May 1983, Batchelor, the Outback of Australia.
Heralded by the screeches of a cockatoo, a stranger walked into the zoo. He stopped for a moment and stared at the red and white signs nailed to the entrance archway. At the top and in the middle, the faded sign read JOHNNY’S ZOO STATION. To the right was the word ART and to the left MUSEUM. A three-foot corrugated iron wall lined the path leading into the zoo. Behind the wall, to the left and to the right, were strange Disneyesque structures that might have been cages.
He wiped his forehead. He was sweating more than usual. He had only been on the job and in the Territory for three months. He wasn’t used to the humid weather nor was he used to dealing with such an eccentric population. He stared back at the men in the trucks behind the arches and the Constable following him. Constable Paine was there to help if there was a violent outburst.
He looked at the building at the end of the footpath. The bizarre structure certainly gave credence to why so many people called Johnny a wakka. Only the mind of a mad man could come up with such an architectural design. Johnny had not only come up with the design but had built it all by hand.
Two fifteen-foot-high, white towers, with pointed red roofs, stood ten feet apart. Stretching from the side of each tower was a rectangular building dotted with ten windows and corrugated awnings painted in red and yellow. A catwalk joined the towers. From the catwalk, hung a bomb with MUSEUM painted in black across its side. Below the bomb was a brown, wooden gate. Below the bomb was a brown, wooden gate. The building gave him the creeps. He remembered having seen something like it somewhere - perhaps in a book or a movie. Wherever it was, it had left a bad impression.
As he scanned the rest of the property and the dilapidated structures around him, he found it hard to imagine what this place was like nearly twenty years ago when school children, tourists and even local politicians wandered through the park. They went there to get a glimpse of the bush animals - quolls, dingos, rock wallabies, bandicoots, skinks, snakes and the amazing collection of birds. Now the zoo was nearly empty.
He walked down the footpath avoiding the temptation to examine the few animals left in the cages and focused only on finding his man. Clenched in his hand was an order from the Conservation Commission for Jean Meskens, aka Buffalo Johnny, revoking his rights to keep wildlife. It was said the animals were being neglected so Johnny’s Zoo would finally be closed.
As he reached the Museum, dust on the path whirled before him. The scent of death, urine and eucalyptus filled the air as the spiked gray shadows of the bizarre structure enveloped him. He shuddered.
In the distance, he could see a decrepit figure rounded over what appeared to be a joey. The man seemed to be talking to the animal patting its head and feeding it bits of grass. The tiny animal would occasionally close its eyes and nuzzle the man’s hand. The stranger shook his head in disbelief. There before him was Buffalo Johnny, the Territory’s legendary zookeeper. Dressed identically to the image in the faded identification picture, Johnny wore a stained red shirt, khaki shorts, and gumboots. Dark glasses hid his eyes. His famed piss-conditioned hair framed his tanned and wrinkled face. When the joey had enough, it hopped away, and Johnny began sweeping organic debris - feathers, pieces of snakeskin and possum excrement - while muttering to the dog by his side. Swinging his fragile body to lift the dirt from the ditch, he didn’t seem capable of clearing hundreds of acres of bush. Yet facing the extreme heat and the constant invasion of insects, Johnny had single-handedly removed termite mounds, shrubs, rocks and desert grasses to make room for this massive hand-built zoological park. He had built hundreds of cages and dwellings from scraps of wire, corrugated iron and left over military equipment - bombs, missiles and other artillery.
Without access to many modern tools, he had used a small shovel to dig a billabong large enough for at least five water buffalo to enjoy. Dotted around the property stood a number of sculptures made from discarded metal pieces and other found objects. The stranger took a breath and wondered what had driven this man to spend so many of his productive years building a zoological park of this size in the middle of nowhere.
He moved closer and tried to stay focused. A flock of squealing flying foxes scattered across the sky creating a disproportionate pattern of black dots on the light blue heavens. The startled intruder faltered as his boots hit the dry roots of a cassia bush. Johnny turned and stared. A breeze carried a whiff of his personal odor up the stranger’s nose. The man coughed then marched over to Johnny and crushed the note into the zookeeper’s dirty brown palm. “Mr. Meskens, your license to keep animals has been revoked!” declared the stranger through stale breath laced with beer and tobacco.
Stepping back quickly to avoid an outbreak of violence, he watched as Johnny unfolded the paper. He then raised his hand and gave his men the signal. At that moment, two trucks smashed through both zoo entrances shattering the gates and crushing bits of wood into the dirt path. Wire from the fence hooked on to one of the truck’s mirrors pulling the fence into an arch until it snapped back across the road hitting the sides of some of the cages. Chaos erupted! Cockatoos squawked, dingoes panted, quolls screeched.
Two rangers and a vet jumped from the trucks and went swiftly about their business. Wearing black gloves to protect their hands from animal bites, venom, spit, disease and faeces, the men began cutting the metal mesh of the cages with heavy wire cutters.
“Kevin, hold the sacks open so Allan can stuff the smaller animals inside,” said the ranger assigned to direct the raid. “Most of the snakes aren’t poisonous so you can just snatch them right at the back of the head but watch out for the quolls, they give a nasty bite.”
“What about the dingoes, roos, and the rest of the big animals?” said Allan.
“Just lasso them and throw them into the cages on the back of the trucks. Chuck the wildlife in the sacks back there, too. And, Kevin, if an animal seems too sick to travel - euthanize it.”
“Right,” said Kevin as he pulled his hand away from a goanna raising itself into a defensive standing position.
“Now let’s get this done as quickly as possible.”
“What about Johnny?”
“Don’t worry about Johnny. Constable Paine is here to take care of him.”
They hadn’t noticed that Johnny had already reached the house where he kept his rifle.