Lucy Rourke has two great loves in her life: the gorilla troop she cares for as a primatologist and the laundry list of reality TV shows she watches to escape the fact that her actual love life doesn’t exist. And like a reality contestant gunning for the final rose, Lucy’s laser-focused on one thing: getting promoted to head keeper. So when a wildlife docuseries hosted by hotshot TV personality Kai Bridges chooses her zoo as its summer filming location, she sees an opportunity to showcase her beloved gorillas to the world and land a starring role in her department.
When Kai and his film crew arrive, however, it's obvious to Lucy that Kai cares more about sky-high ratings than the gorillas, and he considers her a camera-averse know-it-all whose wardrobe consists entirely of khaki. But she’s surprised to discover there’s more to him than his rugged good looks and cheesy catchphrases...and that maybe a promotion isn’t the only thing she wants. But when secrets from their pasts threaten to complicate everything, Lucy discovers that happiness and success aren’t the same thing—and that finding joy just might mean getting a little wild.
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About the Author
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I wish I were a Humboldt squid.
Everyone thinks chameleons are the best camouflagers, but a Humboldt squid can change its colors as fast as four times a second. If I could do that, I'd transform myself into the rain cloud gray shade of my office walls. That way, Elle wouldn't be able to find me and remind me of my four p.m. assignment.
But I'm not a squid, and I jump when my office door bangs open.
"Lucy." My best friend Elle pops her head inside the doorway, a mass of black curls framing her face. "You cannot hide from the children."
I sigh and shut my laptop, where I've been updating the daily feeding log. The gorillas ate their regular afternoon snack of popcorn, cereal, and sunflower seeds, with peanuts added in as an extra treat. As a keeper, part of my job is maintaining detailed records of the gorillas' dietary intake, social interactions, sleep habits, and vital signs. I've got at least an hour of data entry left today, but that will have to wait.
I don't want Elle to kill me.
"I know you hate doing the Critter Chats, but they're important. I've got twenty-six second-graders out there who can't wait to learn about primates," she says, sticking her neck farther into my shoebox-sized office. It's so tiny that between my cluttered desk and stuffed mini fridge, I can't lean more than three inches back in my chair without smacking my head against the door. Elle has no chance of getting in.
"Did you say twenty-six?" I ask in disbelief. "That's a fuck-ton of kids."
When she raises an eyebrow at me, I grab a fresh can of Diet Coke from the mini fridge and pop the tab open. I'm going to need a serious caffeine fix to make it through the next half hour.
"And it's not that I hate the Critter Chats," I continue, letting the cold deliciousness of my drink soothe me. "It's that I hate the four o'clock Critter Chats."
Three times a day-nine a.m., one p.m., and the dreaded four p.m.-a zookeeper from the primates department hosts an educational Q and A in front of the outdoor gorilla exhibit. I enjoy the Chats most of the time, since they're a great way to share my passion for gorillas with the public. During the morning and early-afternoon sessions, the kids who attend are in cheery, inquisitive moods. It's early enough in the day that the zoo is still fun for them, and they've got a day full of camel rides and ice cream Flamingo Pops to look forward to.
But by late afternoon, the excitement and sugar highs have faded, and the exhausted children have sunk into cranky moods. If they're little, they've gone all day without their usual naps, and if they're teenagers, it's late enough in the day that their phone batteries are dead and they have to suffer through the oppressive June heat without access to TikTok.
It's not a great situation.
"I know they can be challenging, but you're the only primate keeper available today. Jack's assisting over in Asia Quest, and Lottie has to go to her grandmother's funeral. Plus, it'll get you extra brownie points from Phil."
I clear my throat. "It's Lottie's grandmother's cat's funeral," I clarify, narrowing my eyes at Elle. "And I bet she could make it back in time."
Elle's dark brown eyes flicker with exasperation. "You know I don't assign keepers, Luce. I just make sure that somebody's out there to educate the children."
She's laying it on a little thick with that whole educate-the-children line, but she's not wrong. As an associate activities director, Elle's responsible for coordinating events for the public, including Zoo Camp, the painting-with-penguins fundraiser sessions, and Critter Chats. If I refuse to be a good sport, I'll be making her job harder. And because we've been best friends since the first day of ZooTeen volunteer orientation fourteen years ago, that's not an option for me. Plus, she has a point about my boss, Phil. He's looking to promote a junior primate keeper to senior sometime this year, and I want that job more than anything.
"Okay, okay," I relent, standing up from my chair to stretch my legs. At five-nine, I tower over Elle's five-one frame, and I bounce on my heels to increase blood flow to my long limbs. "Just tell me, this second-grade class-are there any girls with flower names? You know, Tulip, Rose, Iris? Because girls with flower names always give me the hardest time. Along with boys with bougie names, like Brantley or Oakley or Banks."
I'm not pulling those names out of thin air. Last week, a five-year-old named Tulip tried to stick gum in my hair, and a six-year-old Banks screamed at me when I explained to him that gorillas aren't monkeys. I've learned to maintain a ten-foot distance between myself and children at the afternoon Critter Chats, lest any of them have a tantrum and decide to fling a Capri Sun at my head.
Elle scrunches her nose. "Who names a kid Tulip? Anyway, it's almost four, so let's go, please. And if the kids get too rowdy, just tell them that filming starts next week, so if they come to the zoo again over the summer, there's a chance they'll get to be on TV. Kids love TV."
Kids love launching full juice boxes at innocent zookeepers' heads more than they like TV, in my experience, but I don't argue. Elle's mention of filming inspires a flutter of excitement in my stomach. Next week, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will be the site of a months-long documentary project produced by wildlife expert Kai Bridges, host of On the Wild Side with Kai Bridges. Wild Side has taken viewers like me-I've seen every episode, including the famous one about the last grizzly bear in a small Montana county-from the ice shelves of Antarctica to the volcanoes of Hawaii, showcasing animals in every biome. Now, his production company wants to show audiences the magic of wildlife right in their own backyards, starting with our zoo.
I'm so excited about the docuseries that not even the memory of Tulip and her aggressive bubblegum antics can lessen my enthusiasm. I'd rather die than be on camera-my fellow keepers Lottie and Jack can have that glory to themselves-but I'm looking forward to meeting Kai. He's the son of famed primatologist Dr. Charlotte Kimber, who's half the reason I'm a gorilla keeper, and meeting her offspring is probably the closest I'll ever get to meeting my idol herself. Plus, at least on TV, Kai looks like Tom Hardy's twin, if said twin wore a Crocodile Dundee hat and said "Wowza!" in a South African accent every time an apex predator appeared.
The docuseries will put our zoo on the map, and my heart skips a beat when I imagine people all over the world getting to know the gorillas I've dedicated my career to.
But first, I have to survive the Critter Chat.
"All right, let's go," I say, taking another swig of Diet Coke and surrendering to the inevitable. "But I swear to God, if any second-graders launch spit wads at me, I can't promise not to retaliate."
Elle shakes her head but smiles as I follow her out of my office and through the administrative section of Ape House. She loves kids, which is a good thing, since she and her husband Nadeem are expecting their first baby in six months.
"C'mon." She lifts her employee ID to grant us access to the hallway leading toward the gorillas. "And while I have you, don't forget about that benefit picnic this weekend. You don't have to wear a dress, but you cannot wear your work uniform."
I sigh. Like the Critter Chats, attending zoo fundraising events is part of my job, but I don't enjoy it. It's the actual work part of my career that comes easily to me: building relationships with the animals, researching advances in gorilla care, keeping impeccable records of every aspect of their lives so that conservationists can use the data to bolster outcomes for gorillas in the wild. But making agonizing small talk and eating tiny appetizers at a rich donor's house doesn't appeal to me. I'd much rather be knee-deep in hay getting real work done.
"What's the picnic for?" I ask, trying not to let my annoyance show. It's not Elle's fault that zoos, like other nonprofits, rely on the support of the community to thrive. "And I wouldn't wear my work uniform. I'm not a moron."
As we approach the behind-the-scenes animal area, the unmistakable odor of hay and gorilla fills my nostrils. It smells like a barnyard exploded, and it's my favorite scent in the world.
Elle rolls her eyes. "It's to raise money for a lemur rescue in Madagascar. And I'm not saying you're a moron. I'm saying that sometimes you're so focused on work that things like general self-care fall to the wayside. Remember that gala at the art museum? The one for the giraffe blood bank? You showed up in khakis and a polo shirt. With gorilla shit on your boots."
I glance down at the black polo, khaki shorts, and hunter green rain boots I'm currently wearing. There's not a cloud in sight today, but the boots are essential footwear for a long day scrubbing exhibit floors.
"Piper was born the night of the gala," I explain, remembering the night the zoo's youngest gorilla entered the world. "So excuse me for not missing the birth of a critically endangered creature so I'd have time to shower."
"Nadeem and I had to sit next to you at that gala, so you are not excused." Elle reaches an arm out to give me a friendly swat, and I hop sideways to miss it.
I push open the heavy metal door that leads us out of Ape House and into the warm June sunshine. We emerge on the keepers-only side of Gorilla Villa, the twenty-six-thousand-square-foot outdoor viewing area. Currently, the members of silverback Ozzie's troop roam the space, enjoying what's left of an afternoon scatter feed. Ozzie, the four-hundred-pound leader of the group, rests on a wooden platform above us while he munches on a head of lettuce.
"Hi, handsome," I say. Ozzie's eyes dart toward me, but he continues enjoying his snack. With the distinctive smattering of red hair on his forehead, the proud, observant look in his eyes, and trademark silver hair on his massive back, Ozzie never fails to stop me in my tracks.
"He looks so majestic," Elle says, craning her neck to look up at him.
"That's because he is majestic." The silverback, the dominant male of a gorilla family, is the cornerstone of a troop's survival in the wild. He mediates conflicts, leads his group to feeding sites, and will even sacrifice his own life for the safety of his kin. Ozzie, in all his lettuce-munching glory, is no different.
The rest of Ozzie's troop is scattered throughout the Villa. Thirty-one-year-old Zuri, my favorite member of the troop, basks in the sun on an overhead ledge. Her fellow females Tria and Inkesha doze on a beam tower in the center of the exhibit while Tria's daughter, one-year-old Piper, sleeps on her mom's chest. On the public side of the Villa, youngsters Tomo and Risa engage in a wrestling session, and young male Mac sticks his head into the opening of a tunnel on a grassy hill, probably foraging for more greens.
The outdoor exhibit, a massive structure of interconnected beams and wire mesh, serves to give the gorillas as much choice in their whereabouts as possible. Overhead transfer chutes connect the outdoor space to Ape House, allowing the troop members to move freely between their indoor and outdoor habitats, and a labyrinth of ropes, ladders, and tunnels provides opportunities for playing and napping out of the public eye.
"Ready?" Elle asks, passing me a headset mic and sliding hers on.
"No," I mutter as we approach the shaded viewing area, where a crowd has gathered to watch Risa and Tomo's playful antics. My stomach drops when I see that the twenty-six kids Elle mentioned are wearing matching purple T-shirts with St. Thomas Day Camp Superstar printed on the front.
"Dammit, Elle. You didn't tell me they were day camp kids!"
She bites her lip in guilt. She knows as well as I do that a four o'clock Critter Chat with day camp kids is the worst scenario of all. Not that I have anything against camps-I'm not a monster, and I was a child myself once-but the sheer ratio of exhausted teachers to unruly, even more exhausted kids is a recipe for disaster.
"It'll be great," Elle whispers as we approach the group. "I promise."
I shoot her a dark look but take my place at the glass window in front of the exhibit. The thick humidity in the air does no favors for my wavy, white-blond hair, and between the frizz and the loose pieces of hay stuck in my ponytail, I probably look like a deranged Targaryen.
"Welcome," Elle says, waving her arms at the assembled group of children and flashing them her most patient smile. Between the kids' chatter and the birdsongs floating through the air from the nearby aviary, her voice is lost in the commotion.
"Welcome!" she repeats, louder this time. For a petite person, Elle can really project.
"For this afternoon's Critter Chat, we've got junior keeper Lucy to teach us about the gorillas who call our zoo home. And if you use your very best listening ears, I bet she'll even answer some questions for you."
I try not to hold my breath as Elle winks at the crowd. Something tells me their listening ears got switched off somewhere around lunchtime.
"And remember," Elle continues, "no tapping the glass, please." She smiles and motions toward me with a dramatic sweep of her arm, as if we're on a game show and I'm the prize behind door number three. "Let's listen up while Lucy tells us all about gorillas!"
"Hello," I say, taking my cue. I swallow hard, and my gaze darts from Elle to the group of purple-shirted children. I know I'm not about to deliver the Gettysburg Address, but my palms have already grown slick with sweat. Public speaking, even when it's about my life's passion, has never been my strong suit. I'm great at chatting with small groups of zoo guests, but any more than that triggers serious stage fright. I'd rather shovel gorilla dung.