You find out a lot in the Healesville office, not that I reckon I need to be here. There’s already been enough paperwork back home. Apparently, there’s been an offer of a purebred Javan Binturong to the sanctuary. It remained on the table, even though it was likely to be accepted, due to the sanctuary’s focus on native species.
“Is everything going alright, Jumilah?” Nikki checked.
“Yeah, mostly,” I answered, “but there was a phone call this morning saying that the invoice hasn’t been paid for the transport of the wallabies to Perth, do you know anything about that?”
Nikki pulled a face.
“Did you get the number?” she asked, so I handed over the note with her answer scribbled down in red pen. “Ah, yes. I’ll pass this onto Margie to sort this out.”
I considered mentioning the binturong. That, however, might have set the cat amongst the pigeons.
“Would you like to come with me to the airport?” Nikki offered. “I’m collecting a tree kangaroo.”
“Yeah, of course, that would be great.”
I followed her out of the wildlife hospital. We got into a Healesville Sanctuary van. Nikki began driving towards Tullamarine Airport, on the outskirts of Melbourne. I found myself distracted by my emails on my phone, then told Nikki about the next setback in trying to create an import risk assessment for importing hippos. It seemed like it would still be at least another year away.
“The import ban doesn’t really impact us,” Nikki outlined. “Pretty much all of our animals are native species. If anything, I’d say we should take the opportunities we already have. Give me a numbat over a meerkat any day.”
She gave me a lot to ponder. We arrived at Tullamarine Airport. A tall man came down from the plane.
“Ian, good to see you again.” Nikki shook his hand firmly. “This is Jumilah Fioray, she’s doing work experience with us.”
“Nice to meet you, Ian.”
“Likewise, Jumilah,” he replied. “This is the only Lumholtz’s outside of Queensland. We’re very lucky.”
I could hear the tree kangaroo in the crate, clearly not enjoying being constricted. As soon as he was loaded into the back of the van, Nikki and I made haste for Healesville. Upon arriving at the sanctuary, we offloaded. The new Lumholtz’s exhibit will be beside the Goodfellows’ enclosures. That way, visitors will be able to compare the two kinds of tree kangaroos, side by side. With the new tree kangaroo settled in, Nikki and I returned to the wildlife hospital, where an owl had just been brought in, lethargic and bleeding. My stomach turned, but I needed to be as much support as I could.
“I’m not ready to give up just yet,” Nikki vowed, “but the next few days will be critical, that’s for sure.”
We gave the owl a space in which he could rest and recuperate. I hoped that this would be enough, especially for such a captivating species – not that I should have been playing favourites.
“Is there anything else you need?”
Nikki glimpsed her watch.
“I’ll be fine here, I’ll just finish up the paperwork. If you want, you can get a coffee. I’m sure there will be plenty of work to do later.”
“Alright, all good.”
I decided to do just that. I arrived a little early to join the carnivore TAG meeting, finishing off my coffee while I logged into the Zoom call. Gilham commenced the gathering with an acknowledgment of country, then handed over to Bill. He fielded a somewhat unexpected question about the possibility of importing tree shrews, but wasn’t sure of the correct answer.
“Yes, tree shrews are on the live import list,” Reuben confirmed. “I don’t think there’s an IRA, though. We would have other priorities than putting one together, but that’s just my opinion, I’m happy to take views from other people.”
“Well, we housed them in the past,” Stefan noted.
“We had them too,” Harold assented. “They ended up wild in our grounds for a number of years, but I believe those animals have all died out now.”
On one hand, that was a tragedy, but on the other, it represented the loss of an introduced species which could potentially threaten the ecosystem. The next part of the meeting was a presentation on pyometra. This infection of the reproductive system primarily impacted female big cats once they’d reached the end of their reproductive lives. Given that it could lead to a rapid fatality, cats would often be spayed once they were finished breeding. However, developments in antibiotics could potentially prevent that operation, and the disease. George outlined his plans for their female Sri Lankan Leopard. I sat forward in my chair. The presentation concluded, allowing questions from the members of the meeting. While interested in the topic, I didn’t really know what to say, so I remained on mute. George opened up the meeting for questions.
“Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have access to the sort of vet care which meant we could prevent these things. A number of our breeding females died. Even when we would diagnose the infection, often it would be too late to do anything.”
Sadness blanketed the meeting. At least there was some relief that we had turned a corner. I suspected that housing lions might have been a long way off for us, but pyometra could impact other species, like Sumatran tigers, which may have formed part of our collection before too long.
“Let’s move onto the member reports,” Bill announced.
“I’m sorry, I have to head off a little earlier today,” Dirk pointed out. “It’s my daughter’s eighteenth birthday.”
I didn’t realise that his children weren’t much younger than me.
“That’s alright, congratulations. We can start with your update,” Jimmy invited.
“We’ve had two litters of cubs this year,” Dirk mentioned.
I recalled the announcements of those births, from previous meetings.
“Obviously, they won’t need to be placed immediately. Down the track, however, I think it would be worthwhile that our genetics don’t die out.”
Unable to remember where the Altina lions fit into the regional population, I quickly checked the studbook. Indeed, they had imported a new pair from overseas a couple of years ago, which had previously slipped my mind. Therefore, I agreed that it would be valuable to pair the cubs when they were old enough, and the TAG thought so too.
“We’re attempting AI on Funi tomorrow. Hopefully it will work, we have the best experts visiting from China to give us the best chance of pregnancy.”
“I have a question for Sam.”
“How is the Sumatran Tiger program looking? Which breeding recommendations will be coming up within the next year?”
“Auckland Zoo is the main one, for their new pair. Hopefully they will have a healthy litter of cubs, their genetics are quite valuable for the regional population.”
I was already aware of this, but doubted that any of their cubs would make their way to Ballarat, despite their request for tigers.
“Angelique, I have a quick question for you,” George spoke up, and she sat forward, ready to answer. “Are you planning on joining the Sri Lankan Leopard breeding program?”
“Our male leopard isn’t very old. We’re expecting to house him for the next ten years, at least.”
“So not until he passes?”
“No, we wouldn’t think so. There are no other Sri Lankan Leopards in New Zealand. There’s a part of me which would like to wait until we learn that there’s national support before committing.”
“Alright, fair enough,” George responded.
“Not really any updates for us this week, does anyone have any questions, perhaps?”
“Yes, I do have one,” Sam mentioned. “Have you considered adding lions to your collection in the future?”
“We don’t have lions currently, and we’ve never held them. Whenever we survey our visitors, acquiring lions is always high on the wishlist. Therefore, if the species did become available in the future, we would strongly consider the possibility, but to do that we would need to make sure that there is exhibit space available.”
Tessa cleared her throat.
“Currently, we do have two areas for our bachelor giraffe herd. If there was a new barn constructed, then we would be able to give the giraffes clearer access to the savannah. Perhaps that other, wet weather area could be repurposed in the future.”
“I think this is a discussion for another TAG.”
“Yes, of course.”
The arrival of the Lumholtz’ tree kangaroo wouldn’t rate a mention. Being a native species, that breeding program is covered by the Australian mammals TAG.
“I do have a little bit of news. A male Javan Binturong has been offered to the sanctuary. Of course, we’re not in a position to accept, but we can pass along the contact details if any other facility is keen.”
“We would be interested in the binturong, but I don’t know why you’re turning it down.”
It can’t have come as a surprise to Gershon, so I presumed that he was deliberately asking the question. Thankfully, Bill seemed to be biting his tongue, and Blessing determined that the conversation would be taken away from the meeting, but it wasn’t long before conflict flared again.
“I don’t think that’s really fair. Education and engaging visitors are important priorities. We have earmarked that space for refurbishment, although the plans are yet to be finalised. We’ll be sure to update you as soon as we can.”
Margie quietly let herself out of the room.
“We’ve had a little hyaena cub born,” Blessing reported. “Just the single cub, and Forest is once again proving that she’s a wonderful, experienced mother. She’s a gorgeous little girl.”
“A female, that’s great news,” Julie remarked.
“How is your pair getting along?”
“Alright,” Julie confirmed. “They’re cohabitating full-time in our exhibit now, so we’re hopeful they will mate and breed at some time in the near future. We’ll keep them together and keep our fingers crossed.”
“We have introduced our Sumatran Tiger pair, because our female is receptive.”
“Oh, that’s exciting,” Sam remarked. “Have you witnessed a mating yet?”
“No, not yet, unfortunately, but we’re still hopeful.”
Sam showed us a photo. The sun bear cubs were out on exhibit with their mother, basking in the spring sunshine.
“That’s great, mate, really great.”
I figured that I would get to meet Des Perry soon – if not on Sunday, then next week.
“Nothing for us, this week.”
The meeting came to an end. I closed my computer. I returned home to the Roberts’ farm, Nikki dropping me off under a glorious blue sky. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the house, so I left my bag on my bed and wandered outside, tracking down the family in the paddocks. As Mrs Roberts headed back to the house to put dinner on, I lingered by the fence. I’d been too young to meaningfully help out with the farm work back home, before the drought. I felt grateful that the Roberts were having me while I was working at Healesville. For a moment I considered offering to help. I stepped over to the gate. Mr Roberts quickly found a job for me to do. I didn’t mind, happy to help.
“The lambs are dropping every day. It’s exciting, I suppose, although I know we’ll lose some of them,” Mr Roberts outlined.
Hunter remained on my mind. I understood a little bit about the financial pressures that he faced, despite the public perception of his zoo being flush with cash. There was always a different story underneath the surface, something I tried to keep in mind. The hills before us were vast and a little brown, reminding me of home. For a moment I flashed back to my childhood, just in time to hear a banging noise.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Mr Roberts insisted.
He’d slammed the gate on his leg, but he was uninjured. It was definitely overdue news. I was pleased to have a little bit more certainty. Mr Roberts and I started to head for home. I knew that it needed to happen. The darkness was creeping in, I checked my phone, almost as a crutch, which I didn’t necessarily appreciate. The minutes and reports had been sent through following the carnivore TAG meeting. I understood why there were a variety of views. This always seemed to be the case whenever there was a contentious issue. The agenda – at least the interim one – for the following meeting seemed to indicate that the Sri Lankan Leopard program was indeed the next contentious issue. To me that was incredible and something that only few zoos would be able to achieve. The Australian population comprised the majority of those held outside Europe, meaning we held a heavy load upon our shoulders. As a result, I hoped that more leopards would be able to be bred, even though I didn’t have skin in the game. When I was lying in bed, I couldn’t manage to get off to sleep. Eventually I gave up and went outside to stare at the stars. The screen door creaked a little louder than I would have liked when I opened it. I sat myself down on the cane chair on the veranda and I imagined Mrs Roberts, back in the day, rocking her babies to sleep in that chair. While I wanted to relax, I tried not to fall asleep there.
“I thought that I might found you out here.” While I startled, I tried not to show it. “Are the stars this beautiful back home?”
“Yes,” I confirmed to Mrs Roberts. “I think they are.”
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.