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Comfort Animal

Mary E. Lowd is a prolific science-fiction and furry writer in Oregon. She's had nearly 200 short stories and a dozen novels published, including the Entangled Universe trilogy and the Otters In Space trilogy. Most of her fiction involves spaceships, talking animals, or both. Her work has won numerous awards, and she's been nominated for the Ursa Major Awards more than any other individual. She is also the founder and editor of Zooscape. Learn more at marylowd.com or read more stories at deepskyanchor.com.

The wide timber frame arch rose high above Dr. Miriam Loxley's head, presaging the size of the animals kept in the enclosure. All the movies, books, and games came rushing back to her--she'd grown up with the Jurassic Park franchise. She knew all of the paleontologists and geneticists involved in The Prehistory Zoo had too. Somehow, they'd taken those stories as a siren's call, instead of heeding them as a warning.
"What made you think this was a good idea again?" Loxley said.
Angie Cartwright laughed and walked right through the arch with her bucket of steaks. "Don't look so worried!" she said. "You're going to love this. Just listen to the idea, and keep an open mind."
Reluctantly, Loxley followed Cartwright up to the curving wall of iron bars behind the timber arch. All she could see behind the bars was vegetation--ferns and palm fronds. "So what's the idea?"
Cartwright set down the bucket and pulled out a dripping red steak with a gloved hand. "You know how cheetahs are really anxious, so zoos give them their own comfort dogs to calm them down and socialize them?"
"I've heard of that, yeah." Loxley's voice got low, like she was afraid to summon whatever lurked behind the prehistoric greens. "But we're not talking about cheetahs."
"True," Cartwright said. She flung the steak, juicy and dripping, into the enclosure. It left red spatters on the concrete at their feet. A snap and rustle in the jungle of greens suggested that the steak never hit the ground. Cartwright picked up another one. "And that's why our first attempts... Let's just say, failed."
"Let's say more than that," Loxley breathed, staring into the vegetation. She could see eyes looming high above her in the dark green shadows. "Let's be very, very specific."
"Okay," Cartwright admitted. "So, as the subjects grew, the first batch, well, once they reached full size, they ate their comfort dogs." She held the dripping steak with both gloved hands and looked down at the concrete ground where red juice drip, drip, dripped. "It was heartbreaking. We knew better than to name the dogs, but you can't help getting attached, anyway."
Loxley wondered what kind of dogs they'd been. Probably Labradors.
"But we found a solution," Cartwright said, flinging the second steak.
A feathery snout emerged from the jungle greens and snapped up the steak with nightmare teeth, deadly sharp and longer than Loxley's forearm. The prehistoric ancestor revived by science bobbed its head, ruffled its dusty purple neck feathers, and flapped comically tiny wings. It screeched like a murderous chicken, but motions that would have been funny on a small bird were terrifying on a creature several times Loxley's height. She stepped back from the cold iron, feeling deeply grateful for the protection of those bars. She hoped they were sturdy.
"See, the T-Rex chicks were adorable playing with the dogs, and more importantly, the chicks seemed to be picking up on the dogs' training. But as the chicks grew, they paid less and less attention to the dogs. They seemed to have trouble considering an animal as small as a normal dog to be more than, well, a snack once they hit full size. So what they needed was something that could keep up with them. You know, while they were growing. Something bigger." Cartwright threw another steak between the iron bars, but this one wasn't aimed at the feathered monstrosity. It sailed right past the T-Rex into the greenery and disappeared with another rustle. And a happy woof. "Of course, we had to mix the dog genes with a few other animals to get them big enough...."
A giant black-furred creature with floppy ears and a lolling tongue in its grinning, panting mouth emerged from the greenery. The T-Rex cawed and butted its feathered head against the gigantic dog affectionately. If the T-rex chicks had learned tricks and training from the dogs, what kind of hunting tips had the dogs picked up from the grown T-rexes?
The dog howled, baying like any goofy Labrador Retriever impatient for a treat.
"Can I throw them a steak?" Loxley asked, wondering if a steak was really enough of a treat for a creature so large.
Cartwright gestured welcomingly at the bucket and pulled an extra pair of rubber gloves out of her back pocket. Loxley pulled the gloves on and grabbed one of the cold, squishy raw steaks, trying not to think about how similar dead cow flesh was to her own living flesh.
Loxley knew she had to ask what genes Cartwright had added into the genetic code of this mixed-species dog. In order to grow a Labrador Retriever to the size of an elephant without giving it all kinds of health issues, they must have designed an elaborate chimera with all kinds of genetic horrors and unexpected possibilities hidden inside it. Loxley's job would be to tease out the dangers, try to bandage the situation together and avoid a classic movie-style disaster. But for now, this moment, she couldn't get over the sight of that panting grin. The giant Labrador had the biggest, happiest grin she'd ever seen.
You could get lost inside that grin. Literally.
As Loxley flung the steak between the iron bars, she asked, "Who's a good dog?" and tried not to picture the inevitable--being hunted down by a pack of giant wolf-kin working together with dinosaurs. Giant teeth and claws, crunching bones and slicing flesh.
If her fate was behind those bars with teeth like swords, at least, she could try to make friends with it. Maybe when this all went to hell, that would buy her a few minutes. Maybe when they broke out from behind those bars, they'd hesitate before eating her. Maybe it would be enough. She flung another steak and shuddered. "Good dog," she said. "Good T-Rex. Have another treat!"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

Author Comments

I wrote this story for my spouse, because he loves really big dogs. We both love dinosaurs and walked down the aisle to the theme from Jurassic Park at our wedding, nearly twenty years ago. So, this story was a gift for him.

- Mary E. Lowd
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