This morning, Reuben and I got up and dressed, downed our coffees, then prepared for another day out in the zoo. Exiting the front door, we could barely see the gate in front of us. Naturally, the fog burned off to a beautiful morning. I ended up spending it wandering around Trail of the Elephants. By mid-morning, I headed back to Reuben’s kitchen, starting to make myself green tea, in the absence of coffee. I heard the front door open, then slam shut. So much for just popping home for a quick cuppa to calm my nerves before getting on with my day.
“Now where did I leave my--.” Reuben had started picking things up and dumping them just as quickly.
The kettle boiled, and I sighed heavily.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
There was a silent ‘this time’ which I omitted, expecting it would attract ire.
“Keys,” Reuben finished his question.
I didn’t like being in the house. Reuben could get into quite the mood.
“Now, remember, Isobel’s coming today. We’re receiving tamarins from Adelaide so that they can bulldoze their exhibits. Would you like to come across with me to where we’re going to be housing them?”
“That’d be great.”
We departed the house, Reuben thankfully having tracked down his keys. He led me through the zoo to a back-of-house area, behind Growing Wild.
“This is where they’ll be for now.”
“So they’ll go on display eventually?”
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed. “It’s sort of a quarantine period first and foremost. After that, we’ll move them into a proper exhibit.”
I nodded my head, then glanced upwards. A few darkish clouds drifted over, threatening rain, but it would probably come to nothing at least for now.
“You’ll be able to help once Isobel and I return.”
With that, he left for the airport in the truck. I figured that there wasn’t much for me to do in the meantime. Therefore, I figured I’d return to the cottage for a little bit of lunch, whatever I could manage to find in Reuben’s kitchen. On my way back, I bumped into Monica and said hello. She must have been coming from the Sumatran Tiger exhibit within Trail of the Elephants.
“It’s Jumilah, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed. I’m up from Tassie for six weeks, learning the ropes, as much as I can.”
As we continued along the path, the sun disappeared behind a cloud. I inhaled, detecting a whiff of smoke in the air. We weren’t meant to approach Treetop Monkeys and Apes. Just where we were meant to turn was where I spotted the flames, and I started running without thinking.
“Jumilah!” Monica hollered.
I didn’t listen. Hands shaking and sweating, I unlocked the door. The two white-cheeked gibbons must have been separated from their netted enclosure by the fire. Ana, the female gibbon, leapt onto my chest. Thoughts ran through my mind at breakneck speed, but I stumbled backwards. A firefighter approached, trained to run towards danger. Nonetheless, his lip quivered at the gibbon.
“There’s another gibbon still inside,” I told the firefighter. “He’s on this side.”
He sprayed water at the flames, while Oglivy appeared on the ground, scampering into the crate which Ella and some others had turned up with.
“Oh, God, Jumilah.” Reuben started to fling himself at me, before hesitating at the animal which hung to my torso. “You crazy woman.”
We both turned to look at the firefighter approaching us with a hint of trepidation.
“I’m Reuben Hendricks, director of the zoo.”
“The fire’s out,” the firefighter confirmed.
“How do you think it started?” Reuben wanted to know.
“I’m not sure, but the police will be here shortly to check things out,” the firefighter mentioned.
His eyes flicked to me, gibbon still on my chest, then back to Reuben.
“The animal holding facility is structurally sound, you can return your animals.”
“Thank you,” I responded with a nod of my head, then headed over.
The metal staircase leading to the night dens remained undamaged, but the public boardwalk was gone. I climbed the stairs and opened the door, thinking she’d leap off me and swing back home. Despite what had gone on, there was still an animal transfer to complete. Isobel looked glowing, not ragged.
“You’ve had quite the day already,” she remarked.
“We have,” I confirmed. “We’ve closed Treetop Monkeys until we can make repairs, but we got lucky.”
We arrived at the truck, where the driver opened the back doors. Isobel and I unpacked the travel boxes which contained Cotton-Top Tamarins, transferred from Adelaide to Melbourne to facilitate construction of the gorilla exhibit. We took them back-of-house, to the exhibit which Reuben had shown me earlier in the morning. Once the tamarins were let into their night dens, we were able to take a step back. The door was left ajar for the animals to have choice of where they explored. A couple of the younger members of the group adventurously ventured outside.
“A little birdie told me that you ran into a burning building after a gibbon today.”
“I didn’t think, I just did it. What else was I supposed to do?”
“You’re just like Reuben,” Isobel remarked with a smile.
We walked around the corner and happened upon him, confirming that everything had gone smoothly with the new arrival. I checked my watch.
“We’ve completely missed the meeting, haven’t we?” Reuben asked.
“Yeah,” I confirmed.
“That’s alright. I’ll send our apologies to Christine.”
“Thanks,” I responded.
Isobel retrieved her phone to confirm the time for herself.
“We’ve got to get you back to the airport soon, I’m presuming,” Reuben mentioned.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Have you got any time to have a look around?”
“Yes, I’ve got a little bit of time.”
“We can take you around to the primates, at least,” Reuben offered.
Our first stop was the siamang exhibit, near the Japanese gardens. I could see the grin on Isobel’s face; she couldn’t hide it.
“They’re boisterous, these boys,” Reuben noted. “That’s why they’re here and not with the rest of the family over in the orangutan exhibit.”
Isobel was eager to check out Melbourne’s Orangutan Sanctuary for herself. Therefore, crossing the zoo, that was our next destination. We strolled down a dirt path, to reach the boardwalk which passes the mesh exhibit and the outdoor area.
“I have been here before,” she mentioned, “but that was years ago. The plants have really grown up, it looks great.”
I noticed Menyaru and Indah out in the exhibit, but I couldn’t spot Ella. After that, we continued past the lake, back to the Main Drive. I could smell rain in the air. It didn’t surprise me that Isobel next opted to head towards the African rainforest. We sped through the walk-through lemur exhibit, then around the gorilla exhibit. Due to the fire, we weren’t able to use the public boardwalk to access Treetop Monkeys and Apes. Instead, Reuben and I took Isobel around the back, which doubled as an opportunity to check in on the inhabitants. Albeit obscured from public view, the animals could be seen relatively well through the mesh from the keeper walkways. Isobel beamed at the Emperor Tamarins, both of the pair more than eager to come and get a closer look at her.
“You know, we’re keeping these little guys at Adelaide, they’re just moving off-display.”
“Right,” I remarked, as we continued on to another, larger enclosure on the trail.
“This is where the cotton-top group will be going,” Reuben explained, gesturing into the empty exhibit.
Isobel nodded her head. We continued on, the fire damage evident, charred wood indicative of just how close the fire got to where the gibbons were. I peered up through mesh, at Oglivy and Ana looking down at me.
“It’s alright, sweetie, you’re alright.”
I reached up and brushed the back of my hand over Ana’s blonde fur. Isobel rested one hand gently between my shoulder blades.
“They’re safe and sound, thanks to you.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, nodding my head.
It had been a big day, in more ways than I’d expected in anticipating the arrival of the Cotton-Top Tamarins from Adelaide. Finally, we needed to leave the zoo. Reuben drove us in a Zoos Victoria van, out to Tullamarine Airport and the visitor carpark. We bid farewell to Isobel, who got out of the van with her backpack to catch her flight back to Adelaide. Reuben and I drove back towards the zoo. We ended up entering through the rail gate. I walked the long way to the reptile house, around the loop of the carnivore trail, past Melbourne Zoo’s lion brothers, Harare and Johari. Returning to the Main Drive, I encountered Vel.
“Just the man I’m looking for.”
“Hello, Jumilah,” he greeted me. “I’ve heard that you’ve had quite the dramatic day so far in the primate department.”
“Yes, we have. There was a fire at Treetop Monkeys and Apes. The animals are all safe, though, so that’s the main thing.”
Vel nodded his head. I felt like the reality of the fire hadn’t fully hit me yet. At some time it probably would.
“Would you like to have a look through the reptile house, then?”
“Of course, that would be lovely,” I accepted.
“Come with me,” Vel urged.
I followed him into the reptile house.
“I’ve always had a great passion for reptiles.
“Do you have a favourite?”
“I do, I will admit, but they’re not housed here. My favourite reptile species is the Philippine Crocodile. They’re the reason I became a zookeeper.”
We walked past an empty exhibit.
“Is there something meant to be in there?” I wanted to know.
“We used to house a Burmese Python there,” Vel noted, “but she’s recently been moved up to a zoo in New South Wales.”
I figured that it wasn’t Taronga, because if it was, then he would have just said so. We continued on, and Vel beamed.
“Here we go.” He approached a long glass window, and I followed him. “This is Sara. She’s one of the crocodiles born here.”
We exited out the other end of the house. There, Vel and I encountered the Komodo dragon.
“For a creature which can kill, they’re really quite gentle.”
I nodded my head and stayed there for a moment, watching the Komodo move his head from side to side, observing the environment.
“Thank you for your tour.”
“Not a problem.” Vel checked his watch. “I’m sorry, I’ll have to go soon. Emmie will be expecting me to head home.”
After a beat, realisation washed over me.
“Oh, so you and Emmie--.”
“Yes, we’re an office romance.” Vel panned his gaze around at our surroundings. “This is the best office you could hope for, pretty much.”
“Yeah, you’re not wrong there.”
Therefore, we approached the carnivore area. Sure enough, Emmie walked into our view.
“Hello.” She greeted Vel with a kiss, then looked at me. “You’ve had a day in primates, I hear.”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “but all good.”
“That’s good to hear,” Emmie responded, then she and Vel waved me goodbye.
It had started raining by the time I was able to head home. I bowed my head and scampered through the puddles until I could leap up onto the deck of Reuben’s cottage and open the front door, entering without caring if it banged behind me. I found him standing by the fridge, taking in the coolness of the inside.
“Tonight’s not a night for wine,” Reuben told me. “It’s a night for a beer.”
“Oh, I would have gone even higher up the shelf.”
Reuben laughed, but fetched two beer bottles regardless, handing one of them over to me.
“Do you drink beer?”
“I’m eighteen, I drink everything.”
Fetching a bottle opener, I removed the cap. Beer tasted ever sweeter, after our unexpectedly arduous day. I found myself staring into space while I was drinking, too exhausted for conversation or really to focus on anything in particular. After a beer, I didn’t really want to sit down for class. However, I couldn’t bail on the first session. Therefore, I logged into the Zoom meeting and was greeted by Sam’s smiling face on my screen.
“Hello, Jumilah,” he greeted me. “I’ve heard that you’ve had a pretty dramatic day today.”
“Yes,” I confirmed, a little breathless. “There was a fire, but it’s all fine.”
“A fire, that sounds dramatic,” one of the other students remarked, with a distinctive New Zealand accent.
“Yeah, but it was nothing major. All the animals are safe, which is the main thing.”
“For sure and certain.”
“Let’s go around and introduce ourselves to start off with, shall we?” Sam invited. “I’m Sam Chen, from Taronga Zoo. I’ll be teaching the course. We’ll next have Jumilah, then Zach.”
“My name is Jumilah Fioray. I’m currently doing work experience at Melbourne Zoo, but I’m from Tassie. My grandparents work in wildlife conservation in Sumatra.”
I spoke in the present tense, even though it wasn’t telling the full story.
“Thank you, Jumilah. Jumilah and I know each other already, actually. We’re both involved with the taxon advisory group for primates, as a result of her grandparents’ work and her zoo.”
I found myself studying the faces of the other students. They weren’t my competition, but neither my peers.
“I’m Zach McCallum. Despite the accent, I’m actually from Sydney.”
“That’s great, Zach. I’m sure that I’ll get to meet you in person soon.”
“For sure, sir,” Zach responded.
“Alice and Piper?” Sam urged them to introduce themselves. “I see that you seem to be joining us from the same room.”
“Yes, yeah,” one of the girls on the screen confirmed.
“Piper moved in with my family at the end of last year.”
She must have been Alice, blonde and sitting on the left as I looked at their Zoom box.
“So, I’m Alice Abbott, and this is Piper Perkins.”
Piper nodded her head.
“We both live on the Gold Coast.”
Alice looked back to the camera.
“I’m so, so sorry about her.”
“That’s alright,” Sam assured. “It’s good to have you both here. Lucia?”
A young woman, with freckles and shoulder-length red hair, popped up on the screen.
“I live in Berowra, that’s kind of Sydney, but not really, it’s more north.”
Being in Sorell, I could relate to that.
“To be perfectly honest, I would like to study vet nursing, in the end.”
“It’s great to have you here, Lucia,” Sam welcomed her. “Kenneth?”
“Hi, I’m Kenneth. Uh, my interesting fact is that I was born in Indonesia.”
I instinctively smiled. Kenneth coughed into his fist.
“I’ve always been really interested in wildlife. I didn’t get into uni to do vet science, so instead I’m here, but very, very keen.”
“My grandmother lives near Binjai,” I supplied, “and I’ve got other relatives in the south, as well.”
“Ah, lovely,” Kenneth responded. “My family are all city slickers. They’re in Medan, but don’t hold that against us.”
“Not at all, not at all, I have rellies there too, right near the airport.”
“Great to have you here, Kenneth.”
Sam started sharing his screen.
“Alright, let’s get started.”
My heart started beating faster and I grinned with excitement, as we got underway.
“I’ll be issuing readings for each week. I know that you’re not here to read stuff.”
“But we are here to learn,” Zach assured.
“Yes, of course. I hope that you will find the readings interesting. There is a lot to learn about the science of caring for animals, but also the theory behind the modern zoo industry.”
This side of things really intrigues me.
“I know that introductions with tigers can sometimes take years,” Zach outlined, “so I know that we have to be patient. You’d know a thing or two about that.”
Zach seems quite knowledgeable, and not afraid to say it.
“Well, yes, we do breed tigers here at Taronga Zoo,” Sam confirmed. “Tonight, though, I would like to start with your perceptions of zoos and animal care. I mean, I doubt we’re going to get any hardcore animal liberationists in this course, but--.”
“You never know,” Kenneth quipped, his tongue firmly in his cheek.
“It’s very easy for people on the outside to critique zoos. I, just quietly, think that’s fair enough, because the industry can be quite insular.”
I thought it brave for Sam to be making that admission, and I’m not sure whether or not I agree with it. My own experiences, by and large, are most likely the exception, rather than the norm.
“I suppose being in this course, we’re trying to break that down, and get into the inside,” Lucia outlined. “Ideally, things would be more expansive.”
Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution? I found myself lost in my own head, rather than contributing to class discussion.
“I do think that zoos need to contribute something to wild habitats,” Kenneth stated. “I mean, that’s not the only purpose of zoos, in my view, but if it’s not there, then I think that there’s something missing.”
Reflecting upon his opinion, I yearned to speak with Nanek about her views, and instinctively glanced towards my watch. I did the mental maths of the time difference. In my chest I felt a pang, with the accompanying re-realisation of the questions I would never be able to ask Kakek. His journals are back home in Tasmania. Maybe I could ask Mum to look to see what he’s written, although I wanted the opportunity to flick through the pages for myself. Sam had referenced ‘my zoo’ before, and they knew the surface-level details about my grandparents, but I found myself being cagey about what else I would reveal. At least the benefit of being on Zoom was that each participant had their name in front of their face. My only concern was trying to remember which of Alice and Piper is the blonde one and the brunette one, as they’re sort of interchangeable. I wasn’t completely confident of the location of my phone, but it would be somewhere in the house.
“Alright, that comes to the end of the content which we have for tonight,” Sam announced.
I realised that I’d contributed very little. Usually I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a shy person, although maybe the stress of the day was getting to me.
“My phone number is zero four three zero, three, triple four, double six,” Sam supplied, and the others quickly recorded it.
I knew that it was already saved in my phone, from back when we’d first met, in the aftermath of Kakek’s death.
“Do you have any questions?” Sam wanted to know.
“Ah, Sam, this is just a personal thing, did you get my email about my work experience at Taronga?” Zach enquired.
“Yes, yes I did,” Sam confirmed. “I’m sorry, I’ll get back to it shortly.”
“Well, that’s class for the night. I’ll hopefully see you all next week.”
We left the Zoom meeting. I thought that Reuben must have gone to bed, because the house was eerily quiet. Strolling into my room and changing my clothes, I lay down in bed, finally feeling peace. Although, maybe it was just exhaustion.
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.