designed in a mission style. The walls were the exact same color as the hard pack grainy soil they sat upon. Dr. Shields was already there with several of my classmates.
When we entered the gate, the first thing which struck me was the smell. The aroma of animal waste in the 115 degree heat was overpowering. I was disgusted. This place was little more than a roadside animal attraction.
The paths we walked on were the same hard packed red earth of the parking lot. Hot, bored animals lay about in traditional barred cages. Even the ring-tailed lemurs were still in the late afternoon heat. Chickens and peafowl scratched in the dirt and the ever present whine of cicadas filled the air.
As we walked, Dr. Shields prattled on leading us to the far left corner of the enclosure. I couldn’t see why she was leading us to this smelly dusty edge of the zoo until I saw him move. With fur which blended into the tawny dust of his enclosure was a lion. He was old. I could tell because he acted as washed out as the color of his mane. He lifted his head and yawned displaying broken yellowed fangs. His pink tongue popped out and he licked the end of his dry, cracked nose. Then his head sank back to his crossed paws.
Dr. Shields sat down on the bench next to the enclosure. “His name Charlie and he is my patient,” she said. “I was at a party at Wayne Newton’s one night and someone told me Charlie was sick. No one seemed to know what was wrong with him. So I came out and watched him for a while. We got some blood tests and I figured out he had Cushing’s disease. We got him on medications and now, he is so much better,” she said proudly.
I stared at the ancient lion wondering how she could think he was better. He hadn’t moved a muscle. His fur was dry and dusty. I wondered how much longer he had to live. And even more I wondered why his owners didn’t get a proper veterinarian for him.
I turned to try to remove myself from the stench and the heat. The sun was beginning to set behind the Spring Mountains. The sky was taking on the purple, orange and mahogany bands of evening in Las Vegas. The hills were bare of vegetation so I could see their sharp edges backlit with the golden setting sun. And then I heard it.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard the roar of a lion. Behind me I heard Charlie start to huff. I heard the far away lion again and then with a deafening roar, Charlie answered. I turned and he was standing up, facing the setting sun, intent and listening. His yellow eyes reflected the sun’s dying rays. Then he opened his mouth and roared again.
I heard Dr. Shield’s say, “Those are Siegfried and Roy’s lions. These guys do this every night.”
Far away the rich, performing lions answered. I was suddenly in the middle of the Serengeti. The temperature dropped a few degrees as the violet hills merged with the plum-colored twilight. The buzz of the cicadas ceased and nothing was left but the roaring across the valley.
They were still at it as we started to leave. I stood by my car mesmerized. I listened and watched the gloaming until it was nearly dark and the roaring had ceased.
On the drive back to my apartment, I thought about Dr. Shields. Perhaps she had a grain of humanity in her. Maybe she was a healer trying to help in the only way her life toughened exterior would allow. Perhaps she too had stood listening to the call of lions in the desert and been moved by their calls in the twilight. But I knew better than to ask her.