CW: Sexual assault
I panned through the assortment of pastries which we’d been granted for breakfast. Piling apple Danishes onto my plate, I found somewhere to sit down. The group had thinned out, or perhaps I was just early. I sat my breakfast and washed it down with a coffee, while the others started to filter in to eat themselves. Our first session this morning would be an opportunity for deep listening. It would be amidst training, added to the program in light of what had happened in Perth, and the dreadful culture which had developed, ultimately leading to Joel’s death. I knew in advance that this would be difficult. That was the point – to dismantle what needed to be burned all the way down. Christine was the one to speak first – facilitating, albeit loosely.
“We use euphemisms like ‘in the shade’ to refer to animals choosing to be in off-display areas, during the day when they are being exhibited to the public. Even though we think that we’re here to tell the truth, we don’t, really.”
“I’ve never told anyone this at work.” Shoulders slumped, Gerard looked down and away, before peering around the room. “I was sexually assaulted when I was at uni.”
He bowed his head, burying his face in his hands. The room was so quiet, I could hear the guests in the walk-through downstairs.
“I was nineteen.” Gerard dropped his hands, opening his eyes again. “I’d been out on the town in Auckland. I was so excited and, I had a few drinks, but I wasn’t trying to get myself drunk. The alcohol really seemed to hit me, though. I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t fight back.”
He breathed out sharply. Deep within my gut I could tell the rest of the story, something I’d been unaware of.
“Next thing I knew, the ambos had arrived. They took me to hospital. I didn’t want to involve the police or anything. Thankfully the nurses talked me around. They got me to put together all the evidence, what they’d need, apparently, and that was traumatic to do in and of itself, no matter the necessity.”
I thought of Tallulah and I thought of Sloane, instinctively.
“So, did they catch the guy?”
“No, they didn’t. While it was a blessing, he didn’t leave any evidence. Even though I had my suspicions, he’d shot through. I’ve never had to see him again, and at least that’s something to be pleased about.”
Gerard offered a stoic smile.
“I’m not saying that I know what it’s like to be a woman in this industry, but I do know a few things from personal experience. I know the shame of it, the way that it sticks with you.”
I felt a shiver over my being. Yet, I knew listening was the right, and best, thing to do. My chest felt tight, all the way to when we broke for morning tea. I noticed Sam wasn’t there, only to be informed that he’d ducked out once the session had finished, to film a segment for Taronga’s documentary. It felt not quite right, but I knew he’d held off for as long as he could. Reuben sidled up next to me.
“Have you ever thought about it?”
“Oh, I’m sure there will be news cameras there on the day we open, but I don’t think I’m cut out to be a TV star.”
We returned for the next session. I kept thinking about Gerard, but I didn’t know what I would say to him if we even did get the chance to speak to each other. We would be listening to a presentation about mixed-species exhibits.
“It’s pretty straightforward when it comes to savannah habitats.”
A chorus of nods went around the room. Most zoos across the region which housed both giraffes and zebras incorporated the species into the same enclosure in some way.
“Usually, there isn’t any danger in these combinations, but some more novel mixings of species can be reckless.”
Our tables had been supplied with full jugs and glasses for water. I reached across and poured a drink for each of us. On the screen, Claire provided an image of a chimp a couple of metres away from a jackal.
“Clearly, this was never going to work out.”
Nervous laughter rippled around the room. While clearly chimpanzees didn’t make good neighbours, smaller primates could have potential to share. Species such as tamarins and marmosets were often mixed for companionship. The quality of photography seemed to have improved throughout the slideshow, a by-product of the history lesson.
“I know that Altina has chosen against mixed species exhibits,” Stefan pointed out.
“That’s not really supposed to be part of the role,” Dirk quipped.
“Well, what are you thinking, Sam, if you don’t mind me asking? You’re housing four giraffes and two zebras cohabitating, but not the planned ostriches,” Julie pointed out.
She must have been really keeping abreast of the NSW zoo gossip.
“We don’t want to have animals feel threatened.”
“Actually, it can be quite enriching,” Raffa pointed out. “Well, it’s quite enriching for the predator, I probably should clarify that.”
He crossed, then unfolded his arms.
“Of course I agree that animal welfare needs to be paramount,” Raffa clarified. “Perhaps it’s a matter of enclosure design. If the predator can experience the enrichment of the prey species, but not the other way around, maybe that’s a good compromise.”
I surveyed around the room to determine how each person was reacting. Pretty much all of the faces I recognised from previous Zoom meetings.
“That would make sense.”
This allowed the conversation to get back on track. I swallowed.
“Well, you’ve got to theme them,” Raffa insisted. “You can’t just have Indian antelope as a stand-in for African antelope, for instance.”
He stayed deadpan, although I knew exactly what he was referring to. These were lessons I needed to take onboard. Underneath the table, I found myself fiddling with a piece of paper which I’d torn off the corner of the conference agenda, even though I didn’t think I had a concrete reason to be feeling anxious. Maybe I just wanted to get home. Therefore, I breathed out and grounded myself, returning my attention to the conference proceedings. Angelique let out a heavy sigh.
“Look, I don’t want to let you down, Don. It doesn’t mean that you can’t keep breeding groups in mixed species exhibits. You just need to be mindful that offspring could be harmed.”
It seemed like a threat.
I was sure Angelique didn’t mean it that way, although maybe that was wishful thinking.
“All I’m saying is that mixed species exhibits are the way of the future,” Don outlined.
“I agree,” Jimmy affirmed. “For smaller city zoos in particular, it’s an effective use of space.”
“That’s fascinating,” I gushed.
It seemed to reduce the heat of the room.
“We’ve found that animal watch volunteers can be a useful resource,” Reuben pointed out. “If you have access to them, of course, they can monitor the animals and report back to keepers.”
Not everyone had that luxury, although I knew most zoos had volunteers to help out.
“It’s been a difficult year for many of us.”
A chorus of nods went around the tables. Even though he didn’t say anything, I paid particular attention to the shadow over Jimmy’s face. I thought about the other deaths and hardships that had befallen the zoos’ animal communities. We were all looking forward to a fresh start. I pondered the sort of mixed species habitats which might have been advantageous for us in the future. Of course, I didn’t want offspring to be hurt. I cared deeply about the welfare of animals, even though outside of our care.
“There is one other issue,” Des pointed out.
He revealed possible plans for Zoos Victoria to transfer the baboon troop to Werribee, for their welfare. I breathed out sharply. Somewhere along the line, I locked eyes with Claire. While I would have been comfortably the youngest woman attending the conference, she would have only been a decade or so older than me. It was good to know there might have been a solution.
“You could house the baboons with the hippos,” Reuben proposed.
I allowed myself a laugh. The reactions of those around the room, though, indicated that the suggestion hadn’t been made in jest.
“You know, we thought of that,” Don pointed out.
I didn’t know how to voice my concerns, so I concluded that it must not have been my place, after all. The plans for Monarto had fallen through, so they would for Werribee, too. It seemed almost unbelievable that Adelaide Zoo had held river hippos until relatively recently. Finally, the conference broke for lunch. Stepping out onto the balcony, I smelt the salt off the harbour. I caught sight of the Tasmanian devil facility, once the Jungle Cats building. While it had been painted over, the words ‘Big cats’ had been affixed to the wall. As I pondered the history of the place, Sam wandered out onto the balcony, stepping into place beside me.
“How are you feeling?”
I took a breath.
“It’s been a big week,” I answered, “but a good week, all in all. This is a beautiful, beautiful place.”
“Indeed, it is,” Sam confirmed. “The very best, I reckon.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Glancing across the canopy, I knew Taronga had benefitted from one hundred years of allowing the trees to grow. We didn’t have that benefit back home.
“Thank you for having us.”
Eventually, Sam had to return inside, as did I. I couldn’t remember what would be coming next. As there was a little bit of lunch food leftover, I grabbed a couple of vegetarian wraps. We may as well have made the most of the catering available. I sat up the back and tried to eat quietly. I knew it was inevitable. Just as I had a mouthful, then I would be called upon to speak. I had thought that we would be discussing the other gibbon programs before the siamangs, but it seemed like the order had been flipped around for some reason. I quickly finished the wrap in my mouth, then rose to my feet. Once I outlined the current population, I opened the floor to questions. I didn’t share the same anxiety as others when it came to public speaking.
“Would it be possible for us to see what has been constructed for the siamangs at Acarda Zoo?”
Sam helped me to hook up my phone to the AV equipment. I shared the photos of our exhibit. Looking at the enclosure in pictures made it seem all the more real.
“And you’re moving them across from Adelaide at the end of the week?” Tessa checked.
“I would be thinking we would breed Medan and Georgia at natural birth intervals, at least for the first three or four offspring.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Reuben affirmed.
“Seems to me like a high number of breeding recs.”
“Well, it would depend on the sex of the offspring.” I tried to go through everything I’d learned about managed breeding programs. “It would be ideal if Medan and Georgia could produce at least one each, a male and a female, and potentially even two each.”
As species coordinator, that would be my call. I could continue to issue breeding recommendations. If the primate TAG disagreed, then they could express those opinions and provide me with direction. We needed to be able to provide for every animal we bred, unless we planned a wild release.
“Would you have the exhibit space to house another siamang pair at Acarda Zoo?” Mal wanted to know.
“Well, at the moment we don’t,” I admitted, “but we’ve started off very small and we have more land available to us. I would love to be able to keep multiple pairs of siamangs on site if it was possible, but we have to take animal welfare into account as well, of course. The last thing I’d want to do is cause any distress through having overlapping territories.”
Finally, I had the opportunity to sit down. It seemed to me that being a species coordinator for a relatively well-dispersed exotic species was hard work. Next up, Javan Gibbons, shouldn’t have been as challenging. I wasn’t sure whether Julie or Jimmy would be presenting the talk. It turned out to be Jimmy. He was not only the species coordinator for the region, but globally. I knew that Mogo had a Javan gibbon family and they would likely breed again, given that they had a proven pair. Both animals came from well-represented lines. However, given the worldwide captive population was so small, that didn’t mean a great deal. I decided that I would speak to Nanek about that when I got the chance. While there was a slim possibility, I hope that the old sanctuary site would have a future for releasing animals into the wild, once the poachers had been dealt with. The session finished, the conference breaking for afternoon tea. Tables were stocked with sweet treats. I selected a custard tart. We would have around twenty minutes before we were expected to return for the final session of the day. It seemed like some of the most information-dense topics were reserved for when we had the least brain capacity. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep. The topic was whether or not it would be suitable for a variety of species to have outdoor access at night.
“This is why we publish husbandry manuals,” Sam pointed out, scratching the back of his neck with stubbed fingernails.
I decided to soak in the discussion, rather than feeling like I needed to rush to have and express an opinion of my own.
“Look, at the end of the day, I think we need to separate our own preferences from our beliefs about husbandry,” Raffa outlined.
I played with Kakek’s cross while I listened. Faintly outside I thought that there was a little bit of music playing.
“Well, what’s the point of being in a beautiful place like Sydney if you can’t properly enjoy it?” Sam kept a calm tone all the way through.
Some of the animals, like the elephants, would be allowed outdoor access at night. Others were kept indoors, to ensure their safety and to prevent escape. The final session of the day concluded. The drinks were freely flowing, especially after we’d eaten dinner. Hopefully that would ameliorate intoxication. Tomorrow I’ll be heading home from Sydney, but there’s still a full day of the conference to go. On one hand, I can’t wait to be back.
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
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.