This morning I woke up early and had a shower before walking out to the kitchen. I could already hear the kettle being boiled, and smell breakfast being prepared.
“Have you ever heard of pikuash nefesh?”
“No, I haven’t, to be perfectly honest.”
“It’s a Jewish concept. It means that the preservation of human life overrides any commandment.”
Reuben handed me breakfast and tea.
“I’m not going to be around much today.”
“I have a board meeting, then an ethics committee meeting.”
“About Luna’s pregnancy?”
“Tell me something happy.”
“What about them?”
“Well, considering that there are three pregnant elephants--.”
“Two pregnant elephants, if anyone’s asking,” Reuben corrected.
I rolled my eyes, then tipped the rest of my tea into a travel mug.
“All it would take is one press release,” I reminded, “and all our problems would go away.”
“Not all our problems,” Reuben warned.
“Of course,” I replied, then dumped my previous cup into the sink.
I followed Reuben in the direction of the front door.
“It’s more complicated than that, I know.”
Reuben reached the front door. He opened it, so that I could walk out, with him following after me and locking the door behind us.
“Once we have a healthy calf with this pregnancy, then we can announce another one to the public,” Reuben outlined. “I’m sure that they’ll be very happy with that.”
I decided not to run the counter-factual. Outside, it was chilly. Reuben caught up with me when we were almost at the gate.
“The vets are running the blood tests, that’ll tell us when she’s close to going into labour.”
“What time will you find out?” I wanted to know.
“It’s around 10am, usually,” Reuben supplied.
“Morning tea time.”
“Well, we’ll have to make a date of morning tea today to find out,” I replied.
“If we’ve got time.”
“Well, we’ll have to make time.”
“Just remember that we’re receiving a transfer today from Perth Zoo. The two male hyaenas are going to fill the old hunting dog exhibit.”
“Yes, of course, thank you.”
“I can’t promise I’ll be much fun today.”
“That’s alright. I’ll handle things.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to handle anything,” Reuben assured, “but it’ll be good experience for you to see what happens with the transfer. That’ll be you sorting that out soon.”
I nodded my head, only just a little overwhelmed.
“Is there anything you want to know?”
“What time are the hyaenas arriving?”
“Monica will be driving out to the airport. I’d make sure that I find her about nine.”
“That’s for that.”
With our morning coffees in hand, Reuben opened the gate. We both slipped out into the zoo, him heading for the offices to start a difficult day. Initially, I wasn’t sure what my early morning would bring. At least the weather seemed nice enough. I walked through the zoo, down the Main Drive to get to the other side. The rail gate felt eerily deserted, as I would have expected it to at that time of the morning. Therefore, I veered left, just as Melita the Malayan Tapir ambled across her exhibit. I wondered if she’d already been let out for the morning, or whether she’d had access to the paddock overnight. Noticing the rake leaning against the exhibit wall, I glanced towards my watch. I’d have a little bit of time. Therefore, I walked around the back of the exhibit. I used my staff card to get through, making sure to lock the gates again behind me. If I were to prove that I could be a keeper, and actually work as a zookeeper, then I needed to follow proper procedure. I found myself in a small, boxy raceway. I finished my coffee and set my keep-cup on the shelf. When I entered the exhibit, I found that Melita had moved to the back of the exhibit. Watching her out of the corner of my eye, I tried to keep away from her. It seemed like the most beautiful morning, with a pale blue sky above. I grasped the rake to clean the exhibit. As soon as the scraping of the ground began, I heard soft but urgent footsteps, coming across the enclosure. I turned to my right to view Melita stretching out her prehensile nose trunk towards me.
“Hey, girl,” I greeted her with a grin, feeling immediately at ease in her presence.
Being blind, it doesn’t surprise me that Melita would have fantastic hearing. She nudged the rake, which fell from my hand.
“It’s alright, I’m nearly done.”
As I reached for the rake, Melita seemed to get her head in between the prongs and my hand.
“Alright.” I kept my tone calm. “I’ll keep out of your hair.”
I waited, then Melita withdrew. Perhaps this wasn’t the right thing to be doing, when I’m not her familiar keeper. I rested the rake against the fence. Melita padded over, nudging the prongs. I squinted, unsure, wondering if I should just leave. I departed the Malayan Tapir exhibit. On my way out, I made sure to take my keep-cup with me, and lock everything behind me. The first families started walking into the zoo, most heading left. I understood, the carnivore trail would have been alluring to me as a small child, too. The roaring of the lions engaging, the tigers sleek and majestic – just perfect. It wasn’t exactly a warm day. I thought I could smell a faint hint of smoke, but I couldn’t view any. I ran home with my keep cup, so that I wouldn’t lose it. Ducking back into the zoo, I ran into Monica.
“Monica, hi,” I called out to her, still a little breathless.
“Is everything alright?”
“Reuben said that I could come with you to collect the hyaenas from the airport.”
“Alright, good timing, come with me. I was just about to leave.”
I followed Monica out of the zoo grounds, to where the truck was parked. She stepped up to unlock the cabin. Both of us entered through the driver’s door. I found myself thinking about Kakek. As I fastened my seatbelt and we set off, I wondered if he would have been proud of me, what he would have thought about Melbourne Zoo’s plans, because no doubt he would have had some sort of opinion, and a booming laugh to express his joy and contempt alike.
“What made you draw the short straw?” Monica flicked on the blinker. “You know, coming out here with me. I’m sure that you’d love to be back at the zoo all day on baby elephant watch, like the rest of everybody seems to be.”
She pulled out into the overtaking lane.
“I know you’re receiving the dholes from Taronga.”
“And no other carnivores?”
“Yeah, no other carnivores to start with--.”
“They’re a great joy, carnies. I’m sure that, in time, you could build an exhibit for red panda. They would suit the Tasmanian climate, I reckon.”
As I pondered the idea, we arrived at Tullamarine Airport. Once the truck was granted permission to drive onto the tarmac, all we could do was wait. The plane, it turned out, hadn’t arrived yet. I considered asking Monica about her family, if she has a partner, if she’s got kids. You’re not supposed to query those things of a woman. I wouldn’t be offended if she asked me, not that I’d really want to talk about how I’d just broken up with Patrick. My lack of children is kind of obvious.
“The plane’s late.”
She spoke in an ominous tone.
“It should have landed by now, especially with these winds. Flights from Perth would only be held up if the wind was blowing from the opposite direction to this.”
Truth be told I was busting to go to the toilet, so I sure hoped that the plane would hurry up and arrive before too long. I tried to focus on the blue sky. That distracted me from the location of the airport. My eyes finally bulged, at the sight of a jet. We emerged from the truck upon the instruction of the airport workers, ready to shift the hyaenas before the passengers on the flight got a look in. I heard the footsteps clanging down from the plane before I saw him. When the figure emerged, I smiled, given that I recognised him immediately.
“Joel Donovan, Perth Zoo, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” He shook hands with Monica, then looked at me. “Jumilah Fioray, I’d know you anywhere.”
“You two already know each other?”
“Yes,” Joel and I confirmed in the same moment.
“Ah, we met at Adelaide Zoo, the lion move,” he explained.
Monica nodded her head with a smile.
“There you go, small world.”
The hyaenas were loaded onto the back of the truck, allowing the three of us to make haste for Royal Park.
“Jumilah, can you let them know we’re on our way?”
“Yeah, of course,” I agreed, sending a text to Emmie.
When we arrived, I took a moment to find a toilet, once we returned to the zoo. Nobody noticed my disappearance, thankfully. By the time I was back, the crates were off the truck. The hyaenas were moved by forklift into the back-of-house area of their new home. Once they’d been let out to explore, we moved around to the public area again.
“You used to have wild dogs here, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did,” Monica confirmed, her expression sombre. “The last pair were euthanised about a month back.”
“Would you like to go on a mini tour before you head back?”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
We set off from the hyaena exhibit, around the carnivore trail. Joel and I stopped in the snow leopard viewing area. He grinned, in awe at the majestic cats.
“You’re trying to breed these guys again here, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed, not quite sure how much I was allowed to give away.
Joel nodded. I figured if he already knew to ask the question, then it was OK to support his point of view. Joel and I continued around the rest of the loop, the carnivore keeper from Perth bouncing around like he was a little kid, keen to explore. Joel finally paused at the Sumatran Tiger exhibit. He pressed his palms against the top of the metal barrier.
“This is pretty neat here.”
Joel and I completed the carnivore trail. We popped back out onto the Main Drive, where the zoo seemed to be relatively busy, especially with little kids and their grownups. The natural next destination was the African savannah area. Outside the giraffe exhibit, Joel and I crossed paths with Ara.
“Oh, Joel, good to see you again.” They greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. “I take it that you’re here with the hyaenas.”
“Yeah, I am, I fly back to Perth this arvo.”
“Hey, I probably should tell you,” I admitted to Ara, readjusting Kakek’s cross on the chain around my neck. “I was in the tapir exhibit this morning. Melita freaked out a bit when I was trying to rake up. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Was she nudging you or nudging the rake?”
“Did you give her a scratch?”
“No, at least I don’t think so.”
“That’s your problem. Whenever I rake up, I give her a scratch with it. She loves it.”
I felt so much better.
“I’ll try that next time.”
Ara nodded, then bid farewell to the two of us so that she could get back to work.
“I’d like to go and see Melita. The two at Adelaide Zoo--.”
I must have pulled a face, because Joel stopped talking.
“I’ll have to take you.”
Joel smiled. I led him past the savannah and the baboon exhibit. We arrived at the Malayan Tapir exhibit, where Melita was lounging in the shade.
I cleared my throat.
“You know, Isobel was here on Monday.”
Joel nodded, but I sensed that he already knew this, and was trying to act a little bit coy, a blush in his cheeks betraying him.
“You know, it would have been nice if we could have lined that up,” he mentioned. “Never mind.”
The two of us finally headed back. My mind swirled with thoughts about Isobel and Joel, but I didn’t say anything.
“You know, I don’t get to see her very often. I suppose that’s just the way it goes for now.”
We returned to the Main Drive.
“Alright, where would you like to go next?”
Faintly I could hear a swishing of water.
“Let’s go to the eles, if you don’t mind. We can pop in with the tigers on the way there, potentially.”
I led Joel into Trail of the Elephants. We headed down the southern path. In the shade of the canopy, I whiffed an unpleasant smell. Nonetheless, that’s what you’d expect in a zoo. Joel beamed as we stepped onto the bridge outside the tiger exhibit.
“This is magic.”
Hutan padded across the leaf litter.
“You know, we’ve just got the one tiger now. Once he’s gone, that’s when we’ll redevelop the area.”
I’d heard a thing or two about Perth Zoo’s redevelopment plans already. Joel scratched the back of his head with his stubbed fingernails.
“Alright, let’s go through to the eles, if that’s alright,” he requested. “I don’t have much time left.”
“That’s fine. Follow me.”
Joel and I walked down the path, skipping the famous Butterfly House. I led him through into the clearing, where the public could view the elephant complex. Joel and I paused in front of the elephant exhibit. We were still within the public area, but we could see into the barn from where we were standing. Some of the cows had gone back inside, including Chaba, the elephant closest to giving birth.
“You know, every time I think of an elephant being born--.”
Joel flicked away a fly from in front of his face. I said nothing, not knowing what I should have said. Joel stuffed his hands into his pocket.
“It’ll be fine, though,” he assured, stubbing his toe on the ground.
“I hope so.”
“Pertama, she’s a fighter, she’s such a great little elephant, especially when you think of what she’s been through. We’re very lucky to have her.”
We continued on from the elephant exhibit.
“Well, I’d better make tracks. It’s been nice to see you again.”
“Same to you,” I replied.
After Joel left the zoo, I tracked down Monica, so we could join the carnivore TAG meeting together from the office.
“Today, we’ll be having a tiger review.”
“I might get the chance to report this later, but on the topic, we will be receiving a male from Wellington on Monday,” Tessa reported.
“And everything is on track for Stephen’s transfer,” Christine confirmed.
“Well, thank you for that.”
“Are we just focusing on the Sumatran program today?” Dawson wanted to know.
“At the end of the day, it would be best if we all bred Sumatrans. They are a critically endangered species.”
“Mate,” Dawson tried to reason, “you know we can’t do that. Not without more breeding recommendations.”
He sounded sincere, but I figured it would be all on for young and old now.
“Perhaps we could consider more Sumatran recommendations,” Monica suggested.
“Now, we wouldn’t want to be giving anyone special treatment--.”
“It’s not special treatment,” Dawson reasoned. “We’re going to be breeding either way. If you’re desperate that we don’t breed Bengals, you’re going to have to put your money where your mouth is.”
Even though I felt like it was an ultimatum, I could see his point.
“And now, the tiger program is competing with some people frolicking into Sri Lankan Leopards.”
“Sri Lankan Leopards are not a frolic.”
The meeting came to a pause, in response to the forcefulness of Raffa’s tone. I’d heard that he could be hotheaded before, but never actually seen it for myself. I swallowed, feeling a little awkward.
“Now, there’s one other topic I’d like to raise, about fishing cats,” Sam finally spoke up. “There’s going to be an import of one male from San Diego to Coolangatta Zoo.”
“Well, surfer dude’s moving on up, isn’t he?” Fraser remarked.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Bill grumbled.
“I was just pulling your leg,” Fraser assured. “What, do you actually have a problem with it?”
Bill rolled his lips.
“I have a problem with new institutions throwing their weight around.”
Within my chest, my heart thumped. This wasn’t a personal rejection. Bill was talking about Coolangatta Zoo, not me.
“Let’s move onto the member reports now, shall we?”
He slurped some coffee.
“I’ve been in conversation with Jeffersonian Zoo in the United States in regards to importing a potential breeding pair of clouded leopards.”
“Righto,” Bill remarked.
“They have a fabulous rearing program over there. The cubs are parent-raised, but alongside another litter, allowing the babies to be socialised with their mates without hand-rearing them. We want to import two pairs, and then one of those pairs could go onto somewhere else in the region, after quarantining in Adelaide.”
“We received two male hyaenas, with thanks to Perth, today. They’ll be in our former African Wild Dog exhibit.”
“We’ve performed a root canal on our male lion. Thankfully, the procedure went well.”
The meeting came to an end and I returned to Reuben’s cottage. He was staring at the television, beer in hand.
“There’s more beer in the fridge,” was all that he said to greet me.
I fetched a beer for both of us, then came and sat down, handing over one to Reuben.
“Do you think that Mum picked Dad and not you because she likes quiet and not sarcastic?”
“Oh, only every other day.”
Reuben sipped his beer. His phone vibrated, startling us both.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“It’s action stations,” Reuben confirmed. “Chaba’s in active labour. Let’s go.”
We rushed out the door of the cottage, not even remembering to lock it behind us. On the way to the barn, Reuben called the vet and keeper teams. Meredith arrived, sheathing her hands in gloves as she headed straight through, so that she could make observations. Bodies seemed to move around to give themselves importance, keepers pacing with nerves as well as those actually working. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Therefore, I found myself somewhere to sit. My pulse throbbed within my ears, so I closed my eyes for a moment. All I could hear were the rushing sounds of the zoo. Once I pulled myself together, my glance flicked around the room. I noticed the screens, playing CCTV footage from inside the elephant barn itself. Ella handed me a plate – two soft-shell tacos with some sort of orange, chunky dip spread over the tortillas. Atop them was an arrangement of shredded lettuce, chopped-up falafel and hash brown, drizzled with mayonnaise.
“Oh, I love you,” I gushed.
“You’re welcome,” Ella replied. “They’ve put the primate team on catering duty. It gives us something to do, lets us be part of the action.”
“Well, we are grateful.”
Meredith returned from the stalls.
“Chaba’s passed her mucus plug. The labour’s progressing well. I’m quietly optimistic for the birth soon.”
“What do we do now?”
“We wait,” Reuben answered, with a hint of an exhausted grumble, “and hope and pray that the baby comes overnight, and as safely as possible for both of them.”
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.