There are three species involved in the import – Grey Dorcopsis Wallaby, and Ground and Spotted Cuscus. A portion of the animals will quarantine at Healesville, the others at Melbourne. Seven wallaby pairs have been imported – one for Melbourne and one for Healesville, then a pair each will be moved onto Taronga, Perth, Currumbin, Adelaide and the reptile park on the central coast north of Sydney. The reptile park, Adelaide, Taronga and Healesville have jointly funded the import. These are the four zoos which will take on a Ground Cuscus pair each. When Nikki collected me this morning, she was in a Healesville Sanctuary truck.
“We’re going straight to the airport.”
“I spent some time in New Guinea as a kid.”
“Ah, that’s cool,” I remarked.
“My parents did a year over there as aid workers when I was seven.”
Nikki took the exit in the direction of the airport. Tullamarine had started to become somewhat familiar. We reached a gate on the left, where we slowed down, and I could see gleaming aircraft on the other side of the fence.
“Now this is the really fun part,” Nikki told me, beaming, and we turned the corner.
An airport worker allowed her to drive the truck onto the tarmac. We found a place to park, near the other Zoos Victoria truck. Climbing down from the cabin, the wind swirled my hair, the noise unsettlingly loud. Reuben was standing on the tarmac, directing proceedings even though I technically believe that he didn’t have authority. Both species of cuscus were offloaded from the plane first. They were considered more vulnerable to the rigours of travel than the wallabies, except one female, whom the keepers from Papua New Guinea said was agitated. A broad-shoulder man, Isaiah, greeted Reuben with a hug, his grin large and providing no room for the Melbourne Zoo’s director’s usual cynical demeanour.
“Jumilah, you’re with me,” Reuben ordered, reverting to form. “Monica, you’re with Nikki and Isaiah.”
I resisted the urge to grumble, because I knew it would create more tension, which I don’t want to do. On the way back to the zoo, I realised that I would in fact miss the bird TAG meeting. I considered pointing this out, but Reuben seemed disgruntled. Perhaps he was just under high stress.
“I’ve got to say,” I spoke up, in an attempt to ease the tension, “seven is an unusual number of founding pairs for a program.”
“That’s not my fault,” Reuben insisted. “Seven pairs were what was available.”
“How is the New Guinea exhibit coming along?” I enquired.
“Good,” Reuben answered, and said no more.
There was an uneasy spot of silence.
“I mean, we’ll be housing the wallabies in a mixed-species exhibit with tree kangaroos, if that’s what you’re asking,” Reuben explained, “so I think that it’s coming along quite well, from that perspective.”
Feeling tired, I leaned back in the seat. Consulting my watch, the rest of the trip wouldn’t be too long. We arrived back at Melbourne Zoo. Meredith greeted me with a beaming smile, but we weren’t afforded the opportunity to hug. As head vet, she directed the operation. A labyrinth of off-exhibit areas would house the animals during their quarantine period. They settled in without incident. Once the animals were in quarantine, Reuben and I walked through the zoo. We didn’t have time to spectate, as we needed to get to the primate TAG meeting. It felt like old times, stepping through into Reuben’s cottage on-site. We joined the meeting on Reuben’s laptop, squeezing our faces into the frame. Gilham gave an acknowledgement of country to commence the meeting. Then, he handed over to Christine, who would have been two hours ahead of us, at Wellington Zoo.
“Firstly, Gerard, happy birthday,” she wished him.
“It has come to my attention that genetic studies have been undertaken into individuals within the North American Sumatran Orangutan program,” Christine outlined. “Reuben can elaborate.”
“Yes, I’ve been in contact with Becca Hamilton as the international studbook keeper. Her point of view is that it would be prudent for genetic studies to be carried out within the EEP, and our region, as well.”
“To make sure they are purebred Sumatrans and not mixed with Tapanuli.”
“I do think this is something which is worth discussing,” Bill agreed. “Assessing the consequences for our population is worthwhile.”
“The question is whether it’s worthwhile to not interbreed Sumatran and Tapanuli orangs in captivity anyway.”
“It would be ideal to maintain separate populations between the subspecies,” I noted. “I don’t really think that my opinion is relevant, regardless.”
They seemed to take notice. Therefore, the decision was made to conduct genetic testing on the animals within the Australian population, then check back based on the results received.
“Bill, what are your plans for mandrills?”
“None currently,” he answered. “There’s simply not the room, even under our masterplan.”
“Do we have any studbook reports this week?”
I took us off mute, heart thumping.
“I’m not a studbook keeper, but I wanted to ask something.”
“Of course, you can, Jumilah,” Christine permitted.
“Thank you.” I swallowed. “My understanding is that the siamang species coordinator position is vacant.”
“Jackson Fox from Western Sydney did hold that office, as we’d know,” Christine mentioned, “and technically, the studbook stays with the institution.”
My heart sank. I shouldn’t have said anything to begin with.
“We haven’t had a representative from Western Sydney with us for several months,” Christine noted. “Therefore, I think that it is time that we reassess the current situation and find a new species coordinator for the siamang program.”
“Well, we did hold the studbook before it went to Western Sydney,” Mal pointed out.
The implication was that he’d be more than willing to take it back.
“I see where you’re coming from, Mal,” Don replied, “but there aren’t currently any primate studbooks with Zoos South Australia, so we’d be happy to help out.”
“If you don’t mind, I would like to go for it. We’ll be open by this summer. I’d like to hold a studbook, and given my grandparents’ history with the species, I think that this would be a good fit for us, and Acarda Zoo would be a good fit for the siamang studbook. I’ve been working with Reuben, and I believe that I know what I’m doing.”
The vote, ultimately, was unanimous – I would become the species coordinator. I could feel my body buzzing; I couldn’t wait to tell Mum, Dad and Nanek, who would be so proud of me, despite the task ahead. There wasn’t long to dwell, as we moved onto the member reports.
“Construction work is progressing well. I would say that it will be within eighteen months that we’ll be looking at forming a gorilla troop. Hopefully the EEP will be helpful.”
“That will be great to have three great ape species in South Australia,” Sam, from Taronga Zoo, responded with a smile.
“I thought that I would share some updates on our new females. Melati and Sarita have settled in well to our exhibit.”
Gerard shared his screen, flicking through photos of the two new female orangutans.
“What’s your breeding plan?”
“Melati is obviously an experienced mother. The consensus we’ve reached in conjunction with Becca Hamilton and the international program is that we would prefer her to have an infant before Sarita breeds.”
“That sounds suitable,” Christine affirmed. “Is Mawar still in the breeding program?”
“Yes, we’d be looking at breeding every two years, so breeding from Melati first, then Mawar in a couple of years, then Sarita finally, in about five years’ time.”
“That would be great,” Reuben affirmed with a smile.
“Ah, yes, I wanted to bring back up the chat we had about our lemur groups a couple of weeks ago. Gilham and I have had a chat, and we copied Reuben in, and we reckon Rocky is the best place for the breeding group. Perhaps we’ll be able to keep the bachelors, off-display for now.”
“Yes, that’s fine with me,” Reuben assured.
“Well, yes, it might be fine with you, Reuben,” Bill interjected, “but you’re not the species coordinator.”
Bill himself is the species coordinator, were I remembering that correctly. I tried not to let the tension of the moment get to me. Bill sat back in his chair, sighing heavily as he folded his arms, then uncrossed them again.
“Look, altogether, I think that it’s a sound solution,” he conceded, “especially considering the geographical proximity. Let’s facilitate it.”
Bill leaned forward.
“Look, better yet, I trust you to sort it out yourself.”
“Can I ask,” Angelique spoke up, “how many bachelor males do you have, Hunter?”
“We have three at the moment,” Hunter confirmed. “Levi, Gray and Seven. They were all born in our breeding group and are a group of brothers living separately from the main group.”
“Would you be interested, Angelique?”
“Yes, I would be.”
“The plan would be to repurpose the island where the lemurs live at the moment, and that would become our orangutan exhibit once they’re imported, or at least part of it.”
“Our pair of white-cheeked gibbons has arrived during the week, and I’ve got to say a massive thanks to everyone involved, they are fantastic animals and we’re really thrilled to have them here with us in Queensland finally.”
“Our De Brazza’s Guenon pair arrived from Bristol very early this morning. They’ve been moved into quarantine, where they’ll stay for the next thirty days.”
“Where are you planning on displaying them?”
“Opposite the lemur exhibit, in the old orangutan dayroom.”
“Is anyone else planning on joining the program at this stage?” Don wanted to know.
“Well, we wouldn’t be interested, I’m sorry,” Bill apologised. “We have other primate species which we’re choosing to prioritise. De Brazza’s aren’t actually endangered.”
That thought weighed on my mind. Perhaps the spaces should have been dedicated to a more vulnerable species.
“We had a storm come through Wellington over the weekend which did a bit of damage to our entrance building,” Christine recounted. “Thankfully, no people or animals were harmed.”
“Christine, would you mind me asking about your chimpanzee group, please?”
“I don’t mind at all, we have three males and seven females currently in a cohesive troop.”
“Thank you, I’m sorry, I did know that, but I just wanted to make sure that everything is going well.”
“No, it’s alright, it’s always good to work together.”
“Malcolm,” Blessing enquired, “what is your point of view on chimpanzees?”
“We hold gorillas and we’re interested in orangs again, obviously. I haven’t given chimps much consideration.”
Blessing nodded his head.
“Right, thank you,” he responded. “I would consider breeding recommendations for the group at Bungarribee. The siamang studbook is all sorted and is in good hands, but we will need to engage with them again, in order to determine next steps with their chimp group.”
At Blessing’s vote of confidence, I beamed.
“I just have a quick question,” I spoke up. “Laki and Mawar the white-handed gibbons, they’re a young pair. My grandparents always wanted to breed them.”
“Are you thinking that you might get yourself a second new job today, Jumilah?” Bill quipped.
“Well, maybe, I wouldn’t mind.”
The meeting came to an end.
“I’m proud of you,” Reuben praised. “It took guts to ask for the studbook for yourself.”
He leaned forward, onto the table.
“Not to say that you didn’t have a claim to it.”
Reuben started switching off the equipment.
“When Jackson came into the picture, they didn’t even hold siamangs and they were just handed the coordinator’s role.”
I nodded my head as we rose to our feet, itching to leave the room and head back out into the zoo.
“How have you been going at Healesville?” Reuben wanted to know.
“It’s actually been really good,” I answered. “Everybody’s lovely.”
A smile briefly came onto Reuben’s lips.
“I’m really glad that it’s turning out alright.”
Reuben offered that he would drive me back to the Roberts’ farm. Most of the trip was just on the one freeway, then I directed Reuben down the right road in the direction of the property.
“It’s just here,” I urged.
I pointed towards the gate, the little rusted letterbox by the wooden post.
“It seems like a lovely place.”
Reuben pulled into the driveway.
“It is,” I confirmed.
Reuben parked and we emerged from the car, heading inside to greet the Roberts family.
“This is Reuben, he’s a family friend and the director of Melbourne Zoo,” I introduced.
“Actually, I’m the CEO of Zoos Victoria,” Reuben corrected, “but all the same to you.”
“It’s great to meet you. I’ve just been putting dinner together.”
I noticed ingredients spread across the bench.
“I can help,” Reuben offered. “What would you like me to do?”
“You can chop the potatoes if you’d like. The knife’s in the block.”
He retrieved the knife and started cutting up baked potatoes.
“You’re too kind,” I praised.
“It’s the least that I can do.”
Therefore, Reuben and I assisted Mrs Roberts in cooking dinner. Once he was finished work outside for the day, Mr Roberts returned to the house, hanging his hat on the hook and fetching beers for all of us.
“Jumilah’s got some news, did she tell you?”
Reuben took a sip of beer.
“Oh, yes,” I spoke up, feeling a little sheepish. “I’ve been named the species coordinator for the siamang studbook.”
“That’s fantastic news.”
“The animals from your grandparents’ sanctuary, will they all be moved to Tasmania?”
“Well,” Reuben answered, then gestured towards me, “you’ll have to ask the studbook keeper.”
“I’d hope so,” I replied.
Once dinner was ready, it was served at the table. We said grace, then tucked in. I would never go hungry here. Reuben ate like this was the first meal he’d ever had, and possibly his last. I suppose that he had a big day, elongated by dropping me back to the farm.
“So, Reuben, do you have a wife and children?” Mrs Roberts enquired.
“No, I don’t,” he answered. “Married to the job.”
I tried not to pull a face. After dinner, I thought that Reuben would head off. Nonetheless, he was still there, when I needed to log into my class. Like last week, the session would begin with a presentation. Piper shared her screen, Alice shifting out of view. The image displayed was a map of the precinct she’d devised. Piper wore a green shirt with an elephant with its trunk up printed onto the front, almost like it had been painted on. She breathed out, then started her presentation.
“In creating an Asian rainforest habitat, I must give thanks to Jumilah and Kenneth. I have been inspired by what they have shared about their families’ heritage, in Indonesia.”
Touched, I smiled.
“The showcase habitat will be for a breeding herd of Sumatran Elephants.”
Piper changed slides.
“The path is a loop, circling the elephant exhibit. Heading to the right and walking in an anti-clockwise direction, on the right would be an exhibit for Sumatran Orangutan, with platforms and ropes allowing the animals to brachiate and showcase their natural arboreal behaviours.”
I recognised the photo she chose to illustrate. It must have been taken at Melbourne Zoo, on the boardwalk, leaning against the railing.
“On the left would be the barn and a second paddock to accommodate the bull. A series of gates would allow introductions to take place for breeding.”
Piper had planned an ambitious agenda. I couldn’t criticise her for that.
“Further along the path would be the indoor housing for the Sumatran Orangutans. It would be ideal to mix the orangutans with another arboreal primate species, like siamang. If they couldn’t be mix, then an adjoining exhibit could be constructed in this part of the complex.”
Piper drew a circle on the map with her cursor. She changed the slides, to a photo which I thought might have been taken at Taronga, of one of their tiger exhibits.
“Of course, the precinct wouldn’t be complete without a big cat, in the form of a Sumatran Tiger. Ideally, the zoo would hold a breeding pair.”
Piper seemed to be really hitting the ABC species. I wondered whether or not that would be something Sam would appreciate.
“Past the tiger exhibits, the path would continue around the other side of the elephant barn and paddock. Rounding off the loop is an aviary on the right for White-Rumped Shama and Java Sparrow.”
I appreciate the addition of birds, and two eye-catching species. Otherwise, the precinct would have just been mammals, which isn’t inherently a let-down, but the assessment criteria specified diversity. Alice has chosen to create a precinct for megafauna, which reduces opportunities for reptiles. I’m now even more intrigued by the White-Rumped Shama.
“I purposely gave the animals large exhibits. Obviously, this is a theoretical exercise. However, it is important to be realistic in the choices made in order to reflect the reality of working in the animal care industry,” Piper outlined. “I considered choosing to house solely bull elephants. However, they may be unsuited to this environment.”
She didn’t elaborate as to why, and concluded.
“Thank you very much for your presentation, Piper.”
We afforded her a round of applause, inadvertently silent as we were still on mute. I heard rain against the roof. Sam took a moment to take a sip of water, before moving onto the substantive of the class.
“Say, our region was offered to enter into an agreement with Singapore Zoo. We would supply them with Australian native species. In return, Australia would be able to import orangutans, tapirs, species otherwise in short supply in this region. What do you think about that?”
“That would be great,” Zach affirmed.
Sam nodded his head.
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo received a female Eastern Bongo from Singapore. She, at the time, needed to be quarantined in New Zealand for a year, prior to the bovid IRA coming into effect.”
“But now you can import directly?”
I knew I was offering a leading question.
“Yes, we can,” Sam confirmed.
The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, so I put myself on mute until it lightened off.
“Of course, subject to the availability of animals,” he qualified. “I think the problem is we act as if we’re living in an ideal world.”
He flashed a wary expression.
“There is plenty of great work being done for local animals, like the spotted handfish.”
“The spotted handfish are a Tasmanian species,” I pointed out. “We all need to do our best for them.”
Thoughts churned over in my mind, contemplating a future which hadn’t yet crystallised.
“Maybe we could investigate housing them at Acarda Zoo one day,” I proposed. “I’m sorry, I know this is a me problem, not a you problem.”
“We can talk about this later on.”
“Sure,” I agreed.
“Alright, we’re going to move onto the next section of the class.”
Sam clicked at his computer, then took a brief sip of water, so I did the same.
“This is the map of Taronga Zoo.”
Sam shared his screen, at the same time sending through the file in the chat.
“And this is the map of Melbourne Zoo.”
If this was going to be a compare and contrast exercise, then I felt a little uncomfortable.
“This isn’t about comparing the zoos. Rather, it is about learning more about how zoos communicate through their maps.”
I nodded, happy with that plan.
“I quite like the Auckland Zoo map,” Zach pointed out.
Perhaps his family heritage was from Auckland. Maybe Zach had even mentioned that in the past. I found myself missing home, picturing the buildings of Hobart as if they were reflecting back at me from the laptop screen. To try and draw myself back into the present, I focused through the grounding techniques taught to me by my psychologist. I mentally named the other students in the class.
“I find the paths quite interesting on the Taronga map, with the side trails off the main trail,” Kenneth mused.
Still going back and forth, I considered the bongos. Sam had mentioned the one from Singapore, the female, Maisha. Singapore had been where I’d first met Sam, on the plane. Oddly, trauma had turned the edges of my memory fuzzy. Maybe that wasn’t quite true, but I couldn’t ask him in the middle of the class. Perhaps the grounding techniques weren’t quite having the desired effect.
“If you follow the main trail completely through, it’s the accessible route throughout the zoo,” Sam explained.
“To me, it seems like Taronga Zoo has a lot more species of animals, but maybe that’s not true. It could just be the layout of the map.”
My phone vibrated, the text message from Patrick. I knew that I was on camera, and didn’t want to switch off from the class. The rain must have stopped, because I could finally hear birdsong, once again.
“Now, only Melbourne has a walk-through lemur exhibit, but there is one at Monarto Safari Park as well.”
The class came to an end. I looked at my emails for a bit, before I wandered back towards the dining room, where I found that Reuben was sitting at the table.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were still here.”
“I’ve just been plied with dessert,” Reuben explained, “but I should head off now.”
“Text me when you get home safely.”
“Will do,” he promised as he strode out to his car.
Finally, Reuben departed the Roberts’ farm. I headed back inside the house.
“Thank you for having Reuben over, I do really appreciate it,” I told Mrs Roberts.
“It’s no trouble, honestly. Best we get to bed now.”
With that, we headed off, flicking off the lights. I snuggled up in bed. As cold as it was outside, I felt grateful for warm blankets. Feeling cozy, I quickly nodded off to 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.