The macaques’ moat had iced up overnight. Therefore, I poked it with the rake, to try and break it up before letting the animals out. If it was still icy, there was the chance that they could climb across and escape. Little icebergs floated around, so I tossed some of them onto the land, then retreated. Even once the slides were lifted, the troop didn’t seem too keen about the chill. At the Bolivian Squirrel Monkey exhibit, I was tempted to not even let out the new family of three for the day, to protect the baby from the cold temperatures. However, when I arrived and found Spirit, Stumpy and the infant by the slide, I figured that I owed it to them to give them the choice. I entered their space to examine the baby, albeit without touching. The last thing I wanted to do was break the mother and child bond. Spirit scurried up into the leaves, carrying her baby like a backpack. I turned to Luke.
“You know, we still haven’t given her a name yet.”
“How about Livi?” he suggested. “Short for Bolivia.”
I would need to update the species coordinator so that the given name could be included in the studbook. Some people were less sentimental and thought that naming animals was merely a marketing gimmick. With the baby out of the woods, and on public display, I flicked through the images on my camera roll, drafted up a caption, and posted a handful to social media to announce the arrival of the new addition. Cue crowds flocking in to see the week-old and freshly-named baby Livi in three, two, one. We just didn’t want anyone to find out her parents were also mother and son. I returned to the house, sitting down for the ungulate TAG meeting. Like often seemed to be occurring, the discussion was centred around the bongo program – and the export of Kiazi.
“As far as I’m aware, she hasn’t bred, and Maisha hasn’t bred.”
“Real good plan there, then.”
I tried to ignore the sarcasm. While plans were discussed regarding a mass import of bongos, notifications were coming through from my morning social media post. Thankfully we weren’t receiving the hate which I might have expected. A smile was on my lips as I returned my attention to the meeting. It seemed that Claire was quite keen to import, so I wanted to listen to her perspective.
“How many would we be talking?”
“Well, how many young animals are there in Europe?”
“That’s another question to surplus animals,” Sam pointed out, “especially females. I promise you, I’m not being deliberately pessimistic--."
“These are questions worth asking.”
I stayed quiet, not because I was excluded from the conversation, but rather that I sensed that we wouldn’t be holding bongos for a while. The species was one which I would be keen on, but they were too rare within the region to properly commit.
“How is your keeper, Violet, going?” Blessing asked. “Is the AI going ahead?”
“Well, my understanding is that the program is happening no matter what. They have connections with the captive population in Africa, as well as the EEP. Those animals are physically a lot closer to the wild females.”
“You know, it could be a good media opportunity.”
“It would be a revelatory media opportunity.”
“Yes, but isn’t that what we want?” Reuben challenged. “We need to be honest with the public.”
“You’ve changed your tune.”
“Well, a lot of things have changed.”
“I’ll think about it,” I promised.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself in for. The meeting ended. I closed the lid of my laptop. Mum wandered through from the kitchen.
“Would you like a coffee?”
“That would be lovely,” I accepted, stretching.
“Coming right up.”
She turned on the espresso machine.
“How’s been your morning so far?” I asked as I leaned back in my seat, crossing my legs and folding my hands behind my head.
“Yeah, good,” she answered. “I was on the entry kiosk first thing. It’s been a busy day for a Tuesday.”
The baby squirrel monkey might have contributed to that. Still, she was such a blessing – I had no reason to complain. I hoped that my friends from the supermarket would be able to visit again soon. Maryam and Ricky could bring their own baby, Charlie. I could already imagine the adorable photos. However, I had more lofty concerns, like the harmony of the troop long-term.
It was something we would need to consider with the possibility of taking on additional breeding females. Female squirrel monkeys getting along with each other was never guaranteed. Perhaps we’d need to wait until the baby was older, although at the same time, Spirit wasn’t getting any younger. I didn’t want to think about that. We were hopeful that visitation would rise at the zoo, especially over the coming weekend. Baby animals would always be helpful for that cause. On the busy days, we needed to make sure that there were two people on the entrance kiosk, so that was when it was helpful to have Luke in. He was more than obliging and Aunty Paula was grateful that we paid him. Even when it got tight, we figured that it was fair. Lots of zoos relied on volunteer labour. I hadn’t realised that before. Both Melbourne and Taronga functioned upon unpaid people who wanted to be involved. I didn’t inherently think that was wrong. Once I finished my coffee, I decided to go for a walk about the property. It was a good opportunity to clear my head, but I found myself dreaming. There was a clump of trees at the top of the hill, just back from where we’d considered housing hippos. It could have served as a good foundation for a bongo exhibit. I turned around, surveying down the slope where we planned to put our multi-species savannah. It was a fairly big area, which would most likely come in handy. Like people, animals had different personalities and we wouldn’t necessarily be able to guarantee we would receive placid specimens. Indeed, it was more likely than not that the animals we would be assigned would be those which would keep us up in the middle of the night, but I didn’t want to worry about that yet. I walked back into the house. Sometimes I just needed a little bit of a break, no matter how much I loved my work. Another coffee for myself wouldn’t have gone astray, although I knew that I had a little bit of admin work to follow up on, while I had the chance. Mum happened to also be in the house at the time. She poked her head in from the kitchen.
“Have you checked again on Livi?”
“No, not since this morning.” I glanced towards my computer. “I’ve got to tell the species coordinator her name at some point, for the studbook. I think it’s cute.”
Biting the bullet, I opened my inbox. I sensed Mum could tell something was weighing on me. Of course I would be worried, given the circumstances. We’d just welcomed our first squirrel monkey baby in dramatic circumstances. Given this wasn’t Spirit’s first offspring, I hoped that she would continue to be a good mother.
“What did you talk about at the ungulate TAG meeting?”
“Importing bongos. What would you think about having some here?”
I could tell from Mum’s expression that she wasn’t particularly keen about the idea. I was surprised that would be the case. The species seemed to be a natural fit, even though we would need to construct them a forested exhibit. However, I understood that we might not all have had the same priorities.
“I’m not saying that we have to. All I’m saying is that there’s the option. Importing now would be easier than importing on our own down the track.”
“Which other zoos are involved with this? Is it a big group already?”
I took a breath, recalling what we had discussed.
“Well, Altina is keen to reacquire. That’s what’s exciting about this. It’s a partnership between the government zoos and some of the bigger private zoos. It means that we’re on a level playing field.”
“Well, that all sounds great in theory,” Mum responded.
Around me, she was able to be more skeptical than she would have been publicly.
“It’s just a balance, that’s all. Adding new species adds new expenses, that’s for sure, but I also see the benefits. Bongos would be a good species for us.”
“I see what you mean,” she assured.
I was grateful that Mum was listening to my perspective. We had a good relationship with each other like that. Mum ran her fingers through my hair, then eventually got up. I was tempted to know what Damian would think. He’d probably laugh and say that it was none of his business, that I was the expert. As much as Damian would have a point, I didn’t feel any less stuck. Mum walked into the kitchen. I glanced towards the windows. Sometimes our house could get awfully dark, and the construction for the zoo hadn’t helped with that.
“I think, let’s check it out and go from there,” Mum decreed. “It’s going to be a lot of work, no matter what.”
I resolved that I would double-check the circumstances of the mass import before we made a firm decision. If it wasn’t going to be feasible that we jumped on the bandwagon, then I agreed that there was no point trying in the first place. I gathered that Dubbo had probably given up on Maisha breeding, or at the very least viewing her as a reliable founder. Therefore, they would want a new female, as well as a bull to breed Djembe with, even though she wasn’t getting any younger herself. If her next calf was a female, then she would also benefit from an unrelated founder bull down the line. I managed to convince Mum to make me another coffee, rather than the green tea she was preparing for herself. While I knew I didn’t really need the excess caffeine, I justified to myself that I did, given my workload. My tolerance of caffeine was reasonably good – it didn’t give me headaches like I knew some people had a problem with. Maybe it was the Italian genes. I took my coffee outside, heading to the Tasmanian devil exhibit. My eyes followed my feet as I walked, in a little bit of a daze. I kept my phone in my pocket, just in case I needed to be contacted. With the nocturnal house as a backdrop, I very much felt like I was immersed in the zoo environment. I was tempted to get in contact with Tallulah. I figured I needed it if I was going to take on the challenge of making it work that we would join the mass bongo import. Would Raffa and Darling Downs Zoo be keen as well? Bongos seemed like the sort of species which would be a perfect fit, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were. I would have been happy with a male and a female, or even just a male. We could receive a calf bred on the mainland down the line. There was a place for importing additional founder bulls, while we had the opportunity. I didn’t feel like wading into the argument. Conflict didn’t inherently bother me, but I didn’t like to lose.
Masikio at Dubbo would have been old enough to transfer out soon. The fact that his mother, Djembe, was pregnant again meant that it was possible they would need to be separated for the birth. That would be a challenge in regard to building large herds. Generally, the males lived separately, but that wasn’t necessarily an impediment. Most imports took time. Monarto’s African elephants certainly seemed to be taking a while to arrive in the wilds of South Australia, although that was another conversation altogether. It would have been a bridge too far to ask if we could come onboard with them, although I did believe we had a track record of bringing animals into the country. I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging, although we did have a history of constructing exhibits in record time. That was what had happened the first time, going from a dream in the midst of grief to opening the zoo from scratch within twelve months. Therefore, if we needed to rise to the challenge, I had every faith that we would do so again. I believed that the community trusted us and what we were doing. Except for the animal liberationists, most people appreciated having the zoo in their neck of the woods. So, we were in a good position. I wanted to build up our animal collection. There were plenty of species which could be easily acquired, although bongos would be a little bit more of a challenge. I was roughly aware of the history of the regional population. They seemed to have been affected by a male bias within the calves born, as well as some unfortunate deaths along the way. If more females had been born, then there at least would have been more opportunities for inbreeding with the related males. I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom, once I’d finished my coffee. When I returned to the loungeroom, I checked my phone and noticed an email from Blessing.
I’m sorry Jumilah; he apologised. At the moment, we’re not in a position to include Acarda Zoo within the institutions receiving Eastern bongos imported as part of the EEP.
Thanks for your interest, though.
My heart started to beat faster. It turned out that it wasn’t to be, after all. I tried to think of somewhere else to steer the conversation, to save face. It made sense that the import would be limited. Taronga’s male wouldn’t be around forever. They would likely replace him, even though his current exhibit was a paddock-filler in the middle of the Asian rainforest. I knew that Sam had identified a pair of okapi for import, when – if – the IRA was eventually approved. They would be taking their place in the Congo precinct. I was excited by the thought of the new development and which species potentially could have been included in the project. Gorillas would be the stars, although a part of me was concerned about whether there would be enough space for the breeding and bachelor troops. There was a possibility that bachelor chimps would be available long-term, although all holders in the region eventually ended up with females. What about birds? I knew that Alex had brought African grey parrots back to Melbourne Zoo. While there were difficulties with acquiring many species of exotic birds, they also were kept by private breeders from which the zoos might have been able to obtain new genetics. Even if we couldn’t have bongos, it might have been nice to add a few more aviaries to the zoo. It seemed like an unfortunate situation, but I didn’t want to dwell on that. Miscommunications were never pleasant. I couldn’t help but feel melancholy and, not wanting to face the facts, found myself flicking through the rest of my emails. At the bottom of each notification from ZIMS was the opportunity to manage my preferences. I seemed to be receiving all of the updates. Werribee had received a new addax. I hadn’t realised they also had females. I thought they just held a bachelor herd. I’d heard they’d been having problems. It wasn’t something which could be seen through the ZIMS notification emails, which only reported births, deaths and transfers. Addax were relatively rare within the region, although I knew they were breeding well up at Darling Downs Zoo, who had expanded to have room to house the excess bulls in a bachelor herd. They would have been nice for an African savannah or an arid exhibit, although the latter was less likely to be developed at Acarda Zoo any time soon. At the same time, I figured that they would need to bring on a new addax holder sooner rather than later. The males needed to be kept somewhere, although it would be advantageous to import new females. I decided to take my mind off this by heading outside. It wasn’t my problem to fix, and I could have unsubscribed from the emails so that I wouldn’t even know about it. Mum and I strode out to the western side of the property. Our feet crunched over the leaf litter.
“This needs a mow.”
“Your father can take it out, when he gets the time.”
It crossed my mind that any of us would be able to mow the grass. I just felt like I would make a mistake. The terrain of the property could at times be useful for developing the zoo. For a while, we’d foregone a ride-on lawnmower. I was grateful that we’d been able to buy one back. These little things made a difference. Now that we were welcoming the public into the zoo, the rest of the property needed to look the part as well. Who knew, we could have been adding elephants in the future? That seemed like a pipedream, considering where we’d come from. I’d been young enough at the time that my parents wanted to shield me from most of the distress. I thought that it had worked, but that still meant there were things I didn’t know about when we’d lost the business and almost lost the farm altogether. I didn’t want to ask the question. I glanced up into the sky, wondering whether it was going to rain later in the day. I thought that I could hear our finches warbling. We wanted to breed them, although I didn’t know if we could keep up the naming theme which Taronga had used. Perhaps I could research some Aboriginal names which reflected their native range. There were some parts of the property where we could see into the neighbours’ place. Pat and I were getting along well and things were going smoothly for them and their family. I didn’t want to rock the boat or force them to choose. However, I knew that we could be potentially be about to have some difficult conversations. We returned to the house, even though there was still plenty of work to do. I was pretty determined to procrastinate, even if it wasn’t the best choice in the long run. I sat down while Mum made coffee. Watching Instagram stories, the sight of Patrick – a selfie on a sunrise run – caught me by surprise. I was so tempted to respond in some way, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. Therefore, I moved onto Chester Zoo’s video of their spectacled bears and coatis in the same exhibit. It was an interesting mix which I was almost certain hadn’t been attempted in Australia. I’d also heard of some zoos mixing pygmy hippos with African rainforest primates. Maybe that was something which Melbourne Zoo could consider.
After dinner, I felt tired, but I knew that we needed to sort out our financial records. The end of the financial year was rapidly approaching. I wasn’t an expert in these matters. Mum noticed the strain on my face.
“Look, I love you, so I’ll look at the books. We can even do it together if you’d like.”
“Thank you,” I accepted.
We sat down together with my laptop and I opened up the accounting software website. Of course, the site wanted to send us a verification code. It did make sense that we needed to be as safe as possible, considering the sensitive information contained within. I went into my email inbox to collect the code. When I was looking, I also noticed some more information about this year’s national conference. It was going to be held in Canberra, which surprised me as I thought that I would need to travel overseas. Canberra was still two flights away, or a flight to Sydney and then a three-hour road trip. Maybe it was a comparable level of travel to heading abroad. We were supposed to swap between Australia and New Zealand. Apparently the 2021 conference had been held at Auckland Zoo. There were a series of emails going back and forth as the others tried to confirm their plans. I didn’t want to have to deal with this.
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.