• Peter Barlow

"Setting Loose the Marmosets"


The TV came on in the middle of a news report. “—arrested today in front of the Detroit Zoo after protesters blocked traffic at Woodward and Ten Mile for nearly an hour. The protesters chanted ‘Set Them Free’ as they were led away in handcuffs. The leader, who identified himself only as Chieftain, declined comment beyond shouting, ‘Slavery!’ No word on how long the protesters were detained.” The on-the-street reporter threw it back to the studio, where the sports report was teased before cutting to commercial. An ad for a dishwasher detergent that promised a tidal wave right there in your kitchen played, and then the television went dark.

I collapsed onto the bed. The day started off perfectly fine. I was in my office at the Zoo by 8.45, completed some work on a pair of presentations, called up a couple of long time high-dollar donors and extracted promises that they would donate still more money before I was summoned into the CEO’s office. That was when I found out about the protesters. “Have the police been called?” The CEO started slamming drawers. “Have the press? Should we send security out?” I didn’t really feel qualified to say much of anything. The Director of Communications was on a two-month sabbatical with a month and a half to go, scaling Kilimanjaro to bring attention to the plight of the humpback whale. I was just the Assistant Director, on the job for a paltry three months. And now here was this, this surprise protest in front of the Zoo by a group calling itself the MLF who wanted something freed. In the fracas, nobody had found out what that thing was supposed to be.

Mid-morning the next day I was pondering the printer and why it wasn’t working the way it was supposed to when Brenda from Purchasing poked her head out of her office. “Ivan? They’re back.”

I looked at her, or toward her. My eyes darted every which way trying to figure out who was back.

“The protestors,” she said. “Security just radioed back.”

I swore, abandoned my print job, and started toward the front of the park. The administration complex was a five-minute walk from the front gates and then another minute on to Woodward, the main road in front of the park. Getting from the front gate to Woodward was the issue today. The crowd was stacked ten deep into the grass median separating the Zoo’s access road from Woodward, and muttering a little. The protestors were louder than the crowd. I heard them from a hundred and fifty feet away chanting, “Heck, no, we won’t go,” and wondered if they knew how dated they sounded.

I wedged my way through the crowd and saw them at last. Eight of them were marching in an oval, carrying signs that said ‘Set Them Free’ and ‘Animals Are People Too’. The crowd gave them a ten-foot berth, and almost directly opposite me in the circle a TV cameraman filmed the whole thing. I took my lanyard ID off quickly; I was in the shot and didn’t want to be identified as an employee just yet.

“Jeezapetes,” Brenda from Purchasing said. She followed in my wake through the crowd. “They’re a bit full-on, aren’t they?”

The protestors switched to a chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Shut the Zoo and let them go!” marching in step, keeping their circle as perfect as possible. Standing on a milk crate in the middle was the man identified on the news as Chieftain. He had a bullhorn in one hand but wasn’t shouting into it just then. He was scowling the same scowl that I saw on the news the night before, like someone had passed gas in his face. On the ground next to the milk crate were a few backpacks and a couple of coolers; the protestors expected to be there for a while, or else go on a picnic afterwards.

A half-dozen squad cars pulled up then, lights flashing, sirens blaring. All of the officers had identical sunglasses on, thin metal frame, big lens, as if they were standard issue with the uniform. The crowd parted, not wanting to be in the line of fire should it come to that. The camera guy was perfectly positioned to capture it all.

“Behold, brethren!” Chieftain said into the megaphone. Some of the nearest bystanders tried to take a half-step back because of how loud he was. “They do not want our message to get out to the masses! They have come to silence us! Run!”

The protestors scattered, or tried to. As they were in close proximity to the policemen anyway and the crowd was essentially a blockade, none of them got anywhere. Chieftain was taken relatively easily. One of the cops got to him before he could get off his milk crate. For his part, he did nothing to resist the handcuffs being put on beyond starting to shout “Slaves!” again.

As one of them was being led to a squad car he said, “What about our things?”

The policeman grunted and gave the protestor—specifically, a twenty-something who looked like he was late for a class—a shove.

“I’ll take the stuff,” I said.

The protestor goggled. The policeman stared. Brenda from Purchasing said, “What?”

“I’ll bring their stuff along,” I said. “Where are you taking them? Royal Oak Police Station?”

The policeman nodded. “They’ll be in processing.” The college kid was still goggling as the cop gave him another shove and got him into the squad car.

I started to pick up the backpacks and coolers. Brenda from Purchasing followed me. “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know any of these people?”

“No.”

“Then why—?”

I stopped and glanced at her briefly and said, “I don’t know,” and walked on toward employee parking. A few minutes later everything was loaded in my car, and ten minutes after that I parked in front of the police station where the protestors were being taken.

Inside the station I was ignored for a bit, then told to take a number and have a seat. When I finally did talk to someone, I found out the protestors were in a holding cell. “I want to bail them out,” I said.

The duty cop looked at me for a minute. “How many?”

“All of them.”

The cop sighed, handed me a clipboard with some forms on it, told me to fill them all out and then see the cashier. I started the form. The form wanted some basic information about me: name, address, driver’s license number and such. Then it asked for information about who I was bailing out. I stared at the form for a second or two and then wrote in the Name blank, “The People Who Protested At The Zoo.” I doubted that would fly, but it was all I had.

When I finished, I gave the clipboard to the cashier. She looked at the form for a moment. “Are you serious, sir?”

“Yes.”

“You’re bailing out the protestors?”

“Yes.”

“You need their names.”

“I don’t know them.” I stared at her, trying to think of what else to say. “I have their things in my car. One of the arresting officers knew about it.”

The cashier excused herself. I stood there at the counter, looking around at the décor. A few minutes later I saw her poke her head back through the door she’d disappeared behind, and then a moment later the cop I’d spoken with briefly at the Zoo appeared too. He nodded at me and then went back through. Then the cashier appeared again, took my credit card, and told me to have a seat. I wondered if being gone so long would cost me my job.

A few minutes later, two uniformed officers brought up the protestors. Chieftain was at the front of the group, wearing the same scowl he had on at the Zoo. I flashed back to one of a hundred moments from my childhood when my brothers and I made faces at each other and Mom scolded us, saying if we weren’t careful our faces would freeze that way. Chieftain had fallen prey to that curse, apparently. “Behold, comrades,” he said. Without the bullhorn and without the need to project, his voice was a pleasant baritone, and warm. None of that warmth, though, made it to his eyes or face. “Our benefactor.”

I bowed my head slightly.

“Our possessions?”

“In my car. Outside.”

There was some other paperwork that they all had to sign, then we all went out to my car. The protestors unloaded their backpacks and coolers from my trunk and thanked me as they did, even the college kid protestor who wasn’t goggling anymore. When they were done, Chieftain told them they would reconvene the next morning at the same time in front of the Zoo.

Before they dispersed I said, “Wait a minute.”

They waited a minute.

“Why—I mean, what’s this all about? What is the purpose? What are you trying to accomplish? What is the MLF?”

Chieftain looked around at his followers then stepped close to me and whispered a word in my ear.

When I got back to the Zoo, the receptionist stopped me in the lobby. The CEO had heard what I’d done—damn that Brenda from Purchasing, I thought, won’t be another date now—and wanted a word now I was back. I couldn’t see a way it would end well but I went up to his office and, after his assistant said I could, went in.

The office was big and plush, but the CEO’s frown made me feel like I was in grade school again. “Ah, yes,” he said from a black leather chair from behind his desk. “Mr. Ivanovich.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I understand you had some interaction with the protestors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you speak to them? Find out what it was they have a problem with?”

“I did, sir.”

“And?”

I paused, gulped, and said the word Chieftain had said into my ear. “Marmosets.”

The CEO stared at me for a long moment. “Marmosets?”

“They’re a group called the Marmoset Liberation Front. They would like the Detroit Zoo to set all of its marmosets free into their native habitat.”

He stared some more. “Do we even have any marmosets?”

“No, sir.”

“So, I’m— confused.” The CEO pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “These people would like us to release animals we don’t have?”

“It would appear so.”

“Do they— are they aware we have no marmosets?”

I shrugged.

“So what do they expect us to do?”

I pursed my lips. “I don’t know. But they’ll be back tomorrow, and I intend to find out.”

The protesters were as good as Chieftain’s word. I was refilling the office coffee maker when Brenda from Purchasing found me. “They’re back,” she said. The glee in her voice was impossible to miss.

I sighed and put the bag of coffee beans down. “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”

The crowd around the protesters was bigger, an extra five or six people deep, but Chieftain on his bullhorn could be heard from three hundred feet away, telling the crowd that he and his followers wouldn’t leave until their demands were heard and met. I waded through the crowd. The protesters—the same eight as the day before—were organized the same way, marching in the same circle, chanting “Freedom For All!”

I stared at them all for a second, the MLFers and the watchers alike, then walked around the circle until I was standing right in front of Chieftain, separated by his followers and five feet of open air. “Behold, brethren!” Chieftain said through the bullhorn. “Our benefactor from yesterday has come!”

It took me a minute to figure out the exact words that would have the most likelihood of getting a response. “I have— uh— come to parlay,” I said, loud enough to clear the protesters’ chant.

The chanting stopped almost immediately. “On whose authority?” Chieftain said.

I held up my lanyard ID. “Ivan Ivanovich, Assistant Director of Communications, Detroit Zoo.”

Two of the protesters gasped. A couple of pimples on College Boy might have popped. The crowd murmured and shifted a little. Chieftain, proving it was possible, smiled. “Excellent,” he said, and then put the bullhorn to his mouth and said, “Success, Brethren! The Zoo is conceding to our demands!” The protesters sent up a cheer, the crowd murmured some more, Brenda from Purchasing put a hand to her mouth, and when I made eye contact she pointed to a spot behind me. I turned my head just enough to see the TV camera lens glisten in the sun.

I tried to take the initiative back. “I would speak with you in private, Chieftain.”

He stepped down from his milk crate. “Me and mine, we travel together.”

I looked around at the protesters. One or two tried to look as tough as Chieftain generally did but the rest looked nervous and a little scared; the trip to jail the day before must have shown them the downside of what their actions could lead to. “Very well,” I said. “That’s acceptable.” The crowd muttered some more. Chieftain directed the followers to clear the circle. One of them took a large blanket out of a backpack and spread it out. Chieftain and I sat cross-legged on the blanket, his followers sitting, kneeling, and standing around us. The cameraman had moved to one side to capture us in profile. The lens glistened in the sun.

“So,” I said, “to be clear, we at the Detroit Zoo do try to listen to our patrons as well as our detractors. And we’re trying to understand specifically what it is you want.”

“The Marmoset Liberation Front’s mission is quite clear. We demand that all institutions in the United States replace any and all marmosets into their natural habitat.”

The protestors, on cue, started chanting “Set Them Free!” The crowd started murmuring again. I took a breath and waited. After ten or so seconds, Chieftain held a hand up and the protestors went silent again.

“I appreciate your position, and the position of your organization. Personally, I find it noble and just. I just don’t understand how that applies to this Zoo.”

Chieftain stared at me like he thought I was trying to be obtuse on purpose. “We’d like the Zoo to release their marmosets to a recognized animal sanctuary that is as close to their natural habitat as possible.”

The chanting started again. Another pause, another hold up of the hand, and we were ready to go again.

“Well, sir,” I said, measuring out my words. “There is an issue here.”

Chieftain looked displeased. “That being?”

“We don’t have any marmosets.” More muttering from just about everybody. “Not on display, not anywhere in the Zoo. We just don’t.”

“You may not have any on display, but you do have some.” He was trying to look authoritative. For him, that meant looking faintly nauseous.

“I assure you that we don’t. I can arrange for a tour of our facilities, if that would help assuage your concerns. As soon as tomorrow, if you like.”

The protestors gave each other anxious glances. Chieftain seemed largely unmoved but said, “A gracious gesture.”

“Excellent,” I said. “This time tomorrow, then? Now, if you’ll take some friendly counsel, you may want to disperse now. No one wants the police to come again.” I took a moment to scan the protestors again. The ones that had looked slightly scared before did again. College Kid turned so white his pimples stood out like so many pushpins. “And I can’t