My heart thudded within my chest. Of course, I had received animals before, when I was at Melbourne Zoo – that’s how I’d met Joel. My main task on this trip, which involved moving animals, was to keep a close eye on Isobel all the way back to Adelaide. After packing up and checking out, we travelled from the hotel to Perth Zoo. There, we met up with Isobel and Charlotte. They let us through into the zoo, where we located Kelvin at the lemur exhibit. I could hear the raucous of the other primate nearby, the morning calls of the zoo’s gibbons. As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, Isobel raised her left hand to shield her face from the glare. Her engagement ring glinted in the light. I glanced away from it to the crates in the black and white ruffed lemur exhibit. They were positioned at the exit to the night dens, so that the animals to be transferred would move straight in once they were let out.
“We’ve given them their food inside the crates, so that should do the trick,” Kelvin explained.
Isobel nodded her head. Sure enough, the lemurs were eager for breakfast. Once Zora and Asha were safely inside, Kelvin lowered each slide to close the crates. I made sure to take a last look, on their behalf. This wasn’t a bad thing, although a bittersweet goodbye. Zora and Asha were being moved to Adelaide Zoo to meet a strapping male lemur, to breed. By forklift, the lemurs were moved to a gate, where they were loaded into a van. I glanced over my shoulder into the elephant paddocks, where all three had been let out for the morning. Even though he wasn’t an elephant keeper, I know that Joel loved little Perempuan. We waved Charlotte goodbye, then left Perth Zoo, trailing Kelvin in the van. Our vehicle arrived at the airport, following the zoo van with the lemurs inside. They detoured onto the tarmac. Considering that we didn’t have any animals in tow, we needed to board through the terminal. I flashed back to the times I’d done this before. The sequence of Joel striding down from the plane at Tullamarine, looped through my mind. Heading through the airport was a blur. Once I sat down on the plane, I realised that I had retained scant images of what Perth Airport looked like. I noticed the flight attendant approaching. She wheeled a trolley, offering drinks of water. Once she arrived, I accepted, hoping that a few sips would settle my queasy stomach. We hadn’t even left the ground yet. The lemurs presumably settled, Don and Isobel joined us, sitting opposite. Isobel buried the back of her head into the headrest. Hopefully she would be able to get some sleep on the plane. We took off and, thankfully, the flight passed quickly. Eventually, the announcement was made, and the land came closer and closer to us. Finally, the plane ground to a halt. I breathed out. Being back on solid ground only made me feel slightly more assured. We were the first off the plane. I made sure to stick with Isobel. Don spoke with the airport staff, while the cargo hold was opened. A forklift offloaded the crates containing the lemurs into a waiting van. Don and Isobel moved into the seats, along with Harvey Myles and Rebekah Sternberg.
“We’ll see you back at Adelaide Zoo.”
One of the other keepers was there to transport the rest of us in a people mover, with crumbs on the floor. I felt increasingly anxious, feeling like we were heading in the right direction, but before too long, I caught sight of the River Torrens. Before I knew it, we were being dropped off outside Adelaide Zoo. Our group walked across the park, where Monica let us in through the staff entrance. This is where she works now, which feels a little strange.
“They shouldn’t take too long to get the lemurs into quarantine,” Monica noted.
She retrieved her phone from her pocket.
“Ah, Don said he’d meet us outside the lion exhibit,” Monica read.
Therefore, she led us through the zoo, where, sure enough, we located Don and Isobel. We walked around to the viewing shelter on the southern side of the exhibit, with a small area carved out at the front. I gathered that would form another exhibit in the future, perhaps for a species such as meerkats or some sort of African tortoise. Planting separated Mwenyezi’s area from the boundary, to prevent escape.
“Let’s take you for a bit of a look around,” Don urged.
I nodded my head and we followed him. I’d been around the new Australian precinct before with Isobel, albeit only briefly. Overhead, children played in a netted playground structure, intended to give them views of the zoo, as well as wider vistas towards the River Torrens in the distance. We ended up at the boundary fence of the zoo.
“These are our historical gates,” Don explained, “so this was the original entrance into the zoo.”
I could hear a hint of chatter coming from the nearby function area, which seemed like a relatively new development. Don pointed past the building.
“And those are the toilets, if you need the toilets. The ones closest to us are for staff and volunteers, and the others are the public toilets.”
There was an awkward silence. Perhaps we were waiting to see if anyone needed to go.
“Actually, I might,” Kelvin decided.
Therefore, we waited while he scurried off and relieved himself, and I surveyed our surroundings. When Kelvin returned, Don was able to show us around the exhibits for Australian animals. Signage identified the area as the Aussie Icons precinct. Beside it, construction work was taking place on what was termed the Children’s Meerkat Experience. I gathered that it would form part of the new African precinct, which had already started being filled with the arrival of Mwenyezi the male lion earlier on in the year. At the thought, Joel’s face flashed before me. I tried not to look at Isobel, nor in the direction of the African Lion exhibit, not far away. Just down from there was a new zoo shop, which I was tempted to enter, to check out the soft toys, but that would have betrayed my youth. We curved around past three koala exhibits. Through glass panels, I spotted pademelons bounding around under the trees. We passed through the indoor centre. Heading out onto the deck, which overlooked the contact animals area, I wondered whether or not we’d get the chance to get up close and personal.
“What would you like to do now?” Don enquired.
I could hear running water nearby, and was resisting the urge to stare at Isobel.
“Let’s just go through the rest of the area, Don,” Monica advised.
He nodded his head, accepting the suggestion. Our group exited the indoor centre across on the other side. I glanced up, even more children playing overhead, the space afforded quite the dimension. As we shifted in the other direction from the contact animals, I gave them a last glance over my shoulder. That would be something fun for another time. Don gestured towards the function centre which we passed, which seemed like another relatively new building.
“Don, if you’ve got a minute--,” a male zookeeper requested.
“We’re a little busy here, thank you,” Don responded. “Is it urgent?”
Don turned to Isobel.
“I’ll be alright staying here,” she assured. “You go, see what the matter is.”
I could feel my heart beating faster.
Don shuffled off with the keepers. As the rest of us moved back towards the main entrance, I instinctively crossed myself. I started to feel a little bit peckish, so gratefully accepted Isobel’s suggestion to sit down. While Monica and Reuben scampered off for coffee, she and I overlooked the new precinct, resting in an undercover area. Once we finished our drinks and food, we took the opportunity to go to the toilet, then Don returned.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes, all good.”
Don didn’t elaborate further. This only made my mind wander. The issue could have been anything, although it was almost time for the primate TAG meeting, to hopefully distract me. Don, Reuben and I walked back to the Adelaide Zoo offices. There, we joined in the primate TAG meeting, crowded around the monitor atop Don’s desk.
“Did the lemur transfer go smoothly this morning?” Christine enquired.
“Yes, it did,” Don confirmed. “We’re really looking forward to breeding.”
“Great. Let’s get started.”
Gilham gave an acknowledgment of country. Someone must have turned on a fan or the air conditioning, because the office suddenly dropped in temperature. The meeting continued with a discussion of expanding breed-to-release programs for primates.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“For what reason, Mal?” Reuben wanted to know.
“There would be considerable expense involved. I just don’t think that it’s worthwhile, but that’s just my personal opinion.” Mal sat back in his chair. “You don’t have to listen to me.”
“We have experience with orang releases,” Bill outlined, “and one of our Perth-bred gibbons has been released back into Java, although that was after she was exported to the UK.”
“I did want to ask you, Gerard, about your hamadryas baboons,” Peter spoke up.
“We are considering a phase-out. Ideally, the whole troop would be rehoused together.”
“That’s the same situation we’re in,” Bill mentioned, then glanced away. “Our troop is much smaller than yours, though. We only have three.”
“I’m sure we can reach a satisfactory outcome.”
“George and I have been coordinating about the colobus program,” Reuben mentioned. “The decision which we’d like to bring to the meeting is to transfer the young male from Yarralumla to Melbourne. He would then be paired with our female, Mapenzi, for breeding.”
“What will happen with the other young animals?”
“Izara will, hopefully, be able to stay integrated with her parents.”
“There’s a young male at Melbourne too, isn’t there?” Raffa sought clarification.
“Yes, there is,” Reuben confirmed.
“And he’s unrelated to Izara, I gather,” Raffa supposed.
Reuben sat forward in his seat.
“Are you interested in coming onboard with the program, Raffa?”
“Not at this stage, unfortunately,” he answered, “but maybe down the track.”
“We would be interested,” Blessing spoke up, “and we’ve registered that intention.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Reuben apologised. “I thought that you’d exported your last two female colobus.”
There was no sarcasm in his tone, just bemusement.
“We exported them because they were of a different subspecies to the other animals in the region. Our masterplan includes an intention to have a colobus exhibit constructed as part of the first stage, housing the Kenyan subspecies.”
“Right, I understand,” Reuben assured. “Perhaps you could receive the pairing of Izara and Mkasu.”
“The only problem is that then Izara and Mkasu’s offspring would be double cousins with Mapenzi’s offspring.”
“That they would be,” George affirmed. “Perhaps it’s better to pair them with different, imported partners.”
“I would envision importing minimum two, maximum five additional females, as well as a male,” Blessing recommended. “Importing the females alongside females for Melbourne Zoo, if feasible, I think would be a good idea.”
“You’ll hear no objection from me,” Reuben assured. “That’s a great idea, Blessing.”
“And you’re able to hold two groupings?”
“We have eight exhibits in the Treetop Monkeys and Apes area. Most of them house South American species at the moment, to be perfectly honest. That’s where we house the colobus at the moment, although not all of them would be suitable for colobus.”
“So, that’s a yes?”
It felt good to be making a decision, even though it didn’t have anything to do with me, really. I’d gotten a little attached to the awesome threesome, of Mkasu, Mapenzi and Makena, and they’d be staying put.
“Is everyone happy with that plan?” Reuben checked.
The meeting agreed.
“I just quickly wanted to ask you about your orangutan holdings. Are you thinking of importing another male?” Hunter wanted to know.
“I don’t see that we would import an additional male orangutan. We already have one young male for breeding.”
“National Zoo and Aquarium?”
“Well, things are going to change in relation to our colobus holdings.”
“What are your thoughts on housing colobus, Sam?” Reuben asked.
“I’m not particularly enthused at this stage, but we’ll see,” Sam responded. “If the regional population develops and needs further holders, then we’d think about incorporating them into our collection.”
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo?”
“The chimp exhibit plans have changed slightly since last week,” Claire reported.
I wondered if this related to what she’d mentioned when we were in Perth, about the new hippo exhibit being built.
“I thought that it was the perfect spot, across the road from your bongos.”
“Well, it would be, but that exhibit will be shifting. We’re committed to zoogeographical precincts and, right now, the elephants are disconnected from that.”
I thought about the white-handed gibbons, and where Laki and Mawar live.
“We’ve lined up with the international studbook keeper a male Javan Gibbon to be imported from the UK. His name is Hantu and he’ll hopefully arrive within the month, then quarantine and after that be on display, and paired with our female, Cinta.”
Meaning ‘ghost’ in Bahasa, I found the gibbon’s name a little odd. Perhaps it was chosen because of the silvery, ghostly fur of the gibbons. Either way, having a breeding pair in the state will be fantastic. The TAG meeting came to an end, so we departed the office block. We headed back out into the zoo, relocating the others. I checked my watch. Thankfully, there was still a bit of time before us Victorian folk would need to return to the airport.
“If we’ve got time, I’d like to see the clouded leopards,” Jamila requested.
“Of course,” Isobel accepted.
Their enclosures are off-display. Being in a secluded area of the zoo, I could hear the River Torrens. Isobel let the group of us through to a well-planted cage. I spotted the clouded leopard pretty quickly, trying not to gasp at his beauty. I’d never seen one in person before, even though I had always wanted to.
“This is the young male.”
“Oh my goodness, he’s gorgeous.”
The clouded leopard was lying on a shelf within his enclosure, near the mesh. He rolled over onto his back, peering at us with the most beautiful eyes. I could have stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. Yet, I knew there was a plane to catch. Monica drove us back to the airport, leaving Isobel with Don at the zoo. We bid our farewells, then entered the terminal. Against my better judgment, I bought a Krispy Kreme. I scoffed it down, then boarded the plane. The sugar coma afforded me a restless sleep back to Melbourne. We landed at Tullamarine with a thud. As our group disembarked the flight, I felt bile rising within my chest. Thankfully, I managed to keep it in. Salivating at the fresh air, we passed through the airport. Whitlam flagged down an Uber, and we packed in to make our way back to Werribee. Despite just having rested, I couldn’t wait to get to bed. Finally, the Uber driver pulled up across the road. I really felt like I was coming home. Once I headed inside, I knew that I needed to log onto my class. The final presentation would be from Alice.
“Llamas and alpacas are the showcase of a South American-themed domestic animals precinct.”
She spoke with eloquence and professionalism.
“Alpacas could be bred within this precinct, given the enrichment value of allowing animals to breed, and the commercial value of baby animals, which would attract visitors to the precinct to receive educational messages.”
Alice was right – the baby alpacas in her photos were very cute.
“Some zoos think it’s very important to demonstrate how humans impact upon wildlife, and wildlife finds its way into human environments,” Sam mentioned.
She agreed, while the map of her precinct was on the screen.
“What do you think the best course of action would be in this scenario?”
Whitlam placed a bowl of food down in front of me.
“Thanks,” I murmured, on mute.
I tried to start eating my dinner as gracefully as I could, with my camera still on. Whitlam stepped back, comfortably clear of my webcam’s breadth. He chewed on his fingernails while he watched the class, the conclusion of the question and answer section of Alice’s presentation. I stayed quiet while I ate. The others must have been somewhere else downstairs, unless lights had been left on in error. Setting my bowl aside, I took myself off mute. Finally, I heard laughter. It brought a smile onto my lips, for it had been a difficult week since Joel’s death. How had it only been seven days? As I leaned back in my chair, the date in the corner of my computer screen caught my eye. Exactly nine months had passed since Kakek’s death. I found myself nibbling my nails.
“This photo was taken at Mogo Wildlife Park on the south coast of New South Wales. The exhibit was built for a brother-sister pair of hybrid orangutans, born at Taronga Zoo shortly before the ban.”
I thought that I’d seen it before. Sam was explaining important aspects of exhibit design.
“Alright, that’s it for this week. Next week, just remember that there is no class due to the public holiday in Sydney. I’ll see you back again the following week.”
That would be my final Monday on the mainland. The other students dropped off the call. Faintly I could hear a chatter of birds. I thought that I could smell flowers somewhere within the house. Had one of the others brought some home from the funeral? Surely I would have noticed. Just Sam and I remained on the Zoom. I would have felt awkward to click Leave meeting, and embarrassed not to.
“You went to Adelaide, didn’t you?”
“Can I ask how that went?”
“It was fine, the transfer went smoothly.”
The picture flashed back into my mind, of Isobel flashing her engagement ring on Emmie and Vel’s wedding day. She was so happy, and just a couple of days later, her fiancé was dead. I thought that I heard rain on the roof, but maybe I imagined it. Perhaps it could have been the washing machine or another appliance.
“I’m sorry, I should let you get to bed.”
“Thank you, we can take up this conversation again later.”
The Zoom meeting came to an end. I shut down my computer and walked up to bed. After changing into my pyjamas, I lay down, then noticed a figure in the doorway.
“Isobel contacted us while you were in class,” Jamila mentioned. “The inquest into Joel’s death is starting on Thursday.”
I propped myself up onto my elbows.
“Thanks for telling me. That’s pretty soon.”
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.