Afghanistan leopard. Panthera pardus saxicolor. Less than 50 in captivity. Survival in nature in doubt.

Nouri the leopard can see it coming. She cowers behind the leafless, in fact branchless, tree in her cage in the lion house at the Lincoln Park Zoo. She sees the cart loaded with the vet’s boxes, which look more like toolboxes. When the vet, in his blue jumpsuit, approaches her cage and points the gun at her, she snarls and hurls herself against the bars. When she takes a swipe at him, he ducks it like a deft boxer. She paces her cage, looking for an escape hatch. Finally he sees his opening and shoots. The hypo has to hit her in the haunch, the meaty drumstick.

A hit! Nouri growls in fury and leaps up on her shelf. When she pulls out the hypo, it hangs from her mouth like a cigarette before she spits it out. She jumps down and paces and leaps at the bars, her lips pulled back in a constant growl. In five minutes or so the drug will take full effect and she’ll be immobilized, made safe–knocked down, as the vets say.

Because the 75-year-old lion house is being remodeled, 13 tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, and cougars have to be moved to temporary quarters in the primate house. While the big cats are in their cooperative, drugged state they will be given general physicals.

Siberian tiger. Panthera tigris altaica.

The young, blond lady vet in the khaki jumpsuit is aptly named: Peregrine Wolff. Her colleagues call her Perry. When she shot Ajax, the huge Siberian tiger, he put up no protest. Now he looks a little stunned, sitting up on his shelf with a hypo hanging from his haunch. He’s trying to sit straight and look majestic, but his left leg is twitching. Zoo director Dr. Lester Fisher gives an explanation of why Nouri put up so much more of a fight. “She’s just a silly, flaky kid.”

Ajax’s knees buckle and he falls off his shelf like a bag of potatoes rolling downhill. About all he can do now is hold up his head and look confused. His tongue hangs from the side of his mouth. Finally, his head drops and he’s helpless.

Perry and the zookeepers enter his cage carrying a metal stretcher. It takes six of them to lift Ajax up onto it, carry him through the narrow cage door, and place the stretcher on a gurney. They roll Ajax over to the scale, and it takes six more to place the stretcher on it. When Joel, the vet, balances the scale, we see Ajax weighs 370 pounds.

Strings of saliva hang from the tiger’s mouth as Perry pulls back his eyelids and shines a penlight in his eyes. His eyes are tearing. His whiskers are wet. Joel draws a vaccine, which looks like white hand lotion, into a hypo. Perry listens to Ajax’s chest with a stethoscope.

After they draw blood from a vein in his back leg, Ajax is ready to roll–through the wheelchair-access door and down the ramp, leaving a trail of tiger saliva. They roll him around to the side of the primate house, where he will occupy the spacious outdoor cage once inhabited by Bushman, the legendary gorilla. They have to pass Ajax on his stretcher over a railing. “We need some mega-muscle,” Perry says. Joel pumps the foot pedal to raise the gurney and hums a little vaudevillian music for the magician’s entrance. “You’ve always wanted to levitate a cat,” another zookeep says.

The zookeeps grunt and groan and struggle for their footing as they pass Ajax over the rail and carry him into the cage. They set the stretcher in the sun, and Perry pulls Ajax off by the scruff of his neck as the men push on his hindquarters. Perry listens one last time to the tiger’s chest and then rolls him over. Ajax now has the penthouse suite. He’ll awaken to a scenic view of Lake Shore Drive.

Indian lion. Panthera leo persica. They live nowhere on earth except the Gir forest in India–about 200 of them there. They eat hoofed mammals. Bernie here is one of about 50 in captivity.

They prod Bernie into a six-foot-square “squeeze cage” so they can reach him better. At age 15 Bernie is in his twilight years, so anesthetizing him is somewhat risky. Joel pokes at his face with a wooden stick so he’ll bite that rather than Perry’s hand as she reaches into the cage and sticks the hypo in his haunch. “The safest way would be to do gas anesthesia,” Perry explains, “but we haven’t talked anyone into going in and putting the mask on.”

As Bernie wilts into a limp mass, Perry enters and pets him behind the ears to reassure him. His last sign of liveliness is his erect tail, which forms a question mark.

It takes six to lift him, too. He weighs in at 355. Joel checks him for ingrown toenails. Perry pries his mouth open as if she were about to dazzle the crowd by inserting her head. Joel draws some blood. Perry withdraws the rectal thermometer: 103.8. Good enough. Now Bernie needs “scaling”–teeth cleaning. Perry uses what look like a regular dental hygienist’s tools, an electric and a handheld scraper. She digs away at Bernie’s rear molar. Those hoofed mammals leave an awful black plaque.

While Perry scrapes, Joel takes the lion’s blood pressure. He wraps the blood pressure cuff around Bernie’s tail. A zookeep, catching a coworker daydreaming, whips him with the lion’s tail and yells: “Oh my God! He’s waking up!”

When they roll Bernie out to the primate house, some of the zoo visitors stop to watch. They wonder if he’s dead. Inside the primate house, the greenish-yellowish squirrel monkeys (they look more like bats than monkeys) are hanging on their cage bars and staring at Bernie’s processional with unprecedented wonder. Bernie is rolled behind the scenes, past the buckets full of head lettuce and apples, to be loaded into his new cage from the rear. They drag his dead weight across the floor of the cage and leave him lying on his side. The cage door closes with a punitive thud, like the door to death row. It echoes throughout the primate house.

Across the way, Nouri has come back to life–a little. There’s a desire for revenge in her eyes. She’d like to take a snarling lunge against the bars, but all she can do is pull herself to a sitting position. Her back legs are useless, as if someone had glued her to the ground.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.