National Geographic on Assignment: The Unicorn Enclosure
by Sarah Monette
In the unicorn enclosure, all five unicorns are clustered along the fence, batting their long eyelashes beguilingly at a troop of girl scouts. The girls ooh and aah and argue about which one is prettiest, and the unicorns trail them patiently down the perimeter line.
These unicorns are captive-born (two from San Diego, one from Brookyn, one from Mexico City, and the stud all the way from Manchester in an attempt to maintain genetic diversity in North America’s captive breeding program); they’ve never hunted anything but sides of beef. But they’re too smart not to recognize their natural prey, even through plexiglas. The zoologists call the behavior I’m witnessing “playing,” in the same way a domestic cat “plays” with a mouse. Seen from the mouse’s standpoint, it’s not much of a game.
Unlike cats, unicorns seduce their prey. And evolution has brought them prey that wants to be seduced.
Even with FOIA, it’s hard to find accurate statistics on unicorn-related injuries and deaths. People don’t report them properly, the zoologists say, in the same way that battered spouses often don’t report their abusers. And it’s not just preadolescent girls, not just preadolescent boys, although certainly children who have not reached puberty are more vulnerable. One of the women whose portraits I took this week was the daughter of a man gored by a wild unicorn while hiking in Yellowstone. “Dad was too smart for that,” she told me grimly. “He was too smart for that, and it got him anyway.”
Some people say unicorns are the planet’s smartest predators. Some people say they’re smarter than human beings.
I must make some kind of motion, even though I’m not aware of it, because suddenly the boss mare’s head shoots up. She’s from Mexico; the blood of the conquistadores makes the spiraled groove of her horn deeper than is common in American or Canadian unicorns. Her head is beautiful, gently dished and short muzzled, her eyes large and dark and soft as smothering velvet. Even knowing what I know, even knowing that she would gore me for fun although I’m too old for her to bother eating, I feel the pull of her beauty, the pull that has the girl scouts wide-eyed and open-mouthed — the same pull that lures an ant into a Venus fly-trap.
The Mexican mare tosses her head, frustrated that she can’t smell me through the plexiglas; her mane whips in the soft breeze like the pennons of a conquering army. One of the girls, entranced, reaches out to try to touch, forgetting the plexiglas, forgetting what she must surely know, that the beauty she longs for is nothing but death.
All five unicorns lock on that outstretched hand, the stud’s lip lifting just enough for his teeth to gleam, vicious behind the delicate beauty of his face.
I take a deep breath — emerging from the dream I’ve been sharing with the ten- and eleven-year-old girls who can’t tear themselves away from the unicorn enclosure — and take the picture.