“One of the vervet monkeys died.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you,” Hamish replied, running one hand over the nape of his neck. “It’s really not that surprising. He was very, very old.”
We moved out to the car. Jamila drove, with Hamish in the passenger seat and Whitlam in the back with me, seemingly transfixed by his phone.
“What’s the matter, mate?” Hamish wanted to know, looking in the rear vision mirror.
“Oh, I was just looking at stuff about the ZAA conference in Sydney at the end of the year.”
“I’ve been to Sydney, I’ve dropped in there on the way to and from Sumatra.” I squinted a little, testing my memory. “I’m pretty sure it was the way back from Sumatra.”
I took a breath.
“Sorry, it was around the time that my grandfather died.”
Once we arrived at the zoo, Hamish and I headed straight for the vervet monkey enclosure. I thought to myself that this would be a good exhibit for colobus, but I didn’t mention that. It would have felt in poor taste. I’m not sure what the history of the vervet monkey troop at Werribee will be going forward, although they’re the only of their species in the region.
“Anyway, you’d better get back to Whitlam,” Hamish said, still looking at the ground. “I’m sure that he’s got plenty of work for you to do today.”
While I wanted to stay, particularly to offer support to Hamish, I nodded my head.
“I’ll get to it. Thanks for having me this morning. I appreciate it.”
As I patted his back between his shoulder blades, I thought Hamish might have been about to cry. He swatted a fly away from his face, though, so I made tracks for the staff quarters. I listened out to beautiful birdsongs, the native animals harmonising with the zoos’ inhabitants, which were mostly Australian birds, anyway. Entering the staff quarters, I located Whitlam at his desk. Before I had the chance to speak with him, I got distracted by Jamila, who wanted to borrow my brain for a little while.
“What would you say about species for a Himalayan trail here, around the elephants?” she wanted to know.
“Well, Wellington Zoo’s really paved the way in that respect.”
I’d never been to New Zealand before, but would be keen to.
“Anyway, you’re with Whitlam today, aren’t you?”
Jamila departed. I sauntered over to Whitlam at his desk.
“What are you watching?”
“This is a feed of the hippo back-of-house area.”
The footage was relatively grainy. I pulled over a chair.
“Primrose has gone into labour.”
My eyes bulged as I focused on the footage on the computer screen, from the CCTV cameras in the hippo dens. I instinctively crossed myself, feeling a little hopeless. Just because I’d seen baby Jelita born, didn’t mean I felt like I was prepared for this. I tried not to show my nerves, although I couldn’t help but bite my nails. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other species, a fact which reminded me that there was no guarantee of a smooth delivery.
“How long has it been?”
“I’m not sure.”
I noticed two legs protruding from Primrose’s body. As I stayed silent, the calf tumbled onto the straw floor.
“The baby’s been born.” I beamed, and rubbed circles between Whitlam’s shoulder blades. “That’s good, that’s good, that’s great.”
He shook his head.
“The baby’s not moving.”
“What do you reckon, Whitlam?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything, just licked his lips and twitched his neck. We continued to watch the footage on his laptop, the baby not moving whatsoever, moving in and out of view underneath Primrose’s body.
“Come with me.”
Whitlam got up, and I followed him out of the room, to the hippo exhibit. Once we arrived, the outdoor enclosure would have appeared empty, mother and calf inside. I thought that I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Perhaps it was my stomach. My body overheated more than October would have provided.
“What’s your plan, Whitlam?”
“For you, just wait out the front of the exhibit, you’ll have me on the radio,” he assured, then raced off.
I lost sight of Whitlam for a moment. Then, all of a sudden, he was on top of the night dens, arms full of lettuce.
“Well, that’s one way of dealing with things,” I muttered under my breath, gripping the radio.
Whitlam presented a hint of a grin.
“Jumilah, meet me near the back door to the night house,” he requested.
“Copy, I’ll be there,” I promised.
Whitlam threw down the lettuces. I presumed that he wanted Primrose to take the bait, to go for a snack so that we could observe the calf. Maybe I was wrong, and that’s why Whitlam wanted me to come around, to enact another strategy. Perhaps the calf was already dead, but that was a sort of thinking my psychologist would have frowned upon. I wasn’t sure whether or not the calf was breathing properly. Finally, I stepped around the corner, to stand beside Whitlam. Peering into the dens, over the barrier, the calf had risen to her feet – her feet, a little female – and was suckling from her mother.
“Perfect,” I gushed. “Absolutely perfect.”
Whitlam and I hugged tightly.
“I’m so glad that you were here.”
“I’d say the same to you.”
When we heard footsteps behind us, we parted.
Zola approached with a smile on her face.
“I’ve heard that you had a good day.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, sounding a little giddy. “We have a healthy baby girl.”
The drinks – softies, given we were on the job – were brought to the staff quarters. Whitlam kept his eyes on the screen, to monitor the feed from the hippo dens, to ensure all remained well. I glanced towards my watch.
“Are we going to join the ungulate TAG meeting?”
“Oh, it won’t kill us if we miss it.”
I bobbed my head.
“But, it would be good to share the good news.”
Whitlam brought up the call on his laptop, plugging in his earphones and offering me one bud so that we could both listen in.
“Oh, Jumilah, good to have you join us.”
“Thanks for having me.”
The smile couldn’t be wiped off my face. I knew that nerves formed a part of my uncontrollable expression.
“Primrose gave birth this morning.”
“Yes, a female.”
On a rare occasion, this was less welcomed news, on account of the lack of bulls within the region.
“Have you announced to the public yet?”
“No, we haven’t,” Whitlam confirmed. “The birth was a little bit touch-and-go. We’re not interested in keeping secrets, but it might be a few more days before we make a public announcement.”
“What sort of complications are we talking about?”
“The calf didn’t seem to be moving for a short time after the birth.”
Remembering the morning’s events, my heart started to beat faster. I would have liked to just go home for a lie-down, to soothe my pulse. Still, there was work to do, so I grounded myself to get through the rest of the ungulate TAG meeting. Following our exciting update, the meeting moved onto the member reports. Isobel was in the call on behalf of Adelaide Zoo. Given she was a primate keeper, this surprised me. I presumed, though, that Isobel was being eased back into work after returning from Joel’s funeral. She sat back, on mute, until the update from Adelaide Zoo was called upon. I noticed that Isobel still wore her engagement ring. My heart started to beat faster while she spoke.
“Yes, all our animals are well. Our construction projects are progressing nicely.”
The African development was the main one I could think of. It had only been three short months ago that Joel had arrived with Mwenyezi the lion. I didn’t really want to think about it. If I did, I reckoned that I would have screamed, forcing the anxiety out of my body. Instead, though, I listened to Ara give an update from Melbourne Zoo. I hadn’t seen her in a while.
“We might be looking to import a giraffe through Hamilton Zoo.”
“That wasn’t what we planned.”
I didn’t really understand what was happening. All I knew for sure was Tessa had found herself in the firing line.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Tessa,” Ara apologised. “I must have got my wires crossed there.”
They decided they would talk further offline. Bill didn’t attend. Indeed, nobody came from Perth Zoo. Was that surprising for the ungulate TAG? I didn’t know. Given we didn’t plan on housing any ungulate species in the first instance, I wasn’t a regular attendee. Now that I was at Werribee, that would likely change. Finally, the meeting came to an end. Even though the birth of the hippo calf hadn’t yet been announced to the public, I couldn’t help but send a photo to Tallulah.
Sssh; I added to the message.
Really, I didn’t expect that Tallulah would blab. Whitlam, Zola and I turned to each other.
“What do you think about the pygmy hippo breeding program?”
Whitlam scoffed. I knew that I was always the one with the question, wanting to know something more than what was on the table in front of me. Zola dropped the coil of hair which she was twisting around her finger.
“Well, I think that was the plan. You’d have to ask Reuben if that’s changed.”
I nodded, realising how Melbourne Zoo’s influence enveloped the other two campuses.
“Ready to go home?” Jamila enquired.
I nodded, stomach rumbling and very keen for dinner. We piled into the car for the short journey back. Hopefully there would be something we could cook upon our arrival. A shower wouldn’t be half-bad, either. Returning to the house, I couldn’t wait to call Mum and Dad and fill them in on the new addition. I stripped off my Zoos Victoria uniform. After changing into casual clothes, I sat down and grabbed my phone.
“Hi, Jumilah, how are you?” Mum responded. “We’re both here.”
“Yeah, good, really good,” I assured. “We had a hippo calf born today.”
“That’s wonderful, Jumilah, was it a male or a female?”
“A little girl, it was really exciting.”
My account brushed over the stresses. I figured there wasn’t much point going into that, after the fact.
“How are you going?”
“We’re really good, we’re missing you.”
“I miss you too.”
Getting off the phone from Mum and Dad, I padded down the stairs for dinner. Jamila had prepared lentil Bolognese.
“Oh my goodness, this looks delicious.”
I swirled pasta around my fork and devoured the meal. Once I finished, Jamila accepted my empty bowl and walked it back into the kitchen.
“Alright, I’m going to get an early night.”
I smiled towards Jamila, then traipsed up the stairs. Already changed, I hopped into bed, smoothing the covers over my body.
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.