I was tying my thin white shoelace. After completing the double knot, Reuben scurried through the house behind me.
“Are you ready?” he wanted to know.
“Yes,” I confirmed, standing up on the front step so that we could get on with the day.
We went out and fed the animals, which has become routine.
“Right,” Reuben remarked, when we found each other again. “Let’s go back to the house.”
I followed him back, having thought he’d had a phone call while attending to the dholes. Sweat was already trickling down my back, so I didn’t mind that much.
“Good morning,” Reuben greeted, as we walked back through the door. “Let’s gather around, I’ve got some news.”
He shut the door, and we scurried into place.
“As you’d know, I’m currently on a committee for the primate TAG to discuss whether the ZAA will improve the importation.”
“Your deadline isn’t until next week, isn’t it?” Nanek checked.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Reuben confirmed, “and part of the process involves investigating whether these animals can be safely placed elsewhere.”
This must have been what the news was, I thought. Reuben must have found somewhere else for the animals.
“So, today, I am going to be making some calls to investigate that possibility,” he outlined, meaning that it would be staved off for at least another day, “so I don’t want you to be alarmed, but if it means that the animals are safe--.”
“I do have one idea,” Nanek suggested. “We have zoos in Indonesia, in the cities.”
Reuben nodded his head.
“Well, I would certainly appreciate your assistance, through your contacts. As much as we’ve all been talking about Australia, that is more straightforward option.”
“What would you like me to do?”
“Well, you’ve just finished your exams, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, last year,” I confirmed.
“Well, you could help me with some proofreading and editing, if you want.”
“I thought I’d left that all behind.”
The look on my face, nonetheless, expressed my willingness. Nanek went off into another room, so that she could make calls.
“I’m going into our database, to determine the best genetic matches internationally for these animals in breeding programs.”
I was captivated by the software. Maybe this side of things would be up my alley after all. My dark eyes swam in the numbers.
“All but the macaques are wild-born, which makes them extremely genetically valuable for breeding programs.”
“So essentially they could breed with any other animals?”
“Yes, they could, and there are various theories of the best way to go about introducing such genes into the population. If you breed these animals with animals which are well-represented genetically, then you provide mates for those animals to whom they aren’t related--.”
“And that prevents inbreeding.”
“But the problem with that is that their offspring are related to the rest of the population anyway.”
“Yes, that is the issue,” Reuben confirmed. “The ideal would be to breed half-and-half.”
“Is that an official industry term?”
“Not exactly. I made it up five seconds ago.”
The joke didn’t exactly land, but I laughed to be polite.
“Say you’ve got two genetically valuable tigers and two well-represented tigers.”
“You can’t breed the two well-represented tigers to each other without inbreeding. Now, that’s a simplistic way of looking at it, but go with me for the hypothetical. The straightforward answer is to breed the genetically valuable animals to the well-represented animals.”
“As we said before.”
“Yes. Those offspring should be genetically healthy. It means that the genetic diversity of the population is being maintained.”
“But then all those offspring are related to each other.”
“Yes, that’s the snag. So, for the second breeding, you would breed the two genetically valuable offspring to each other. That way, those offspring would be unrelated to the central bloodline. We have these discussions about tigers all the time, because we have a main bloodline in our region, in Australia and New Zealand, but we’re able to import unrelated animals from overseas.”
My lips curved into a smile.
“That’s easier to do with tigers. Sure, the introductions often take a long while, but they’re solitary animals.”
I sensed that there would be an issue when discussing primates.
“We’ve talked before about how siamangs mate for life, for instance. We want to replicate these natural behaviours. That means that we need to be more careful about the pairings that we make.”
“Would you separate a pair, if you had to?”
“Well, it depends on your definition of that. Of course, we do, on some occasions.”
“How would you justify it?”
My question wasn’t accusatory.
“Sometimes if an animal is highly genetically valuable, we have to, but we don’t always. Often we’ll prioritise the social needs of the animal.”
“I think that’s a good thing.”
At least, it sounded like a good thing.
“Broadly, it is,” Reuben agreed. “It is for the animals involved, because that’s better for their wellbeing, and prevents the situation where one of the pair is left without a mate or a partner.”
The unspoken ‘but’, was the downside for the genetic diversity of the species.
“I’ll run the sums, then I’ll made some calls.”
I stayed and watched while Reuben worked.
“Will you be going through this with all of the species?” I wanted to know.
“Yes, I will be, but the siamangs are the only ones likely to be placed in Australia.”
I suspected that, given that the other species aren’t already represented in the region.
“Although the western tarsiers, that’s a tricky one because of the lack of programs internationally,” Reuben outlined. “I’m hoping Jelita’s contacts will come in handy.”
“To return them to Indonesia?”
“Yes, that would be best.”
Reuben flicked between the animal pairing software, a Word document and his emails. Surely there were plenty of details I shouldn’t have been seeing. My brain struggled to take it all in. Reuben didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ll contribute what I can to this report, then Sam will review it and Christine will make recommendations. Of course, if we find alternate homes for the animals overseas in the meantime, we won’t need to worry about that.”
Nanek returned to the main room. I studied her expression, but she seemed to be giving nothing away.
“Do you have any news for me?” Reuben wanted to know.
Nanek took a seat.
“I’ve tried every sanctuary, every zoo I know. I never asked them to sell the animals, I wouldn’t do that, I don’t need that. At the moment there isn’t the place for them, they can’t take them on. Either they breed or there are more animals to rescue which can’t be released.”
I could see their point. No wonder animals die. This meant Australia or bust.
“Well, thanks for trying. I’ve been running the genetics through the software to target some candidates overseas--.”
“Not in Australia?” Nanek interjected.
“Only the siamangs would be able to join a breeding program in Australia. I’m sure we’ll find a home for them, but the others--.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t agree to my animals being sent across the world,” Nanek rejected. “Australia is far enough away. Catherine and Adriano and Jumilah will take them.”
“That would take years.”
“Would it make it easier to house the animals in Australian zoos if it was only temporary?”
“No, I’m sorry, Jumilah, it’s about importation. Most of the species are CITES I species, which means that they can only be imported for breeding purposes.”
“I don’t buy that, I mean, I know the reason for it, but I don’t buy that. Animals get imported for display purposes.”
“They do, but it’s more complicated than that.”
I didn’t exactly appreciate Reuben’s tone, which was starting to border on dismissive.
“Look, I’ll leave you to it. I appreciate that you’re trying to sort this out.”
“You’re welcome to stay and learn, because this is information that you’ll need if you’re working with a zoo in the future.”
Reuben has his lofty ideas, and I have mine, but they clash.
“Do you have anything that you’d like me to do?” I asked Nanek.
“Not for now,” she answered. “You can stay here and see what Reuben is doing. I will go for a walk.”
My voice fell flat. Thankfully Mum went with her. The door clicked shut behind them.
“Sorry, am I being mean?” Reuben asked.
“No,” I assured him, even though I know that he didn’t buy it. “Look, it must be hard--.”
“I know that.”
Reuben clicked his pen.
“I can’t imagine it. Jelita’s lost her husband, and she’s lost her livelihood and her passion, and she’s potentially losing her home. I know that you’re seventeen and you think that you’re invincible--.”
“I’ve never said that.”
“I’m serious, Jumilah, you’ve been through a trauma, you need support.”
“I need for these animals to be alright, for Nanek’s sake, to honour Kakek’s legacy.”
“You’re just like your mother. Don’t change the subject.”
Reuben sighed. They’d known each other back in the day.
“I appreciate your concern. When I get back to Hobart, I’ll look into it.”
“You should. There’s no shame in it. It’s quite helpful, to process how you’re feeling.”
Reuben sounded like he spoke from experience.
“Anyway, let’s work through this.”
Now he was the one changing the subject, but I didn’t call him out on it. Reuben structured the page, dividing it into sections with heading for each of the species.
“We’ll start with the siamangs, that’s a simple one,” Reuben noted. “Well, a relatively simple one.”
“Because you’re recommending you apply to import them into Australia?”
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed. “I do value what Jelita wants, I promise I do. Your grandmother is an idealist, your mother is an idealist, I’m sure that you’re an idealist. I’m sorry to say that the real world doesn’t work that way ninety-nine per cent of the time, but I know that you know that.”
“I do know that,” I assured him.
“There’s been a male bias in relation to recent siamang births. Now, new holders need to be willing to take on a pair of brothers before they get breeding animals, so breeding animals, and especially females, are valuable.”
Reuben slowed his speech, to give himself time to type what he was saying.
“Adelaide Zoo is currently not a breeding institution, as breeding privileges have been shared.”
“You know, I can take notes,” I offered, “if that makes things easier.”
“Well, you can,” Reuben allowed.
He shifted the laptop over so that it was in front of me.
“Currently, the zoo holds two older males, a father and son, neither of which are currently recommended for breeding. Don’t type this--.”
I withdrew my hands.
“Don loves his Asian rainforest, thinks that it’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
I let out a laugh.
“He would love breeding siamangs, so if I flatter his ego that’ll get him over the line, but it’ll tick off Bill.”
I smiled wryly, having been in that position before, particularly at work.
“So which one would you choose?”
“Oh, definitely Don, I would choose to annoy Bill any day of the week.”
“Well, that settles things.”
We got back to work, Reuben talking and me typing.
The siamangs will be imported as a breeding pair for Adelaide Zoo, to fill their exhibit which will become vacant upon the export of young white-cheeked gibbons. At the back of my mind I thought that, if we did open our own sanctuary or zoo, the offspring of Medan and Georgia could one day come our way, for our own opportunity at a breeding pair. It’s nice to dream, sometimes, even if it’s nothing more than a distraction. My fingers danced across the keyboard, creating the report.
“You make a good secretary,” Reuben remarked.
I cocked an eyebrow in his direction. Truth be told, I enjoyed it. I love working with the animals, although this theory side of things is intriguing. School wasn’t that fantastic, but this is alright. It’s like creating a jigsaw, The Bachelor meets David Attenborough, with the feeble hope of saving a species.
“I’m sorry,” Reuben eventually apologised.
“It’s fine. I’m enjoying this.”
Reuben crossed his legs, then uncrossed them again.
“Would you consider coming to Melbourne to work with me?”
“Don’t test the friendship.”
“Right. Well, I think that we’ve done all that we can about the siamangs. Give me a look, please.”
I shifted the laptop.
“We can’t improve this, let’s move on. Remind me about the slow lorises?”
I pulled the chair in further underneath the table, so that I could sit up straighter.
“Four Sunda Slow Lorises, two males and two females.”
“Wait, you type this. I trust you. I’ll think.”
I nodded and Reuben passed back over the laptop. While I typed, I could hear footsteps approaching.
“Is that Mum and Nanek?” I checked, as my heart started to beat faster.
The front door opened.
They entered, a little sweaty from their walk. I offered a smile in greeting, which I hoped didn’t look like a plea. They needed their space, I knew that.
“How was your walk?”
“Nice,” Nanek answered.
“Hot,” Mum supplied. “What have you been up to?”
They entered the kitchen, to fetch glasses of water for them both.
“We have been going through Reuben’s report for the TAG.”
“I’ll be recommending the importation of the siamangs to Australia. And I’m going to send out an email to all the institutions to work on importing the other animals.”
“Right,” Mum replied.
Reuben seemed repentant.
“I can’t make any promises, of course, but I will do my best to honour your wishes, Jelita.”
He seemed almost like a different man, which made me a little suspicious, even though I had to trust him. Nanek took a sip of water, then nodded her head.
“I trust that you will do the right thing by the animals, and by conservation, and that’s what matters to me.”
Nanek and Mum came and sat down opposite us. This truce calmed my heartrate somewhat, because I don’t want there to be animosity.
“So tell me,” Nanek requested, “what are you planning to recommend?”
Her question seemed to hang in the air. I passed Reuben’s laptop back over to him.
“The siamang pair can be imported to Australia, they’re a program species of breeding age.”
I thought that I heard Nanek let out a sigh of relief, although I think that Mum was still mostly holding her breath. It’s no certainty. Nothing is a certainty, which is maybe the only constant. So I’m learning, at least, in the hardest way.
“We will need to apply for import permits, but that’s how a particularly long or arduous process when it comes to primate species we already have in the region.”
“When can you make the application?”
“Well, I can call Don.”
Reuben closed his laptop and shifted it out of the way. I appreciate the diplomacy which he shows with Nanek, and with me and Mum, because there’s kindness underneath the gruffness. Dad emerged from another room. He seemed distant to these conversations, but I don’t know why, and I haven’t asked.
“Don is from Adelaide Zoo. Now, I do need to ask you about finances--.”
“Adelaide?” Nanek interjected.
A plan is in place, even if it’s a tentative one. We’re beginning to lose our purpose here, which means that a semblance of normality is being restored. That’s when the thud comes.
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.