I awoke early this morning. The smoke in the air made my stomach feel a little uneasy, but there was work to be done. I know that this isn’t the first time that there has been a fire nearby, yet its sudden presence so close after rain caught me off-guard. My job is to help out and mostly keep my head down, because everyone else will be hurting much more than me. I was only a child, upon my last personal experience of bushfire. Nikki collected me on her way into the sanctuary.
“A burn-off near Ballarat got out of hand. Ballarat Wildlife Park is closest, but we’re well out of harm’s way, so injured wildlife are coming to us.”
I wasn’t going to worry about going back to grab a bite to eat. After all, there was much more work to do. Still, when Nikki passed me, she urged me to come back for a sandwich. We stuffed our faces before finally getting the chance to chat.
“How are they getting on at Ballarat?”
“They’re going to evacuate the animals they can, they’re coming to us.”
“So, what are we going to do?”
My lips were dry, heart thumping within my chest, but I trusted Nikki.
“We’re going to prepare for them. The fire could impact from the south-east, so they’re evacuating from that direction. We’ll be receiving quokkas, which will go back-of-house at our exhibit.”
“Will we need feed and kitting out?”
“Yes, please,” Nikki confirmed. “Derek will meet you up there.”
“Roger,” I agreed, departing the wildlife hospital.
I made my way to the quokka exhibit, where, sure enough, Derek was lugging stores of feed and straw bedding.
“Putting you to work, I see,” I remarked.
He offered a smile, but I joined in the efforts. The sanctuary was still open for visitors, who wore slightly alarmed expressions on their faces at the commotion. With a scent of burning in the air, I tried not to think about those fleeing. I didn’t trust that I would be able to keep myself together. Hopefully later in the day, I would get the chance to call home. By the time that I returned to the wildlife hospital, animals from the wild were starting to arrive.
“One male and one female eastern grey kangaroo, and joey, brought in. The joey’s fine, but we can’t release her without the adults.”
And, of course, not until there was somewhere safe for them to go, away from fires. I moved through into their holding area. The eastern grey kangaroo joey bounced between her mother and her father, instincts tuning. These wild kangaroos would not have been used to such confinement, yet we had no choice, at least temporarily until the flames passed. I remained by the door, partially to serve as a physical barrier. In addition, I needed to keep in mind that these were wild kangaroos, rather than their counterparts in human care. We were hoping we would be able to avoid sedating them, which would make their release back into the wild more complicated. Furthermore, while the male seemed calm enough, I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Therefore, I carefully closed the door.
“Were you just in with the grey kangaroos, the wild ones?” Derek checked as I emerged down the hallway.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes. Just try to limit your exposure to them. We want them to stay wild until they can be re-released.”
“Oh, sorry,” I apologised. “Of course.”
Heading outside, I listened to a rumble of thunder and could smell rain in the air. Lightning flashed, in the same vicinity as the fire. Day and night seemed to blend into each other, as I joined Nikki for a quick coffee.
“There were fires near us, when I was a kid,” I recalled. “We evacuated to a friend’s place. It was fine in the end, the wind changed. I think that I thought that it was a big adventure, but I’d look at things a bit differently now.”
When a patient came in, we sprung back to work. I could tell there was something wrong. Instead of speaking, I followed Nikki’s directions. She intubated the kangaroo and ensured there was a steady flow of oxygen while burns were treated and the animal was stabilised. Nikki and I were able to move the kangaroo into another area to rest and, hopefully, recover. Given my experience at Melbourne Zoo, I was able to help out the keepers, some of which couldn’t return to their own homes due to the road closures. I burrowed my hands into my pockets, feeling grateful for every last patch of my rain jacket. Even though I flipped my hood over my hair, I turned my face to the sky.
“Another truck’s coming from Ballarat, can you come and give us a hand, please?”
“Yes, of course.”
I followed Nikki to where the vehicle was pulling up, containing the quokkas. A keeper from Ballarat strode down in the pouring rain.
“You’re going to think that I tell fibs.”
“It’s good to see you, anyway.”
We unpacked the quokkas from the truck and got them settled in the back-of-house area. Mother and baby tucked into the lilly pilly flowers. I’d lost track by the time Nikki swung by to take me home late at night. The windscreen wipers swished back and forth. Rain, although violent, provided abundant comfort. We arrived back at the Roberts’ family farm and I thanked Nikki for the lift once again. I scurried into the house, where I found Mrs Roberts wiping down the kitchen table.
“Hi, sorry I’m so late,” I apologised. “We’ve been receiving animals from Ballarat, they started evacuating before the rain came.”
“That’s alright, make sure that you get some food into you.”
I shovelled down my meal. My phone rang. I retrieved it from my bag and noticed that Mum was calling.
“It’s fine, go and speak with your mother,” Mrs Roberts allowed. “I’m sure she’ll be pleased to hear from you.”
I left my plate and answered the call.
“I’m fine, we’re fine,” I promised, even though I sounded breathless over the phone. “It’s so good to hear your voice, though.”
“I love you, Jumilah,” Mum assured me.
Once I told Mum that I loved her too, she sensed my exhaustion and we finished our conversation. Finally, my head hit the pillow and I fell asleep.
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.