When I arrived at breakfast for the final time this morning, Robin was already in the dining room, sitting halfway along the side of one of the long tables, crunching an apple. I joined her, although not right opposite. We greeted one another, then the others arrived before we could chat.
“Have you given yourself a tattoo, Jumilah?” Tessa wanted to know.
I glanced at a pen mark on my thumb.
“That was unintentional.”
We fetched ourselves some food.
“I’ve got a number of tattoos,” Tessa mentioned over breakfast, “but just little ones.”
“Right,” I responded, even though I’d spotted a couple already.
“I have a little kiwi on my shoulder blade.”
Tessa pulled back her shirt to show me.
“I’ve got another one on my side.”
She hitched up her shirt to expose a tattoo on the side of her ribcage, just beneath a slither of her bra which inadvertedly showed.
“That says eshet Chayil, which means ‘woman of valour’.”
“Yeah, it’s a biblical expression.”
I’d not known previously she was a person of faith. Tessa dropped the fabric in her right hand. She inched the chair out, her sandals appropriate footwear to display her tattoo.
“Kirana and Kembali were the first Sumatran Tiger cubs born at Hamilton Zoo. I got that one after we named them.”
“My uncle’s partner’s name is Kembali,” I noted. “Well, he goes by Kem for short.”
Tessa grinned. She shifted the strap on her sandal.
“And then these are the coordinates of Hamilton Zoo.” Tessa pointed to the tattoo just below her ankle. “That one hurt the most, I’d say. The foot ones and the side ones, because they’re close to the bone, they’re always the most painful.”
She released the elastic, then crossed her legs.
“And then on this foot, I have a tiger.”
It seemed like it might have been an older tattoo, the orange and black outlines not as sharply defined.
“And then you’ve probably seen this one before,” Tessa mentioned, gesturing at her wrist.
“Yeah, I have.” I leaned in a bit. “What does it actually say?”
“It says Malika, which is the name of the first cheetah I worked with at Hamilton.”
Tessa showed me the tattoo.
“It also means ‘like a queen’, and I really like that. I suppose it’s sort of a mantra as well.”
Tessa spun around to straddle the chair, lifting up her shirt on the other side.
“On this side, that’s the year that my great-grandmother was born,” she pointed out.
The tattoo read 1916. It occurred to me that it’s the same year Taronga Zoo opened. I only thought of that considering it’s recorded on the entrance building, and mentioned on signs around the place outlining the history of the zoo, and some of its oldest structures like the Moore Park Aviary. Tessa dropped her shirt once more.
“Oh, and I’ve got a Leo tat on my finger.”
She displayed the side of her middle finger, and the thin black lines of the symbol.
“You’re really on-brand, aren’t you?” I quipped, and Tessa chuckled.
“Yeah, fair call. I’m a Leo and I’m a carnivore keeper, it’s a bit chicken/egg, really.”
Tessa stretched out her elastic-waist pants. In Courier New, the tattoo read, over two lines, ‘I’ve got this music in my mind saying it’s going to be alright.’
“I would not have tipped you as a Shake it Off girlie.”
“2014 Tessa thought that was deeply superior and, honestly, I don’t disagree with her now.”
She let go of her waistband, letting it snap back against her skin.
“So that’s my tattoo collection.”
“Have you ever thought about getting a tattoo?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “Like, it’s not like I’m worried about the pain.”
“Would your parents not love it?”
“Well, I think my Nonna and Nonno are the typical grandparents who think it’s a bit wild.”
I chuckled. Sam arrived, approaching us.
“Hi, Sam,” Tessa greeted him over her shoulder.
“Hello, Tessa. Have you got a quick minute?”
“I do. Do we need to speak in private?”
“No, not necessarily,” Sam assured. “Tessa, what would you think about hosting next year’s conference at Hamilton Zoo?”
Her eyebrows raised a little instinctively.
“Look, have a think about it. We don’t need an answer straight away.”
“Yeah, thanks Sam.”
He withdrew to fetch himself some breakfast. Hunter came to sit down, although he seemed a little preoccupied with something on his laptop, crumbs dropping into his keyboard as he chewed.
“You look like a man at work,” Gerard remarked as he sat down one chair away from him, then chowed into a slice of honey toast.
“Yeah, I am, I suppose.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Gerard offered.
Hunter slid his laptop across.
“I’m designing a baboon exhibit, potentially for Chacmas.”
“Chacma Baboons have become very rare in captivity,” Gerard mentioned.
“Mate, I’m the last one to want to tell you that you’ve gotta do things a certain way.”
“And I’m not going to either,” I chimed in.
Still, I thought it would be easier for Hunter to go for Hamadryas Baboons, if he wanted the species. I would have thought that there were other priorities, but I knew that the zoo had been criticised for having a lack of primates on display. Des walked into the dining room, on his phone, which was rare for him.
“Good morning, mate,” Frank greeted him. “How are you?”
He sat down.
“Another Chapman’s stallion has safely arrived at Werribee early this morning,” Des reported.
“That’s really good news,” I gushed, grinning.
I thought of Whitlam and Zola who would have been unloading him into quarantine, and would care for him upon his integration onto the savannah. Following breakfast, we migrated through into the function centre. Hunter and I looked at each other across the room. We approached one another. As I sat down and crossed my legs, chapter three of the book of Ecclesiastes came to mind unexpectedly – to all things there is a season. Maybe there would be a season for infatuation, and a season to say goodbye. There was a bit of lethargy hanging over the group. I parted my lips for a moment to say something to Hunter, but before I had the chance, Gilham was up the front to give an Acknowledgment of Country. Sam was speaking next, before we were given the chance to chat amongst ourselves about what we’d learned, and Raffa asked what I was looking forward to.
“Well, obviously, we’re looking to be open by next year. That will be exciting.”
“Do you have a date for that?”
“Oh, the twenty-sixth of December.”
“Right, sorry. I must have missed that that you’ve got an opening date.”
During morning tea, I glanced down from the balcony into the Red Kangaroo yard. I would have liked to visit the long-beaked echidna one last time, but I didn’t know if I’d have time. Seeing the Tasmanian Devil exhibit from a distance, I thought of home. I’d never seen wild devils, despite having grown up in Tasmania. I glanced at my watch. There could be a moment of stolen time. Not telling anyone where I was going, I headed down from the function centre. Scampering through the zoo, I wasn’t alone, because it was open for the day. There were school children in their green and white uniforms, holding hands as they were shown around, gazing with wonder at the animals. I checked my watch and figured that I would be able to walk through Backyard to Bush, starting off at the house. I paused for a moment in front of the stick insect tank. Watching them mesmerised me and I leaned against the cool glass wall. Reptiles were housed within other spaces nearby, but these invertebrates held my heart. Eventually, though, I exited the house and walked quickly through the garden. The next session had commenced by the time I returned. As import risk assessments were brought into law, new decisions needed to be made. It was fascinating to learn about the history. The concept of an import risk assessment was only about twenty years old.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be breeding these species for as long as we can. It’s easier than contracepting them.”
I was a little surprised by that idea, even though I didn’t question it instantly, not quite having the right words.
“We would appreciate another giraffe at some stage,” Peter mentioned. “Three would be an ideal number.”
“Were you thinking about a cow?”
“My understanding would be that a bull would be easier to introduce.”
The conversation spilled over in the queue for lunch, which – given it’s the final day of the conference – seemed to be leftovers from breakfast. Peter and Jimmy shook hands, confirming the transfer. The two men had a fair bit in common, considering the unfortunate ways in which they both came into their roles. I was quite happy having Vegemite toast for lunch, the taste complimenting the salty smell of the harbour. Plate in hand, I wandered out onto the balcony. I ate my food. Following lunch, we were going to be reflecting on the week. There would also be the opportunity to ponder the year ahead. I glanced around the room, wondering who would speak first.
“Jumilah,” Blessing spoke up. “Would you like to offer a reflection first? I know that this was your first time joining us.”
“Yeah, for sure, I’d love that.” I smiled modestly. “Believe it or not, I accept I don’t know everything.”
“We want to hear what you have to say.”
“I do think that we’ve made progress.”
“What do you think we still need to work on?”
“The white rhino program before the Rhino Project import arrive in New Zealand next year.”
Des’ answer didn’t pertain to what would be happening within my zoo world.
“Whether or not we’re going to import purebred giraffes once the IRA is processed.”
“I thought that was already settled,” Blessing spoke up. “We will import purebreds.”
“As in Monarto will import purebreds?” Christine checked.
“If feasible, then of course we would do that.”
This was an exciting development.
“Are there any other topics we walk to talk about before we finish?”
“I think it would be helpful to ensure that membership is easier to achieve,” Frank outlined, “and that new members feel comfortable coming along to conferences and meetings.”
“I agree that’s a good plan,” I spoke up. “For me, I really wanted to come, and I was fortunate that I was able to.”
I shook my head.
“But I know that won’t be the case for everyone.”
I thought about Steve, only a hop, skip and a jump down the road.
“That’s a good point Jumilah raises,” Raffa supported me. “Perhaps we need to look into how we support one another, especially for new facilities just starting out.”
We shared a smile across the room. I was pleased that the others were in favour, although how the support would be enacted in practice was yet to be determined.
“That’s something we still do need to sort out.”
“Well, we’ll see each other on Zoom.”
“There’s one more thing that I want to show you all before you leave us.”
Sam led us all up the hill to the top of the zoo.
“You’ll need to change your shoes into these gumboots,” he noted.
One by one, we swapped over. Suddenly, it dawned on me of what we were going to do. I could hear the swishing of water. We followed Sam into an area which looked like nothing special. There were open-topped tanks filled with water.
“This is where we are saving a species.”
My eyes bulged at the sight of a turtle. I felt the weight of spending time in proximity to this precious creature, belonging to a near-extinct species. Taronga’s scientists and keepers were maintaining their existence.
“This is Eight,” Sam introduced. “She’s one of our most prolific breeding females.”
“You don’t give them names?”
Reuben shot me a look.
“No, I’m sorry,” Sam apologised with a smile. “Maybe you could give us some suggestions. For the meantime, it works to number them.”
As we departed, switching the quarantine gumboots for our regular shoes once again, it started to rain. We quickened our pace back to the function centre.
“Well, that was wonderful,” I praised, running a hand through my damp hair. “Thank you, Sam.”
“You’re most welcome.”
Under a pale blue sky, we returned to Sydney Airport. After entering the terminal and bidding farewell to the others, I walked down the carpeted corridor. My flight to Hobart would be mine alone, having secured direct passage. Reuben would travel to Melbourne and David to Launceston, on different planes. As I boarded the plane, I felt a little queasy. If they offered a free snack during the flight I’d take it, even though eating it might have been ill-advised. I located my seat and stashed my bag in the overhead locker, then dumped myself into the window seat. To spend some nervous energy, I found myself twisting my hair around my finger. Sitting on the tarmac, I glanced out at the pale blue sky. Sydney seemed to be so bright and so pastel at the same time. I thought about Tessa on the plane home. She’s essentially running the zoo in John’s absence, first due to illness and then the amputation of his leg, but hopefully he’ll be able to get back to work. It wasn’t long before we started moving. The plane raced down the runway. My mind was filled with everything which had transpired during my time in Sydney. I thought that I might have gotten a bit of a sleep during the two hours on the plane, but I was so ready to be home that the adrenaline kept me going. Finally, we touched down in Hobart. I couldn’t wait to get off the plane. Undoing my seatbelt, I fetched my bag. I slipped out from my seat and made my way down the aisle. I burst out of the cabin. Clanging down the steps, I raced across the tarmac and into the terminal. My expression bloomed into a grin as I spotted my family. I was grateful for the warmth of my parents’ embraces. On the drive back, I wound down the window. Despite being November, I felt the icy wind against my face. Driving at eighty kilometres an hour helped with that. Soon enough we would be back through Sorell, up north off the roundabout to get home to our brand-new zoo. I noticed that the porch light was on, illuminating above the fence. Perhaps the wind had set off the sensor. As soon as we parked the car, I stepped out. Patrick was resting his palms on the railing. My heart started to beat faster, just like it had when I’d been sitting on the rock, looking out over the glittering Sydney skyline.
Mum and Dad entered the house with my bags, leaving Patrick and I alone out the front.
“Hey,” he echoed. “I, um, how was Sydney?”
“Yeah, it was good,” I answered, heart thumping. “Not as good as here, though.”
“I should have brought some flowers or something?”
“What for?” I laughed, but I felt faint. “I only went to Sydney, and only for a week.”
Despite the breeze on the surface of my skin, my cheeks felt hot. I swallowed, trying to find the next words to say.
“Well, you know, I’ll get back there, but it’s not like the mainland is anything special.”
“You don’t have to say that.”
I prevented tension from developing by letting out a chuckle. Hearing a rumble, it could have been thunder.
“You know that I have a soft spot for jaguars,” Patrick mentioned, “but what you don’t know is that I also have a soft spot for cheetahs and leopards.”
“I really could have guessed that,” I admitted with a laugh.
I loosely folded my arms.
“What else has been happening?”
“Well, I’ve been playing a bit more soccer, just kicking the ball around in the park.
“You know it’s called football,” I pointed out, the Italian within me flaring.
“Well, I feel like if you call it football, you act like you know something. I played it when I was a little kid, but it’s not like I know stuff. Every four years I jump on the bandwagon, or, like, if Sam Kerr’s playing in something. Other than that, I don’t really know.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
There was only so much I could take in from my parents.
“I’ve been thinking about joining a team up in Launnie, you know, when I move.”
I felt my heart drop, from floating dreamily in my chest to the hollow pits of my stomach. I’d allowed myself to dream again. I thought that I was about to pass out as I leaned forward, eyes closed. Patrick’s chest caught my weight and we kissed, our limbs instinctively entwining around each other’s bodies. When our mouths parted, I finally opened my eyes again.
“My goodness.” I pressed some hair back from my face. “I’ve been waiting for that.”
I felt like I couldn’t move.
“The macaques are arriving on Thursday. David’s driving down with them from Launceston. Sam’s flying in with the tarsiers that morning.”
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think that you were going to say that.”
“What did you think I was going to say?”
Patrick shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know.”
He chuckled again. I pressed my shoulder blades into his forearm.
“Actually, that’s exactly what you would have said.”
“Is this a thing, now?”
Patrick pursed his lips. My heart thumped. Maybe I’d assumed and said the wrong thing. A kiss can be just a kiss at eighteen. We both had too much on our plates. That’s why we’d broken up in the first place, because I needed to jump off the carousel.
“Would you like it to be?”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a smile. “I would. If that’s alright with you.”
Patrick answered my question with a kiss.
“Well, I’d better head off.”
Patrick cupped my head in his palm and kissed me again, then departed with his mouth curved into a grin. I ambled forward, leaning on the front railing around the porch to steady myself, while Patrick slipped into the car and drove away down the road. I prayed for his safety. I headed into the house, feeling like I really wanted a drink. As I walked through into the loungeroom, I couldn’t control myself.
“Patrick and I are back together!”
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.