Updated: Nov 12, 2022
“Good morning, Jumilah.”
I awoke with a start to Reuben’s voice.
“Good morning,” I echoed, sitting up. “What time is it? I promise, I set an alarm.”
“Don’t worry, I know you did,” Reuben responded. “You’ve got some time, have a shower, get dressed, and then you’re coming with me to snow leopards.”
“Aye, sir,” I agreed, and then hauled myself out of bed.
Reuben made himself scarce. I noticed that a Melbourne Zoo uniform had been left on the chair by the door. A smile came onto my lips as I reached for it and felt the embroidery of the logo within my fingertips. A logo – at least we had one of those kinda sorted out. I took the uniform, and my other things, with me. Heading into the bathroom, I went to the toilet, then got changed into the uniform and brushed my hair back into a ponytail. For the first time, I truly felt like a zookeeper, whatever that means. I left the bathroom to put my shoes on.
“Right to go?”
I followed Reuben out of his house. We walked down a path to a gate. Reuben unlocked it, then held it ajar.
I walked through.
“You know, I could find that really patronising--.”
“But do you?”
“I mean, I do a little bit, but I’ve come to understand your sarcastic charm and wit. You ooze the stuff. I just have to make sure that I tolerate it while we’re living and working together.”
“Thank you, but I don’t want you to have to tolerate me. Just tolerating means something isn’t quite right.”
“You are understanding of my PTSD--.”
“But that’s normal, that should be normal. I mean, you wouldn’t be normal if you--.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
We arrived at the exhibit.
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry,” Reuben apologised. “Let’s talk about snow leopards instead. We currently have a pair, a breeding pair. On top of them, we still have the two young females, their offspring, going to Wellington at the end of the year. That means that we’ve gotten the recommendation to breed again with our current pair.”
He unlocked the gate and took me back-of-house. Once we were finished there, the zoo must have opened. Reuben led me in the direction of the elephant exhibit.
“Alright, tell me what you know about our elephants.”
“I know that you have two pregnant cows. They’re due reasonably soon.”
“What will you do with this place once the herd moves out?”
“The plan is Indian rhinos. This is actually an exciting opportunity for Melbourne Zoo. With Perth importing a pair, we have two founder lines in the region.”
“Which will sustain the species for another generation.”
“Yes, and that’s important. Too many species get imported into Australia and then they end up inbred and dying out because we didn’t import enough founders in the first place to sustain the population.”
“They’re a natural replacement for elephants in city zoos.”
Reuben checked his watch.
“I need to get to a meeting and you need to get cracking with your primates training.”
We walked off from the elephant exhibit. Reuben went left and I went right. I located the Treetop Monkeys and Apes exhibit fairly quickly, given that I’d been there before.
“Hello, I take it you’re Jumilah?”
“Yes, I am,” I confirmed to the female zookeeper in front of me.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she responded. “I’m Ella Okine, I’m one of the primate keepers.”
“Great to meet you, Ella.”
“And I’m Alex, one of the other primate keepers,” he introduced, “at least until the end of next week.”
“Alex has gotten a new job at Werribee, with the gorillas having arrived, they’re expanding their primate team.”
“Yeah, so that’s my story,” Alex confirmed. “We’ll take you for a look around first.”
The name that Reuben had given me for the Head of Primates, Lina, wasn’t either of the people I’d met so far.
“You’re living with Reuben, aren’t you?” Alex mentioned.
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, that’s a very authentic Melbourne Zoo experience,” Alex remarked, “or just that our benevolent overload couldn’t be bothered paying rent.”
I laughed, in keeping with his jovial tone. We walked onto the boardwalk, a little damp underfoot from overnight rain.
“I have been here before,” I noted. “My best friend, her biological father lives in Melbourne, so we visited with his family back in April.”
Indeed, the time had flown. We paused in front of the first netted exhibit, to spend a moment captivated. I watched the Emperor Tamarins bounce around. There was quite a good-sized group, adults with their curved white moustaches, plus some smaller ones as well, probably their offspring, as Ella mentioned the strong breeding record. I found myself thinking about Patrick. He’d been with me last time, at Tasmania Zoo. How had things changed so quickly? I hated that I was the one asking that question, because I’d been the one to end things, not him. He could have continued on in blissful ignorance, trekking through the dark, but I’d blasted both of us into the harsh light.
I shook my body, to remove the feeling. A little more sunlight poked out from behind a cloud. I looked to the left, into the next exhibit. I smiled, the white-cheeked gibbons up close to the slanted glass window bringing me joy.
“She was hand-reared, so she loves the people company,” Ella explained.
While I beamed, my chest remained tight. I loved the smell of the foliage and the animals. Trying to breathe it in, I hoped that it would calm me down enough to actually enjoy myself, and soak in my surroundings. I learned to observe and learn, but without the added trap of putting pressure on myself. Following Ella and Alex, I shuffled across to the exhibit opposite. It took me a moment to notice a spider monkey. Finally, I saw the group, all tucked up together in one corner.
“They love that spot. It’s under the heat lamp.”
That explained the pale red light which coated the monkeys’ backs. Eventually, one of them got bold, reaching up to the rope. He swung across the exhibit.
“How many spider monkeys do you have here?”
“We’ve got five at the moment.”
I could only see four, so I supposed one must have been in the night dens. We shifted across the boardwalk, to gaze into the capuchin exhibit, a similar netted area.
“The capuchins came from a circus, I think, originally. They used them in films and everything. We’re trying to move them on, as Reuben’s probably told you.”
“Yeah, he’s mentioned. Do you reckon that they’ll end up in Coolangatta?”
“Maybe, we don’t get to decide.”
“That’s just what I heard in the primate TAG meetings.”
“Oh, lucky you.” The hint of a smirk on Alex’s lips indicated that he wasn’t jealous. “You’ll have to tell us all the goss.”
Further down the boardwalk, Melbourne’s colobus pair were housed.
“We’re trying to work with Adelaide and Canberra to breed them and build up a population, but it’s an ongoing process. There are various subspecies and the like, I believe, and we need to karyotype them to work out the genetics of each group.”
At the end of the road, we encountered a smaller, mesh exhibit. I remembered the tamarins and the birds before I even saw them, anticipating the colour, movement and sound.
“And that’s Treetop Monkeys and Apes.”
“That was great,” I praised with a smile.
“We’d love to get the squirrels into this trail, they’re a little bit out of place near the elephants at the moment.”
“Are there any other animals you would like to house here?”
I knew we hadn’t seen the siamangs, although some of the exhibits would have been too small for them.
“Oh.” Ella’s face lit up. “We did used to have a much larger primate collection. Melbourne Zoo used to breed Javan Langurs quite prolifically, they were interesting animals.”
“Did you work with them?”
“I worked with the very last ones we had, yeah.”
I heard siamangs calling, catching me off-guard. My chest constricted and I was sure my heartrate would have soared. Sure, Reuben knew – of course he did. I gathered some others within the industry would be aware of how my grandfather died. Following the primate boardwalk, we doubled back on ourselves. Alex ended up walking ahead for a bit, while Ella fell back into step with me.
“How are you going so far?” she queried. “I know that it must be a lot for you to be away from our family, on the mainland.”
“Oh, I’m OK,” I assured.
I knew that it was a default response.
“Have you been to Melbourne Zoo more than that once before?”
“Oh, I would have been when I was a kid. My parents went to uni here; that’s where they met Reuben. I reckon that we would have visited maybe twice before. I’ve sort of got memories of it.”
“Yeah, right,” Ella responded. “You’re not that old, but some things would have changed.”
We found ourselves near the entrance, the opposite one to the rail gate through which Tallulah and I had entered on our visit. The walk-through lemur exhibit would be entered through a pod-like structure. Next to that was a glass wall, looking into another open-topped lemur exhibit on the outside of the meshed, walk-through area.
“These are our black-and-white ruffeds.”
Some of them were sun-worshipping down the front, albeit in vain.
“Do you breed them here?”
“No, this is a bachelor group. They breed them at Perth and Mogo, if I’m remembering correctly.”
We moved on from the vantage point.
“Oh, walk-through lemur exhibits were all the rage five years ago,” Alex noted as he held the door ajar for Ella and I. “Taronga built one, so we built one. That’s how these things tend to work.”
We walked through relatively quickly in the end. The animals were distracted by food, as Lina had just fed them.
“You must be Jumilah,” she greeted me, when we happened upon her near the exit.
“Yes, I am. Thank you for having me here.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sure that Ella and Alex will show you our gorillas, if they haven’t already.”
I’d been to the gorilla rainforest before, but it was no less spectacular the second time around. I gazed into the eyes of the youngest female gorilla, the last to be born at Melbourne Zoo.
“When will the new silverback be arriving?”
“At the beginning of next month,” Alex answered. “After I’m long gone.”
“While we’re here, would you like to pop in to visit the pygmy hippo?” Ella suggested. “We could show you the mandrill exhibit on the way through, even though we don’t have any at the moment.”
“Sure, that’d be great.”
We didn’t have to walk far. After a few more steps, I stood before the glass.
“We would love to get a female again. There’s one at Darling Downs unpaired, but the whole population is closely related. Hopefully we will be able to import in the future, but I know that the ungulate keepers have been hoping that for the whole time that we’ve been here.”
We walked diagonally across the path, to the viewing window opposite.
“This originally was a mandrill exhibit.”
In the place of primates, a cassowary walked elegantly through the long grass, up close to the floor-to-ceiling glass.
“We’ll make sure that you spend some time with birds as well. Isaac will teach you everything you need to know.”
Alex led Ella and I down a back way. We slipped into the Butterfly House through a back door, a keepers’ entrance. As soon as we entered, I felt the heat. The greenhouse and its lush foliage provided a nice contrast to the cold Melbourne winter day we’d walked through outside. Butterflies fluttered around the building with haste, before each of them landed with such poise. We slowed down, Alex and Ella providing me with silence. Even the visitors seemed more peaceful. On a green leaf in front of me, a butterfly with orange and black wings landed. I wouldn’t have been sure of the species, but I hoped to learn one day. Around the bend, posts were planted amongst the shrubs, with white hexagonal plates atop them. Underneath my feet, the brick pathway may have seemed a little outdated, but sure reminded me of home. Coming in the other direction, I noticed a middle-aged man in Melbourne Zoo uniform.
“Oh, Drew,” Ella called out, attracting his attention, “I’d like you to meet Jumilah Fioray.”
“Hello, Drew,” I greeted him. “I’m here on work experience.”
“That’s fantastic, Jumilah. I work with the ungulates.”
“Drew’s our Head of Ungulates,” Alex explained.
I wondered if he attended the ungulate TAG meetings, or whether that was one of Reuben’s responsibilities. A butterfly landed on the back of Drew’s hand.
“Well, I’d best be off, unfortunately. I’ve got a meeting to get to.”
Gently, Drew rested his hand against the branch of one of the trees, transferring the butterfly from his skin to the bark. I noticed a gold wedding band on his finger.
“It was nice to meet you, Jumilah,” Drew assured me once again. “Do make sure to come and visit us in ungulates.”
“Of course, I will,” I agreed.
With that, Drew was off. Alex, Ella and I continued around the pathways of the House. I didn’t feel any urging to leave. I’d never realised that insects, even beautiful ones, could be so captivating, but we did have more work to do. The three of us passed through the double doors, exiting the Butterfly House.
“Have you ever been to Lord Howe Island?”
“No, I haven’t,” I answered.
“We have a breeding program with the stick insects,” Alex explained. “It’s underrated, but fascinating.”
We walked quickly through the Asian rainforest, underneath a dense canopy. It reminded me a little of Sumatra, although the school holiday crowds roamed around. I thought that might have been for the best, as we reached the exhibit billed the Orangutan Sanctuary. We stopped before the building, in front of a netted exhibit.
“These two females are mother and daughter; they were both born here at Melbourne Zoo and are our last hybrid orangutans.”
Alex pointed to the female up close to the front, then the other brachiating at the back.
“This is Luna, the daughter, and Indah, her mother.”
“She was born on the night of a lunar eclipse, that's where she got her name from," Ella supplied. "There's a photo of her as a baby inside the visitor centre.”
Luna and Indah lost interest in us relatively quickly, so we moved on, bypassing the indoor building so that we could reach the second, open-topped exhibit.
“And this is Menyaru,” Alex introduced. “He’s our Sumatran male; he was born here.”
“Were you here when he was born?”
“No, we’re both a bit too young.”
Menyaru’s cheek pads rippled, as he ate some food in the middle of the exhibit. Down from the boardwalk was a lake. I peered into the water, clear and green with moss swaying underneath the surface. The island in the centre had a few rope climbing structures on it, but obviously disused. I wondered whether that could have been a home for another primate species. Maybe some other sort of gibbon could be housed there one day.
“Is there anything else that you’d like to know?”
“The, um, siamangs,” I noted, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the calls. “I take it they’re on the other side of the zoo, could we please go and see them?”
“Yeah, of course,” Alex agreed. “Come with us, we’ll show you.”
I pressed a wispy bit of stray hair back. Following Alex and Ella across the zoo, I noticed a vibe between them, some sort of spark of magic I hadn’t seen before. Of course, I didn’t say anything about it, because that would have been rude. As we crossed from one side of the zoo to the other, we encountered a man in Melbourne Zoo uniform, pausing to meet and greet him.
“Vel, this is Jumilah Fioray, she’s with us for work experience.”
“Lovely to meet you, Jumilah,” Vel responded.
“Vel’s one of our reptile keepers.”
“Oh, right. Great to meet you.”
“I’m sure that I’ll see you around. Sorry to end the conversation, I have a keeper talk to get to.”
“I hope it goes well.”
We farewelled Vel, then continued our way. I knew that I wanted to get to know him more, even if I’m not that keen on his chosen specialty. The three of us arrived in the Japanese Gardens, where the siamangs were housed on an island. Two adults were snuggled up with their offspring, a few years old, and so much bigger than baby Jelita. Obviously, they were finished with their calling for the morning. The sun came out and I smiled, feeling at peace. We turned back on ourselves, towards the Main Drive.
“Do you have any other questions?” Ella asked me, just to make sure.
My head was spinning, but with joy.
“No, not at the moment.”
After the morning in primates, I dropped home. I quickly made myself and ate a sandwich for lunch, then I walked up to the other end of the zoo and slipped out the rail gate, so that I could take a picture to post to Instagram, like the shameless Generation Z I am. Once I was back inside the grounds, I strolled down the Main Drive through the zoo. This afternoon was bathed in glorious sunshine, but I could sense the tension around the savannah. I wasn’t really meant to be down there. Still, I’d finished my tasks for the meantime. I stuffed my hands into my pockets. A young woman dressed in Melbourne Zoo uniform walked over to greet me, seeming friendly enough.
“Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Ara, I’m one of the ungulate keepers. I take it that you’re Jumilah Fioray.”
“The one and only.”
“I’m sorry that you’ve caught us on a difficult day.”
Reuben hadn’t filled me in.
“Twiga, our oldest female giraffe, she’s not in good health. We have to decide whether the end has come.”
“I’m so sorry,” I gushed.
Reuben walked over towards us, head down.
“We’re not going to make the decision today,” he reported. “We’ll give her a bit more time. It would be worth calling around everyone who has worked with her, to fill them in.”
“I can organise that,” Ara promised, with a solemn nod of her head.
“She was born here. It’s fitting that she would die here, in this place.” Reuben sighed, running his hand through his hair. “I just wish that it didn’t have to be right now.”
We walked back home. I went to start making dinner.
“Thanks, Jumilah, but it’s fine,” Reuben told me, from the couch. “Come and sit down with me.”
I rummaged through the cupboards. Locating a half-eaten packet of M&Ms, I joined Reuben on the lounge, handing over the chocolate I’d acquired.
“Taronga’s got a zoo nutritionist. I want a zoo nutritionist.”
Reuben shovelled M&Ms into his mouth.
“Then hire a zoo nutritionist.”
“Do you want to be my zoo nutritionist?”
“No, thank you,” I answered, “but it sounds sort of fun.”
“What have you got on your plate tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure at this stage,” I answered. “I would love to get some more primate experience, because that’s part of what I’m here for.”
“Do you want to attend the carnies meeting?”
“Well, I have been. Seeing as we’re receiving the dholes too, I think that it’s helpful, although--.”
“It’s a different vibe to primates?”
“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed. “Did you used to go to those meetings, too?”
“No, but Monica tells me.”
I’m looking forward to getting to meet Monica in person at some stage, hopefully soon. We hadn’t crossed paths with her at the snow leopard exhibit.
“You might have some snow leopard news before too long.”
“We’re talking about maned wolves tomorrow,” I mentioned, then Reuben rolled his eyes and ate more M&Ms. “What?”
“I’m impressed with what Altina’s done, absolutely. I just don’t like when people make us out to be the bay guy for phasing them out.”
“Who is doing that?”
“I can just tell every time she looks at me.”
We returned to eating chocolate for dinner.
“It’s been a pretty big first day.”
“She’s going to die.”
“We’re all going to die.”
“I know that.” Reuben sighed heavily. “I was there the day she was born and I’ll be there the day she dies. I’m just secretly thankful that it wasn’t today.”
I nodded my head. This must have been weighing heavily on Reuben, as I could feel it too.
“I know that you and the vets will make the right decision,” I assured, “even though that’s heartbreaking.”
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.