This is a story about latent instinct and second chances. It begins in the days of my youth when it was still a rare event to see a flock of wild turkeys in eastern New York and before some of the shabby sleepy farm towns became desireable for second homes and cyber cafes. The central landscape of my childhood home was the 600 acres of Millbrook School where my father was headmaster. There were swamps to romp in, streams to dam, and forested hills of craggy shale to explore. There was also a zoo.
Millbrook's Trevor Zoo is not one of those sad animal prisons where animals languish with dull eyes and senses, but a fully accredited zoo involved in everything from rare species conservation to engaging students in animal care. In the early 1980s, though, before an infusion of generous philanthropic support, there were parts of the zoo that were less modern, where cages were smaller.
This story is about one of those animals, a bobcat named Bailey who came to Millbrook after decades of captivity at the Bronx Zoo. He had never been in the wild, never caught the scent of prey on the wind or known the quivering pause before springing to the kill. He was old, and tired, and no longer on display in New York, so he arrived at Millbrook to live out his final geriatric days. I remember him hissing on top of the wooden box where he bedded down at night, and thinking there was still something feral in that old captive body.
Then one night, Bailey got out.
Perhaps his student keeper left the gate unlatched. The school night watchman found Bailey outside the cage and managed to coax him back inside with a plate of food. But not long afterward, he was loose again, and this time he was gone for good.
He was gone from the zoo compound, certainly, but not from the area, for Bailey started turning up at the dumpster behind the dining hall, and the zoo staff set a large have-a-heart trap for him that managed to catch one of the neighborhood dogs instead. We feared it would end in tragedy, that he would not be able to find food for himself, or worse, that he would raid someone's chicken coop and end up getting shot.
But Bailey survived. And thrived.
I saw him one winter night, six months later, crossing the road down by the school wetlands. He was sleek and well fed and there weren't other bobcats in the region back then so it could only have been Bailey. Others saw him high on the ridge, far from the derelict dairy farms fast converting to horse country. He was 30 years old. He knew what to do. Free at last.