The unhappy news came about 4:40 PM on Wednesday when the National Zoo announced it had captured its runaway bobcat, Ollie. What a shame; I was hoping that the zoo would never get her back and that she would roam the woods of Rock Creek Park for the rest of her life.
Instead, DC lost a symbol of freedom and one of its last hopes in a world gone rotten.
When Ollie was reported missing Monday, she immediately joined the menagerie of the National Zoo’s rogue specimens: the zebra that bit a zoo employee and spooked a gazelle into killing itself; the cheetahs that feasted on a wayward deer that had found its way into their habitat; Rusty, the red panda that entranced the city with his escape into Adams Morgan.
All those other incidents are memorable, but Ollie was on her way to being so much more. One day into her escape, Ollie earned legend status when DC Public Schools from Adams Morgan to Chevy Chase canceled their outdoor activities to avoid risking their students encountering this renegade beast. (Not that healthy bobcats are known to pose any real danger to much larger humans, but still, this is how legends start.) Imagine what could’ve followed had Ollie remained on the prowl: parents could scare their children with the specter of Ollie; kids would have a ready-made excuse for why they didn’t turn in their homework; lazy homeowners could blame their unkempt shrubbery on the bobcat that stalks the night. Mouse, rabbit, and deer—bobcats eat all three—carcasses could be attributed to her prowl.
Bobcats live for about 15 years in the wild; at seven years old, Ollie could’ve given us a solid decade of rumored sightings and fun bar stories.
Just as important, DC would’ve had a much better zoo specimen to rally around than those giant pandas, which spend their days loafing about, just waiting for the next shipment of bamboo or the next episode in lives ruled by heavily choreographed diplomatic protocol. Not Ollie: she was as untamable and rebellious as we all secretly want to be. A perfect mascot for a city of cubicled bureaucrats yearning to breathe free. Bobcats have six-foot verticals and can run as fast as 30 miles per hour; giant pandas spend their days eating bamboo and pooping out undigested plant matter.
Even if Ollie’s capture was inevitable—it’s possible she never made it outside the zoo’s perimeter—she’s a far more interesting specimen. And, to be sure, as a creature who’s lived much of her life in captivity, she might not have been totally equipped to make it in the wilderness.
Still, all communities could use good urban legends. Folks in Upstate New York and Vermont know all about Champy, the giant serpent with the head of a horse that patrols Lake Champlain. If you grew up in the Hudson Valley, you heard all about the Headless Horseman. South New Jersey has been mystified for more than a century by sightings of the Jersey Devil, a kangaroo-like creature with the wings of a bat. They’re all ghost stories, but if you’re from those places they’re also sources of pride. In Gotham City, the most effective crime deterrent isn’t Batman himself, it’s the threat of the Batman.
But Ollie won’t roam free. Instead, we get photos of her trapped in a metal cage. She’ll be poked and prodded to make sure she didn’t pick up any diseases, and then returned to her habitat, which will be modified to protect against any future escapes. And we’ll go back to feeling trapped in our frustrating and mundane lives and probably go back to fixating on the giant pandas when we think about the National Zoo. Ollie’s act of rebellion won’t live on in urban legend; at best, she’ll be a gradually fading Twitter meme. She’s the hero we need, but not the one we deserve.