Texas writer Stephen Harrigan recalls zoo escape in new novel ‘The Leopard is Loose’

“WILD LEOPARD LOOSE NEAR OKLAHOMA CITY” screamed a headline on the front page of the Mount Vernon Register News in Illinois on February 27, 1950.

The article tells the story of a “vicious jungle-bred leopard” who jumped from an 18-foot pit at the Oklahoma City Zoo and vanished, sparking a massive cat hunt. It also gave the big cat a new name: he was called Luther when he arrived at the zoo a few weeks earlier, but he became Leapy after his ill-fated attempt at freedom. Hunters, some aided by mountain lion hunting dogs, fanned out across town, hoping to bring him to heel.

Instead, as The Oklahoman newspaper recounts on the one-year anniversary of the incident, Leapy returned to the zoo on his own three days later, his stomach full of the sedated horse meat that had been put out in hopes of hitting. take it out so it can be captured more easily. The leopard died 15 hours later. He was then stuffed and exhibited at the zoo for years.

“The Leopard is Loose” is the latest book by Texas writer Stephen Harrigan.

Knopf

Austin-based writer Stephen Harrigan, who spent the first five years of his life in Oklahoma City, remembers seeing the stuffed feline during frequent visits to the zoo with his family. And he also remembers the escape, even though he was only 2 years old when it happened.

He drew on those memories, along with newspaper accounts and other sources, for “The Leopard is Loose,” his new novel out this week and the 12th book overall.

An incident like that might not register nationally at all now, but in 1950 people everywhere were fascinated by it.

“For some strange reason, this became national news,” Harrigan said in a phone interview. “There was an article in Life magazine.

“The whole town has gone mad. People were in the street with their shotguns. So that struck me as an interesting event to probe and look under what was happening in the world at that time.

The gripping novel paints a picture of Leapy’s escape from the perspective of 70-year-old Grady McClarty, who was 5 when it happened and was prompted to share his memories with the Oklahoma Historical Society. Rather than do an oral history, as requested, McClarty writes everything down.

Texas writer Stephen Harrigan's latest book is

Texas writer Stephen Harrigan’s latest book is “The Leopard is Loose”, based on an actual incident from his childhood.

Kenny Brown

“The Leopard Is Loose” depicts the terror of the leopard’s escape, including scenes in which cars full of armed game hunters race down the city streets. A loving portrait of this period of Grady’s life is woven into it. It captures his daily experiences in a loving family that included his 6-year-old big brother, Danny, their war-widowed mother Bethie, and his parents, sister, and brothers.

The book also addresses some of the great issues of the time, including the psychological damage suffered by those who fought in World War II. This is captured up close in some of the behaviors of Grady’s uncles, who both served and continued to struggle with the experience years after returning home.

By Stephen Harrigan

Knopf

256 pages $26


It also digs into the civil rights movement in a few vividly rendered confrontations including Grady, who is white and bewildered by some of what he sees. It was important to include this element in the book, Harrigan said.

“On the one hand, it serves the purpose of the story,” he said. “And I feel like you can’t write a book today about the 1950s without seriously thinking about what was going on in our society and the inequality that was so blatant at the time.”

Harrigan began working on the book in 2019, shortly after completing “Big Wonderful Thing,” a 944-page exploration of Texas history that spanned six years.

He wrote several historical novels that required extensive research, including “The Gates of the Alamo.” “The Leopard is Loose,” which took about two years to put together, didn’t take as much, since he was there when the events happened. He read the newspapers of the day, studied civil rights history, and consulted maps to get his bearings. He also watched films of the time and noted political and sporting events.

In the book, Oklahomans follow the latest developments in leopard hunting on radio, in newspapers and on black-and-white televisions. Harrigan writes about Grady and his brother waiting for the set to warm up and the distinctive way the image faded after being turned off.

“It was interesting to project my mind to a time when my experience was innocent of what we have today in terms of technology, in terms of phones, in terms of some sort of general situational awareness of the world, which can overwhelm us,” he said. “For a young boy at that time, the world was impenetrable, and for adults, they weren’t as saturated with news as we are, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the leopard became a such a sensational event.”

Given the pandemic and the turmoil of this moment, Harrigan said he was grateful to spend so much time immersed in the past.

“It was a relief not to be in 2020 or 2021 anymore,” he said.

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