First thing when I arrived at the zoo, Whitlam, Zola and I let Primrose and Brindabella into their pools. The slither of sunlight over the horizon, I could sense their anxiety. Being separated can’t have been enjoyable for them, but it was necessary.
“I’ll take good care of her, Whitlam,” Zola promised.
He nodded his head solemnly. We carried on, to the savannah. I could hear the faint noise of a siren in the distance. Whitlam pulled up the ute, so that we could get out and feed the younger blackbucks. I giggled as the blackbuck gave me a boop.
“Aren’t you the bestest girl?” I gushed. “Yes, you’re the bestest girl.”
As she returned to the herd, I glanced up. I tried to imagine what it would be like if Werribee were to breed giraffes out on the savannah. The young calves would love exploring. We drove back through and returned out the gate. On my way from the savannah, I detoured to the cheetah exhibit, to track down Jamila.
“Are you my call to go home?”
“I’m almost done, I just have to check in at the servals.”
I followed her, and all was well with the girls. Back out on the main path, we reunited with Whitlam and headed on. At the front entrance to the zoo, the three of us caught up with Hamish. He glanced over his shoulder at the three gorillas, meandering around their exhibit. Then, we departed the zoo grounds, heading for the carpark to slip back into the vehicle. We drove back home, through traffic. I wasn’t sure why there were quite so many cars on the road.
“Ah, powerlines down,” Hamish observed.
We drove slowly past the workers who were stringing them back up. Finally, the road cleared up and we were able to return home. The three of us headed into the house. We dispersed, to quickly chuck clothes into our bags. I’ve been living out of a suitcase since July, but the heaviness lingered. My heart ached, like a limp piece of meat. I would need something black to wear to the funeral – a simple dress would have to do. Eventually, Whitlam poked his head in the doorway.
“Are you right to go, Jumilah?”
I nodded my head. We departed the house, where our Uber was waiting for us to take us to the airport. I nearly fell asleep against the C pillar of that lovely driver’s car. Finally, we arrived at Tullamarine Airport. My body felt heavy as I was the last out of the car. My surroundings seemed to be the grey of a rhino’s hide, permeated with the occasional bright light. At some stage I moved through security and produced my boarding pass on my phone, so that I could board the flight to Perth via a sky-bridge filled with a deafening hum. The people in front of us, a group probably in their forties, seemed to be excited by absolutely everything, as if they’d just emerged from a bunker and discovered air travel. I had the window seat, with Jamila beside me and then Whitlam on the aisle, with Hamish directly across from him. The seat to Hamish’s right was empty, and I sensed he hoped it would stay that way. As I glanced away, I heard footsteps down the aisle. Looking back, I recognised the side-profile as Reuben’s, as he stashed his bag.
“I made it here eventually.”
Reuben dropped into the seat next to Hamish.
“Oh, I gather you should be the first to know. We’ve chosen a name for the new elephant calf born on Saturday.”
I smiled with anticipation.
“We’ve named her Patcharee, which means ‘diamond’ in Thai.”
The name is pronounced pat-ha-ree.
“It’s kind of a little in-joke sort of thing,” Reuben admitted, “because Emmie and Vel were married on the same day that she was born.”
“Also, it’s a pretty cute name,” Whitlam commented.
“Yeah, it is.”
The flight attendants came along the aisle. I tried not to show how uneasy I felt being on a plane, because it wasn’t about that. Going to a funeral made me feel sick anyway. I was scarcely able to pay attention to anything the cabin crew were doing or saying – I just made sure to have my seatbelt clicked. One second, we were motoring along the runway, the next we glided into the air. I took a breath, and took an extra moment to exhale. I’d never been to Perth before. Sure, I didn’t want to be going in this way, but I dreamed of the sunshine of the place. I managed to sleep for most of the flight, falling asleep on my own chest rather than Whitlam’s shoulder, a win for not being embarrassing. As I awoke, the flight attendants were making their way down the aisle. When they strapped themselves in, I knew Perth couldn’t be far away. We landed. Finally, the plane ground to a halt. As the other passengers started to unbuckle and get up from their seats, I found myself in no hurry, even though I still felt queasy. On the way to zoo, our Uber took us past a field, filled with yellow tulips. I gasped softly at their beauty. The Uber dropped us off at Perth Zoo. Once the traffic had cleared, we crossed Labouchere Road and approached the main entrance, where Reuben approached the reception counter, to let the woman wearing Perth Zoo uniform know that we’d arrived to visit. She wore a black armband and let us through. I spotted Bill – the first time I’d seen him since Healesville. He seemed taller than I remembered him. Perhaps I’d formed such a strong picture in my mind of him being kind-of short, that it obscured my memories. I thought I was making some sort of dazed facial expression, although that could have been a falsehood.
“It’s great to see you again Jumilah,” Bill greeted me, hugging me and kissing me on the cheek. “Welcome to Perth Zoo.”
Finally, he let me go.
“I suppose you’ll want the grand tour.”
There was something jolly about him which I found distasteful, but I suppose everyone copes with grief in their own way. All I could do was smile awkwardly in response, which Bill took as permission.
Before us was a lake, with two islands – one for black and white ruffed lemurs, the other for gibbons. I spotted one of the Javan Gibbons swinging amongst the foliage. The presence of the animal made me feel a little calmer, the first sighting of an animal upon any zoo visit always exciting. The gibbon exhibit seemed to have been decorated. Perth Zoo felt eerily quiet, as we ambled around a curved path past the islands. As soon as I laid eyes on Isobel, we rushed towards each other. We wrapped each other into an embrace, the wind biting at our bodies but we refused to let go. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t have to – unspoken solidarity was enough. Bill seemed to evaporate into the background. Around the bend, though, we were hold they housed tree kangaroo. The exhibit was large and lush. I eventually spotted a tree kangaroo, a flash of honey and mahogany fur amidst the foliage. From my time at Healesville, I’ve grown rather fond of the species. Nearby was another exhibit for cassowary, and I enjoy the pairing of those two species, even though the Goodfellows’ aren’t native to Australia. We were taken down the main path in the centre of the zoo, then veered off to the right. I found the foliage and signage familiar. My eyes bulged at the sight of orange, black and white stripes. Jaya padded around in his exhibit, surrounded by grass and lush plants. Just a step behind Isobel, I watched her. The greenery wet, it must have rained since Monday. Bill spoke, but his voice reduced to a crunch. I could feel my body quivering, although my eyes never left the tiger’s, friend and not foe, I was sure.
“I just need a minute,” Isobel spoke up, breaking through the white noise, her left hand raised, “if that’s alright with you.”
Even Bill stopped talking. I think he realised that his way of dealing with grief was inhibiting Isobel’s. She spent time in the place that Joel died, but on the other side of the barrier, until she saw time to turn around. I heard the soft hooves of elephants, just before we walked across the path, and I laid eyes on them. Tanya walked past a brush hanging up in her exhibit. Pertama stayed under her feet, occasionally venturing out. At six months old, she’s older and larger than the calves at Melbourne, but still looks like a dainty little girl, perhaps because of the dramatic consequences of her birth, which took the life of her mother. Adjacent, Perth’s bull elephant, Putra Mas, sauntered around his paddock, his protruding tusks long and impressive. I stopped, captivated by his size and magnificent presence. Putra Mas’ days at Perth would be short-lived, but for the moment, he could be an icon of the city. On the opposite side of the path, a female white-cheeked gibbon was seated in the fork of the tree. Isobel gravitated towards the exhibit. I listened to the faint sound of birdsong, maybe from the inhabitants of the zoo, or coming from the wild. As the female gibbon moved, I noticed the baby on her chest, the one which Bill had reported during a primate TAG meeting about a month ago. She disappeared into the trees, allowing us to be on our way. The next boardwalk led us past a series of interconnected orangutan exhibits, which I thought were reasonably impressive. I noticed a gap in the grass, where the climbing structure which collapsed must have been. If you hadn’t known the story, you might not have realised. One of the orangutans, the male, was out, but the others must have put themselves to bed for the night. In the final exhibit must have been one of the pregnant females. She moved around gingerly, her beach-ball bump obvious. I noticed Isobel slowing down a bit, perhaps out of fatigue, or maybe out of interest in her chosen taxon, primates. Past the orangutans were more exhibits for various primate species, situated in a bit of a circle. Around the loop was another exhibit for black and white ruffed lemur. In there, two of the lemurs were Asha and Zora, the females earmarked to be sent to Adelaide to stock their new exhibit in the new African area, quickly taking shape. We will transport them on our way back, on Monday. Returning to the main path, our group reached a building, the nocturnal house.
“Would you like to come inside?” Cassie offered.
I was keen to, although I wanted Isobel to be able to have the say, not that I would stare at her.
“Is this where the slow loris are kept?” she enquired.
“Yes, they are,” Cassie confirmed, then offered me a small smile. “I’m sure you’d want to come in.”
“Yes, that would be lovely.”
Therefore, we entered the nocturnal house. I noticed railings outside the glass-fronted exhibits. Perhaps that would have been a good idea back home, too, although ours have windows all the way down to the ground. We paused outside a red-lit enclosure. Inside I noticed a cute-looking rat thing, with a long nose. The signage identified the animal as a dibbler, a Western Australian native only held in captivity at Perth Zoo. I’d certainly never seen one before. The dibbler rested on a log, eyes open but appearing half-asleep. I could relate to that feeling. Cassie got the door which led to the back-of-house area unlocked. We followed her through, before securing the path down which we’d come. My eyes bulged when we were taken through into a holding area for slow loris. The animal in question, though, didn’t seem familiar.
“This is Peka,” Cassie introduced. “We’ve had him here for a few years now.”
She glanced at me.
“Our new lorises, your grandparents cared for them, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they did,” I confirmed.
“I’ll take you down to show you next.”
Peka, Perth’s original slow loris, chowed into some food. I didn’t want to touch him, wanting him to set the boundaries in our new relationship.
“This is my first time seeing a slow loris in the flesh,” Isobel admitted. “They look so much like possums.”
A smile crept onto her lips. I couldn’t help but beam, relief flooding my chest. We left Peka to his food. As soon as I saw her within the next enclosure, I greeted Djuni, slipping into Bahasa as she moved towards me – reasonably quickly, given her species name and her disability. When she rolled over, I gave her a little scratch under the chin, just like Kakek used to do. Cassie reunited me with Malu, Buku and Mammadov as well. I felt grateful to Isobel for allowing me this time, even though she must have been exhausted from travel and grief. As we moved back into the public area, it started to bother me that Peka would be left on his own again. Perhaps one of Nanek and Kakek’s females out to stay in Perth, so that they can breed. On the way out, I noticed a rock wallaby within one of the larger exhibits, perched up high. The glass was so clear that I startled for a moment, thinking that it was free ranging. We exited the building, and I heard a rustle, possibly a local skink in the grass. I know that there used to be tree shrews wild at Perth Zoo, but I don’t think that there are any left. Following the nocturnal house was a small group of exhibits. I think that they mainly held South American animals, positioned in a circle around a red brick cul-de-sac, giving me vibes of another age. We didn’t really go down there, although I did spot a pair of Emperor Tamarins. They were sitting close to the mesh, within a well-planted cage. We turned back on ourselves, to follow the savannah path. Perth’s breeding group of giraffes could be viewed from a hut. It would have been a lovely place to sit and watch, to curl up and marvel. I thought that I could whiff the scent of rain, perhaps coming in from the ocean. We seemed to be bearing witness, taking a moment of pause at each enclosure, before restlessly moving on. Outside the hyaena exhibit, I thought of the time Joel visited Melbourne.
“You’re going to redevelop this whole section, aren’t you?” Isobel asked.
“Yes,” Cassie confirmed. “That’s the plan.”
She didn’t seem eager to elaborate, owing to our sombre mood. Isobel and I paused briefly outside the baboon enclosure, but I didn’t spot any animals – perhaps not a surprise, considering that Perth only holds a small troop. I know from the primate TAG that they intend to phase them out. Outside the baboons, we caught back up with Bill again. I felt a chill, the wind creeping up my back, underneath my shirt, as the sun disappeared behind some grey clouds. Past the baboon exhibit, the path led down to a building, where the veranda offered a secondary vista into the lion exhibit, where Mwenyezi used to live. I could see the male, his brother, crashed out in the lush, damp grass, while a female was up the right, looking out onto the path. She seemed to be in a moment of reflection, and I wondered if she noticed the absence of one of her caregivers. We returned to the main lake, with island exhibits for lemurs and gibbons in its centre. From there Bill started leading us off to explore the other half of the zoo. My tiredness growing, I found myself soaking in the colours and the smells of the zoo, rather than the specifics of the Australian walkabout. A wallaby hopped around in the shade of a large gumtree. Bill held the door ajar, and we passed through into an aviary. A pair of lime-green birds were perched high, near the mesh roof. Bill identified some of the bird species. I was particularly captivated by the brush bronzewing. Just before we exited, I spotted a purple-crowned lorikeet. Beyond that aviary was another. For wetland birds, the mesh of the high roof could afford to have larger gaps in it. A pair of brolgas each stood on one leg, at the water’s edge. Following on from that aviary was a third and final one, containing penguins which could swim underneath the bridge. After that, we arrived at the reptile house. Its façade was concrete, mock ochre rock like it was pretending to be in the outback of Australia. The interior of the reptile house was not dissimilar to the nocturnal house on the other side of the zoo. Our group dispersed a little, each attracted to their own animals, or maybe just needing some personal space. I found myself attracted to a little lizard, curled up in the middle of a glass-fronted exhibit, built into the wall.
“This is the only one of her species in captivity,” Bill explained. “The species was only identified eight years ago.”
The monitor seemed to run along the bottom. I’d never seen an aquatic lizard like that before. In the next exhibit was a critically endangered Western Swamp Turtle. In the distance I read a sign which explained the inhabitant of that exhibit to be a snake, so I didn’t dwell at the window. Despite Vel’s exposure therapy, I wasn’t interested. I stepped just beyond it and waited looking at the brick wall.
“You know, these guys aren’t venomous,” Bill informed me.
I glanced over my shoulder at him, but words escaped me. We banded back together and exited the reptile house. With the zoo closed by that point, Bill locked the door behind us. I felt a shiver run through my body.
“Oh, we haven’t seen any numbats yet,” Isobel mentioned, tucking her hair back.
“Our numbats are all off display at the moment, because of the new development of the conservation precinct.”
I’d almost forgotten all about them.
“But I’ll take you in to them.”
I recalled Nikki’s comments, about giving her a numbat over a meerkat any day of the week. With their bushy tails, I couldn’t help but agree. We watched the group run around. Isobel reached for my arm, and we held each other, not speaking. Eventually, we moved on, back into the public areas of the zoo. We walked through the rainforest retreat somewhat briskly, the area cold at this time of the day, and devoid of animals. Perhaps adding tree kangaroos would make the area. I could hear the twitter of birds, but in the distance. Before too long, the canopy gave way to the new rhino exhibit, and heritage zoo homestead. I did appreciate that the homestead had been decorated so that it didn’t look like it belonged in outback Western Australia, even though some of the elements seemed a little tacky. From its veranda we could look into the Indian rhino exhibit. The female was on display, and I was struck by just how large she is, much bigger than even the white rhinos at Werribee. We didn’t have access to the interior of the homestead. I imagined birds being housed inside, although I didn’t think it would make a suitable habitat. Maybe that’s how things would have been in the bad old days, in sepia tones. I trailed the group back to the Asian area. One of Perth’s red pandas meandered along the branch towards us, while the wind shook his tree. They’re a fish out of water – or carnivore out of the mountains – amidst the rainforest species. We shifted under the canopy, to the binturong exhibit. Gripping his branch with his prehensile tail, he used his forearms to pull up his food at the other end of the rope. It would have been just an ordinary day. I knew it had been just an ordinary day, as far as the trees were concerned.
In some ways, I suppose that every day is. I thought that I could hear a swish of water, coming from somewhere. There is always life, as long as there is breath. To remind myself of this I took a breath, and followed the others through the zoo. We must have been almost back to the elephants and the tigers, but first, we encountered the sun bear exhibit, due to be replaced. The sun bear was lying on his back, with his limbs reaching up to hold a green ball, with holes in it to stash treats. My eyes panned to the tree, an iceblock suspended from it. All of a sudden, another bear ran into view, leaping up to pull down the iceblock and take it away to share with her mate. I instinctively smiled, raising one hand to my forehead as the sun burst out from behind a cloud. There’s something beautiful about bears. Our ever-growing group returned to the zoo entrance, where others had arrived from across the country. We hugged and greeted one another, especially as more Perth Zoo keepers joined at the end of their shifts. The main lawn behind the islands would have provided ample space to congregate. Bill turned around to face us.
“Do you have any questions?”
Nobody dared to say anything, stunned by travel and grief. When I glanced at my watch, I realised that it hadn’t yet adjusted to the fact that I was now three hours behind. As we exited Perth Zoo, I could hear gibbons calling. I knew they weren’t siamangs. Seeing around the zoo had been a lovely experience, particularly being reunited with the lorises. At least it provided brief respite from grief. As we reached the corner on the way to the pub, I took a last look over my shoulder. That was still the place where Joel died, a jungle stained with blood and cloaked in sadness. I knew that story, deep in my bones. We arrived at a pub, which I think one of the locals had picked. Thankfully there was a spare booth in the corner. We shuffled in to sit down at the long tables, others taking up the wooden chairs opposite. Someone bought a round of drinks, and the alcohol began to flow. I glanced around the group, starting to feel a little overwhelmed – Mal from Orana Park, Claire from Dubbo, Sam from Taronga and Christine from Wellington in attendance. As well as the Perth locals, there were a number of the faces I didn’t recognise. I gathered that they were others from within the zoo industry, paying their respects.
“I’ve only ever seen you as faces on a screen before.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to meet in these circumstances.”
“Yeah, of course not.”
Gerard downed half his beer.
“We’re going to be building a new hippo exhibit,” Claire mentioned, then sipped her drink. “You heard it here first.”
“Where are you going to put them?” Whitlam wanted to know.
Claire shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t know, there’s only so much gossip you can get.”
“I’m going to head off,” Bill declared. “There’s been enough of this.”
Bill finished his drink. I didn’t know what to say. Bill can deal with his grief in his own way, and I remember the feeling of the world seeming intolerable.
Bill waved, then left. I glanced towards my watch.
“We probably should get to bed,” I noted. “It’s bad to be tired and hungover for a funeral.”
The others seemed to accept that, getting up from the table and started to leave. For some reason, I almost expected Joel to be amongst us. We returned to the hotel, Jamila and I bidding farewell to Whitlam and Hamish as they entered their room. She ducked into the bathroom, so I took the opportunity to get changed out of my travel clothes and into my pyjamas, breathing out loudly. There was only a small window in our room, frosted over, to see out into the dark. I checked my phone, while sitting on the side of the bed, happening upon an unread text message from Patrick. As I readjusted myself to be lying down, I thought that I couldn’t have been bothered to answer him. That felt callous and untrue, so I love-reacted to his message. With that, and with a restless heart, I placed my phone down for sleep.
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.