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Birthday

This morning I awoke just as the sun was rising, with a sense of anticipation in my gut. After showering and dressing, I stepped out the back door under a clear, pale blue sky. Buckets of food in hand, I entered the nocturnal house, which would be my first destination for the morning, so similar to the others thus far over the last few weeks, yet I knew it would end so differently. Being indoors, the tarsiers are able to remain on exhibit both night and day. I provided food for the male Belitung, who would be on display in the first exhibit on the right for opening day.


“You don’t know what’s about to hit you.”


Hopefully the soundproof glass would be sufficient. I fed the rest of the animals indoors, then I exited the nocturnal house, out the Tassie devils door.


“Hey, good morning,” I greeted the dholes as I let them out into their exhibit, and the soft summer sun.


Working with the animals filled me with a sense of peace which I didn’t realise I’d be afforded today. Somehow, I feel closer to who I’m supposed to be, the work I feel called to spend my days doing. I returned home, checking my watch, feeling anxiety pulse through my body. Protestors were more than likely; we’d been warned of that. I needed our people to turn up first, so when I saw Patrick coming in from the carpark, I called out to him, overjoyed.


“You scrub up alright,” Patrick remarked. “In this uniform, I mean.”


“Thank you.” We hugged, at his instigation. “I appreciate you coming today.”


“Well, we’re all going to be here.”


Sure enough, the carpark filled up. The rest of the Sorell Woolworths crew arrived. Even Maryam, heavily pregnant.


“Thank you for coming,” I spoke over the sound of my beating heart.


I glanced down at the register in front of me.


“Let’s put through your tickets first, so we’re all ready,” I decided.


Thankfully, everyone was happy to pay. Mum, Dad and Nanek emerged from the house. Rocking on the balls of my feet, we waited until our watches struck nine o’clock, then cut the ribbon, to let our friends and family in. A van rolled up in the carpark which I recognised. That familiar moustachioed man emerged, locking his vehicle behind him, then strode over to the entrance kiosk.


“Thank you so much for coming,” I greeted David, with a hug.


“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”


A part of me wished that I could have had my whole zoo family together – Reuben and the crew from Melbourne, plus Jamila, Whitlam and Hamish.


“Well, come through,” I urged, to distract myself.


I glanced over my shoulder.


“You give David the grand tour,” Mum urged.


“Thank you.”


We popped into the house to grab coffees for our travels, then we re-entered the zoo grounds through the gate now placed beyond our back door. I knew that he’d be keen to be reunited with the macaque troop. Therefore, that was our first destination, rather than flowing into the nocturnal house like the others seemed to prefer. Some of the troop came down close to the water’s edge at the moat, eating their food in full view of David and I.


“It’s wonderful to see them settled in here,” he commented. “You’ve done a brilliant job.”


“Thank you. Thanks for taking care of them in the meantime.”


“You’re welcome,” David responded. “You really should join the snow leopard program.”


“Yes, I should,” I agreed, taking a sip from my coffee. “We really should.”


I panned my gaze across the grassy hills beyond. An older woman approached us, holding the hands of two children, whom I presumed were her grandchildren.


“Thank you for coming. Can I help you with anything?”


“Do you have elephants here, love?”


“No, we don’t, I’m sorry,” I answered, “but we have a whole family of macaques. They’re a species of monkey from Indonesia, that’s where my Mum grew up.”


I steered them off in that direction. While the grandmother and children were enchanted by the animals, Ricky and Maryam approached me.


“Hey,” I greeted them. “How have you found things?”


I noticed the panicked expression on Maryam’s face.


“Yeah, good,” she answered. “I don’t think that I’m going to be hanging around too much longer. I’ve been having contractions. They’re pretty close together.”


I rubbed my hands together, giving a half-grin of concern and excitement.


“Good luck,” I wished them. “We’ll be thinking of you and praying for you.”


“Thank you,” Maryam replied.


I followed them back towards the carpark. More vehicles were rolling in, although the space was still nowhere near full. I hoped, from deep within my gut, that there would be more visitors arriving, even though I felt vulnerable, letting so many people into our place. Ricky pressed beads of sweat away from Maryam’s brow. He shepherded her into the car, to leave for the hospital and the birth of their baby. I crossed myself, saying a prayer for them. Ricky drove away. Once I couldn’t see the car anymore, I turned back around. Patrick was there.


“Hey.”


He sounded a little breathless, too.


“Are you good?”


Patrick gestured over his shoulder.


“Yep. Someone’s here to see you.”


My gaze panned to the right. I squealed, leaping at Tallulah to wrap her into a tight hug.


“It’s so good to see you.”


We finally parted.


“Come on in.”


Tallulah followed me through to the entrance kiosk.


“It probably all looks the same from the last time you were here.”


“Jye and Vanessa in Melbourne, obviously, but she said that they’d pop in when they’re back from Sydney.”


“That’s nice of them.”


Tallulah and I toured through the nocturnal building first.


“Oh, did I tell you, Ricky and Maryam were here before, but they’ve left. Maryam went into labour.”


“Wow.”


We paused outside the loris exhibit. I looked through the glass, which had been spotlessly cleaned by Dad. Tallulah and I meandered through the building. We departed out the other side, as Nipaluna rushed to greet us. I’d never admit this, but she’s my favourite. A gust of wind picked up, swirling my hair. Guests moved through the zoo, some fast, some slow. We had managed to keep most of the paths as flat as possible, for ease of mobility. I heard the tyres of a car pulling up on the gravel. My head snapped around, although I couldn’t see the carpark from my position. I was sure that Tallulah noticed.


“Do you need to go?” she checked.


“Yeah, maybe,” I responded.


I headed for the carpark. There, I saw a group of protestors, mostly older, mostly men, one coming straight for me. I could feel the saliva within my mouth, drying off with anxiety. Tallulah remained at my back.


“Good afternoon.”


“Hello, you must be Jumilah Fioray.”


One of the women stepped forward. I nodded. There was no point in hiding my identity. They knew who I was already, and I could identify them by their placards. Part of this journey, I had to accept, was opening up my home.


“I would love to chat with you.” My gaze lifted to the rest of the group. “I’m not sure if this is really the right place for that.”


I thought that I heard a rumble of thunder, but I might have imagined it.


“Where would you prefer to speak?”


The kindness caught me off-guard. I glanced over to the eucalypts, so quintessentially of these lands. Uninterested in neutral territory, my lips parted.


“Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”


Even though I could not see her, I was sure that Tallulah flinched. Most of the protestors stayed in the carpark.


“That would be great, thank you.”


I finally placed the woman’s face, as she followed me. She had been at the council chambers, months ago. I opened the door and let Tanya through, first into the fenced-off area which now surrounds our house, then into the dwelling itself. We had some lemon slice, which Mum had baked, so I provided that as a peace offering. Faintly I could hear the washing machine. I boiled the jug and made green tea for us both. I’d never sought conflict in this line of work. I couldn’t tell how the conversation would end. Surely my anxiety was written all over my face, and Tanya would spot that a mile off. I pondered literally anything else I could be doing. Maybe I desperately needed to call Sam and hear how Zella’s baby was doing. They were yet to determine the sex of the baby.


“Take a seat,” I urged.


Tanya and I were across from each other. Tallulah remained on sentry duty. She must have been concerned for me, although I didn’t feel daunted.


“I’ve heard that your animals weren’t even born in captivity.”


“Most of the animals were wild-born, yes,” I conceded. “I know this is unusual. The circumstances are very different, though.”


I expected Tanya to scoff, or roll her eyes, like she’s heard this all before. She didn’t seem like one to take the attitude of not being like the other girls.


“The animals came into my grandparents’ care for various reasons, but all of them couldn’t be released. My grandparents would release the animals which could.”


Tanya sipped her tea, listening.


“So, they wouldn’t have survived in the wild?”


“That was my grandparents’ belief, yes. Would that be different these days?” I pondered. “Maybe, for some of them. For others, I don’t think so.”


I sat back, while an example came to mind.


“Take our macaques, though. Some of them have breathing problems. They need regular medication in order to keep their conditions stable. That’s why they couldn’t be released. It’s good for them socially to breed.”


We finished off our tea, and the lemon slice.


“Right.”


Tanya nodded her head and sipped her tea. She seemed genuinely eager to listen and learn, showing a level of respect which I hadn’t anticipated, particularly considering our earlier interactions at the council chambers.


“Oh my goodness, look at the time,” Tanya gushed, checking her watch. “I didn’t realise I’d been here this long.”


“Thanks for giving me that time, I think we’ve had a good conversation.”


Of course, I couldn’t judge for her. Thankfully, Tanya smiled.


“Yeah, it’s been productive,” she confirmed.


Finally, I escorted Tanya out of the house. I couldn’t tell if we’d made progress. Tanya didn’t engage with the other protestors when we reached the carpark.


“Thank you for your time.”


Tanya left, but I suspected that I would see her again. Children were still entering the zoo. They didn’t seem to be perturbed. This I was glad about, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to be distressed, when they just sought a family day out. I gave Tallulah a big hug.


“Thank you for being here.”


“We’re both going to be OK.”


Eventually, we moved back from the hug.


“Or maybe I could run off to Paris,” Tallulah quipped, “but I’d tell you first.”


“You’d better.”


Mum came into the house.


“The TV reporters are here, if you’d like to talk to them.”


“Oh, yeah, of course. Thanks.”


I followed Tallulah out to greet them.


“Hello, I’m Jumilah Fioray, thank you so much for coming.”


“It’s our pleasure. Let’s get started, shall we?”


“Opening day, December 26, 2022.”


“Alright, now we’re rolling,” the camera operator announced.


“Jumilah Fioray, thanks for joining me.”


“You’re welcome.”


I could feel the heat of the cameras. Hopefully Toni would not turn on me. We’d set up to film outside the siamang exhibit, baby Jelita the cutest animal in the whole zoo. The youngest macaque would have been her only rival.


“Why did you build Acarda Zoo?”


“We want this to be a place where people can gather and animals can be at home. That’s what my grandparents aimed to achieve, and we want to do that here as well if we can, to contribute to regional breeding programs down the line, too.”


“The baby siamang, where was she born?”


“She was born at Adelaide Zoo.”


Finally, I checked my watch – almost five o’clock. The hum of visitors quieted again, providing us with peace. Still, I could hear the animals. They foraged and grazed, brachiating and bellowed on occasion, the tweeting of birdsong a consistent and beautiful melody. When the clock ticked over, we closed the gates. The carpark was empty. I really should have gone straight to bed. Instead, though, I knew that there was more work to do, but the remaining light afforded me a little bit of time. I headed back into the house. From the kitchen, I could hear my phone ringing, so I tracked it down and answered the call from Reuben, who wished us well.


“Thank you.” I swallowed hard. “You’re so kind to have called.”


“How has your big day been?”


“Fantastic,” I answered. “Dramatic.”


“All good, I hope?”


“Yes. Maryam, one of my friends from work, she came, and then she had to leave. She went into labour.”


“Yeah, I would say that’s reasonably dramatic.”


“Indeed.”


“Has she had the baby yet?”


“No, not yet,” I answered, smoothing down my hair. “Well, if she has, I haven’t heard anything.”


“Right.”


“How has your day been?”


“Busy,” I answered, “but really good.”


After debriefing on the day’s events, Reuben and I ended our call, while Mum prepared a dinner of Christmas leftovers. Dad turned on the evening news. I was hopeful we’d get a segment. The camera crew wouldn’t have been there for nothing. An unfamiliar newsreader looked at us through the television with a beaming smile.


“Hobart’s new zoo, Acarda Zoo, in Sorell, opened today. We have all the pictures from a wild day out.”


My eyes widened at the sight of our own home on the television screen, the siamangs high in their exhibit and calling with their throats engorged.


“These siamang apes originally lived in the jungles of Indonesia,” the reporter outlined, “but, after suffering injuries at the hands of poachers, they have now been taken into human care, and have taken up residence at Hobart’s newest attraction, Acarda Zoo in Sorell.”


“We want this to be a place where people can gather and animals can be at home.”


Mum hugged my shoulders. I grinned. The bulletin showed footage of the animals – the gibbons and birds in their aviaries – and visitors walking around.


“The enclosures are nice and big,” one of the visitors praised. “It’s great, it’s a fantastic family day out and reasonably priced if you’re on a budget, too.”


“We’ll leave the final verdict to this young Hobart resident.”


The camera panned down to a little boy. I recalled seeing him during the day.


“It’s really cool with all the animals. I want to come back here every single day and live here.”


“Toni Rogers, WIN News Tasmania.”


The bulletin crossed back to the studio. Following the report, we headed outside. Clouds brewed overhead and I wondered if it would rain overnight. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. I came to feel more assured, that we would be alright, that we would make it through this. Pastels above lost their light, as we put the animals away for the night. I returned into the house and made sure that my phone was plugged in. There was a message in one of the group chats with others from the zoo community, which didn’t get used that often. In fact, as I scrolled through the history, it hadn’t been accessed since the conference. As it turned out, Mick Sutton had been successful in sourcing a whole pride of lions for Coolangatta Zoo. Checking my other messages, he’d texted me directly. He wanted to know if I was interested in receiving some, and he’d informed the others as such.


“Oh, God, I want to be good.” I ran my hand through my hair. “Last thing I want to do is upset people.”


For the meantime, I figured I’d ignore the situation. Truth be told, I didn’t really like that I’d been caught up with this. I figured that Steve would hold a different opinion to many of the people I’d come to know through the ZAA, and even those I counted as friends, like Reuben, Isobel and Sam. Last thing I wanted was for this to become a Tassie versus the mainland argument. I lay down in bed, in my childhood bedroom. My home in Tasmania is surrounded by animals. At the sound of a notification on my phone, I rolled onto my side and collected it from the charger. A photo of a gorgeous, wrinkly babe had been sent through by Ricky.


Charles Jibril David born 9:53pm.


I got out of bed and walked through into Mum and Dad’s room.


“Maryam had the baby,” I reported, showing them the photo.


Mum squinted and reached for her glasses, then smiled once they were on her face.


“Beautiful,” she praised. “Such a beautiful babe.”


 

Abbey Sim is a candidate for Honours in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney. She lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Having started Huldah Media in 2021, Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.


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