I texted Patrick this morning, to wish him all the best for his final exam.
Thank you xx; he replied quickly after.
I kissed Mum on the cheek to say goodbye, then rode my bike to work. Patrick wasn’t there, obviously, and neither was Sloane. Being without them made me feel at ease. Even after months in Melbourne, I still craved a clean state. The camping trip from a few weeks ago gnawed at me, from time to time. I worked throughout the morning, skipping out on the bird TAG meeting even though it would have been worthwhile turning up. The hours passed on autopilot, the tasks needing to be done. Once 1pm rolled around, I walked quickly back to the staffroom. Glancing at my watch as I passed through the doorway, I was right on time for the primate TAG meeting. I could have done with an iced coffee. Still, I would have to do without. Gilham commenced the meeting with an acknowledgment of country, then handed over to Christine.
“Thank you, Gilham,” she began. “Next week, we’ll be gathering in Sydney. Just for housekeeping, if you have dietary requirements, please pass them onto Sam, if you haven’t already.”
“Yes, pretty please,” Sam chimed in. “Better yet, you all should have received an email, so if you fill out the form, it’ll send it straight through to retreat catering.”
I opened my emails, filling out the form as directed while still in the Zoom meeting. Acknowledging my vegetarianism did distract me for a moment and Reuben’s face was the one enlarged in speaker view by the time I returned to the gathering.
“Our plan is for that area of the zoo to exclusively house African rainforest primates, eventually.”
“So, what sort of species are we talking?” George wanted to know. “Colobus, obviously, I would be expecting.”
“What about De Brazza’s?” Sam enquired.
“There were De Brazza Guenons at Melbourne Zoo last time they were around in the region, I know that,” Reuben assured, “but we’re focusing on colobus this time. I’m sorry, Sam, I know that’s not what you want to hear.”
“It’s fine,” Sam reassured. “This is all part of regional collection planning.”
I was pleased to have them getting along. Whether they like it or not, the zoos which Sam and Reuben run are the most significant within the region. Besides, I liked both of them as people and as colleagues, and it pained me when they didn’t get along with each other.
“Would you have white-faced saki?”
“That’s actually a South American species,” Don pointed out.
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
An awkward pause followed. Eventually, the meeting resumed. I could hear a bit of a crackling noise, and I wondered if that was coming over the Zoom.
“How do the Japanese gardens fit into your masterplan?”
“Well, they don’t, really,” Reuben admitted. “I mean, I’m not speaking ill of the concept, it’s fine, it’s lovely, but we’re generally using the island there as a space for whatever species we don’t have room for elsewhere in the zoo.”
“You could house Japanese Macaques,” Stefan suggested.
“Oh, I’m sure that we could, but they wouldn’t fit within our species criteria,” Reuben reasoned, “so, sorry, you can’t offload any to us, even though I’m sympathetic to the thematic synchronicity.”
“Right, I think that settles the matter,” Christine decided. “Do we have questions for our coordinators?”
“Yes, I do,” Angelique raised. “We have seven orangutans. We’re the largest holder of the species in New Zealand.”
“We’ve reached a genetic bottleneck. We’d like to receive more breeding animals.”
“What about Frank?”
“He’s our breeding male. We breed from our breeding male. Of course, we wouldn’t want to breed him to his daughters – that would be unadvised. Yet, that’s the decision we’re left with, which means that we need to import a new male in order to continue the breeding program.”
My stomach ached. These were matters which impacted our future plans, too, especially if we did go down the route of acquiring orangutans. I glanced towards the windows, hoping that I had some water on hand. Due to my grandparents, I would have wanted to acquire Sumatran, rather than, Bornean orangutans. I felt Sam held the same view, albeit for different reasons.
“Well, truth be told, I used to think that, I believe that it was the common viewpoint. It must be said, though, there were lots of things we thought in the past which we no longer do.”
It was only a few decades ago that hybrid orangutans were still being bred, to give an example. We were still dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
“Well, you know, we might have been able to collaborate on an import,” Gerard lamented, “if we had swapped to Sumatran orangutans.”
I heard a rustle outside, although it didn’t seem to have caused concern.
“Well, we are part of an international breeding program, still,” Gerard clarified.
“I’d hope that, even though there are different species held in this country, that we would be able to work together. In fact, I feel a little put offside that you wouldn’t take my question seriously. We’re all here for the animals, or at least I thought that was the case.”
“Well, I’m sorry that you feel that way, Angelique.”
I shifted my cursor across the screen, eyes flicking between Hunter and Mal. At an in-person meeting, it would have been more obvious that I was seeking their input. It was Blessing, however, who took himself off mute. Whatever he was thinking, he stayed quiet.
“Look, whatever animosity there has been in the past, I’m the studbook coordinator now,” Jimmy reminded. “I want to make sure that you’re in the best position to manage your animals effectively, socially and genetically.”
“Thank you, I really appreciate that.”
The meeting went quiet for a moment, as occasionally happened once a productive discussion or a conflict had run its course.
“Christine, would you ever consider housing orangs at Wellington Zoo?”
“In the past, we’ve rejected the idea due to the climate. I could take it back to the board for reconsideration.”
“Alright, thank you, Christine,” Reuben replied. “What about you, Julie?”
“Obtaining additional orangs would be a significant goal for us.”
“Yes. We could even use our primate islands complex, connecting them up.”
Building aerial pathways would be expensive, not to mention devoting a larger footprint to just the one species. I doubted Mogo would take that step. Those enclosures provided valuable housing for a range of species. Sure, it might not reduce the species diversity of the zoo that much, but those animals would need to find new homes.
“Alright, we can continue to discuss that outside this meeting,” they concluded.
As the conversation moved on, I fiddled with Kakek’s cross.
“It’s not like a phaseout happens overnight. That’s only the case if we export the animals.”
“Would you be looking to export your Dusky Langurs?” Angelique enquired.
“Well, no, only if they can breed elsewhere,” Don answered. “I haven’t looked into it to a great extent.”
A part of me was tempted to do the research for myself. I knew, though, that it wasn’t my place. Other people would make the decisions about animals they cared for. That was reasonable. I plucked at my clothes, the staffroom uncomfortably warm.
“I suppose it depends on how preferable it is to keep the females together long-term.”
“I did have a quick question about the Cotton-Top Tamarin program,” Don raised. “There’s a previous note about downsizing the population. Is that still our intention?”
“Not exactly,” Reuben responded. “I understand we’re looking for stability in the population.”
“There will be a breeding recommendation at Melbourne.”
“I’m happy with that.”
“Alright, good, let’s move onto the member reports.”
My mind started to wander to the annual regional conference in Sydney, starting next week.
“We’re planning a new white-cheeked gibbon exhibit. An area of land has been earmarked.”
“I thought that you just gave them a new exhibit,” Gerard mentioned.
“True,” Reuben confirmed, “but that’s only temporary.”
“May I share my screen, Christine?”
Reuben brought up a map of Melbourne Zoo to present to the meeting. Trail of the Elephants was marked with a pink loop.
“This is where we’ll build the new exhibit.”
Reuben circled his cursor around in free space between the tigers and the butterfly house. To a chorus of nods in the meeting, he clicked onto the next image.
“This is the sort of design we’re looking at.”
The artist’s impression featured glass windows. A wooden bench seat allowed visitors to sit at the gibbon exhibit. With a small awning over the viewing area, mesh extended upwards to allow the inhabitants plenty of room to brachiate. Kakek was coming into my mind while I was staring at my laptop screen – thankfully his smiling face, and not his body. His presence didn’t distress me, although the thoughts were unexpected, seemingly without a trigger. Once the TAG meeting was finished, some of the participants started to drop off, but a handful of us stayed on the call.
“Do you know how you do take blood from a Pygmy Marmoset?” Sam enquired.
“No,” I admitted, as Reuben smiled nervously.
“Perhaps we’ll have to teach you at the conference.”
I sat there, feeling sheepish.
“My goodness, you’ll have to tell me now. The suspense is killing me.”
“Well, you have to make an incision in their jugular vein. They’re too tiny to do it any other way,” Sam explained.
I screwed up my face at the grisly thought, and Reuben couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s why we don’t take blood too often.”
That wasn’t something Kakek had ever taught me. He probably would have known, considering his skills. I wished that he could have stood by my side and showed me himself. Finally, our call came to an end. I had something of a smile on my face as I stood up from my laptop and walked across to the bench, empty mug in hand. It hadn’t been mine, and I wasn’t even sure if it was used. Just to be safe, I rinsed it out. I set the mug upside down on the drying rack, then put my laptop away and departed. I returned to the checkouts and got back to work. At the sound of an almighty bang, my fingers gripped the register. Feeling oxygen and blood rushing through my chest, I knew I couldn’t drop. I was at work; I was safe. Still, my eyes welled with tears and the muscles of my legs tensed. The flight or fight response was engaging, owing to my trauma.
“It was a car backfiring outside.” Maryam rubbed circles into my back. “You’re alright, you’re safe. I’m here, I'm right here with you."
Finally, I pulled myself together. Maryam encouraged that I take a break from the checkouts. I didn’t want to stop working altogether, so we found a compromise. At least it was a little quieter on the service desk, although I didn’t want to be alone. It was fractionally better than going home. We need the money, to tide us through until the zoo is open and – hopefully – we’ll have paying customers to help with the bills. Passing the inspection has taken a weight off my shoulders which I didn’t realise had been hanging there all year. The conclusion of my shift came around before I knew it. I made sure to track down Maryam to thank her for taking good care of me.
“It’s the least that I could do,” she assured, resting one hand on my shoulder.
Maryam finally let out the yawn she’d been suppressing.
“I’ll see you next week, Jumilah.”
“See you tomorrow, Stevie.”
I slipped out the front door of the staffroom, into the store. Walking through the mall, I reached the bike rack. Unlocking mine, I rode home. The trip back is uphill, which is more taxing on my legs. Upon returning to our property, I let myself through the gate and stashed my bike underneath the house, heading inside to encounter my mother in the kitchen, starting to prepare vegetables.
“How was work today?” Mum wanted to know.
“Yeah, it was good,” I answered. “I’m a bit tired now, though.”
I decided that I wanted to ring Tallulah, while I had the time before dinner would be ready. Shifting into my bedroom, I lay down and made the call.
“Happy one week until your birthday,” I wished her, when she answered the phone.
“Have you got any plans for what you would like to do?”
Whatever Mum was cooking, smelled delicious.
“Well, Mum has to work, but I’ve got the day off. I’d like to do something a bit special, but I don’t know, it’s not like nineteen’s a big birthday. It’s not eighteen or twenty or twenty-one.”
“It’s still a big deal. You’re a big deal to me.”
Tallulah sighed heavily.
“There’s cricket on today.”
“I saw it come up on Instagram. Kyle’s back playing for Tasmania.”
“I mean, it was always going to happen one day. Honestly, Jumilah, I’m fine about it. I just don’t know how he leaves with himself, how all of them do.”
Finally, Tallulah and I finished on the phone. I wandered out to the kitchen, phone in hand. Mum was cooking dinner and a smile came onto my lips at the delicious and hearty smell of sweet potato and chickpea curry.
“Dinner’s really ready.”
She switched off the stove as I fetched glasses. Mum handed me a steaming bowl, of curry heaped on jasmine rice.
“How was your day today?” she enquired as we headed to the table.
“Yeah, it was alright, it was a day at work.”
Dad emerged, slipping through into the kitchen and preparing his own dinner, before joining us at the table.
“Did you join the primate meeting?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Oh, I forgot to mention it,” Mum noted. “I had a phone call today from the ABC. They would like to do an interview with at least one of us about the zoo opening. I think the plan is to use it across radio and the TV, and maybe an online story on their website, but as long as it suits us to do that, I don’t want to talk you into anything.”
“Yeah, fine, I’ll do that.”
“You don’t have to, Jumilah.”
“I know,” I replied, “but we should. It’s good to get the word out there.”
I looked up.
“I’m happy to do it, I don’t mind.”
I thought Mum might have doubted me.
“It’s fine, Mum. Honestly, it’s fine.”
I knew that I was a bit overtired, and probably just needed to get some rest. Standing, I walked around the table. I draped my arms over Mum’s shoulders.
“I’m not ashamed of myself,” I assured her, “but I do want to go to sleep now.”
Getting into bed, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.