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Delicate

Waking up this morning, I ducked into the bathroom and had a quick shower, washing my hair before getting changed into my uniform. While towel-drying my hair, I sauntered down the stairs.


“Hey.”


“Hi.”


I sat down at the breakfast bar, opposite Whitlam, who was eating his breakfast.


“What are you thinking about?” I asked.


“Our hippo exhibits, actually.”


“Right.”


“Hippos are very dangerous animals. I’m sure that’s not new information for you.”


I nodded.


“That said, so are cows.”


“Do you mean cattle cows?”


“Yeah.”


“They are.”


“So, you can keep them in with relatively simple fencing.”


Jamila walked down the stairs.


“Good morning.”


“Hi. We’ve been learning about hippo exhibit design,” he explained. “You see, these are the things that Jumilah’s got to learn, she’ll sound impressive when she goes for her licence.”


“Sounds great.”


She approached the milk frother, next to the coffee machine.


“Jumilah, would you like a matcha latte?” Jamila offered over her shoulder.


“Yes, thanks, that would be lovely,” I accepted, even though I knew I would have benefited from caffeination.


She nodded, then produced the drink. Jamila passed my keep-cup into my hands, which I accepted with thanks. I took a sip from the drink and, for a moment, I was back home, strolling around Eastlands with Tallulah.


“Thank you, this is lovely.”


The four of us headed outside and piled into the car. A low layer of grey cloud hovered overhead as far as I could see. As I fastened my seatbelt across my chest, I wondered what the visitor numbers at the zoo would be. Now that school’s back, the crowds have thinned. Upon our arrival, we signed in, then I followed Jamila on her morning rounds. First stop was the cool room. We fetched food, then headed off to the lions.


“We do a carcass feed every now and then,” Jamila explained. “Today isn’t one of those days, though.”


I nodded, then looked out towards the savannah bus road as she unlocked.


“There’s some empty land out there, isn’t there, in between the exhibits?”


The door opened.


“There’s going to be a hyaena exhibit added eventually,” Jamila noted, waving her free hand around. “Hopefully there will be a breeding pack.”


“That would be cool.”


Jamila and I provided meat in the exhibit, then retreated to safety behind the mesh, allowing us to let Werribee’s pride of lions out into their enclosure.


“I’m going to miss these guys, when they’re not altogether as one pride anyone.”


Jamila looked at me.


“We’ll have to move the males on. I gather that the TAG will give their recommendations. I’m sure that you’ll hear all about that from Sam on Thursday.”


“Do you think that you’ll get another breeding recommendation here?”


“I don’t know, to be perfectly honest,” Jamila admitted, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did.”


After finishing at the lions, we moved onto the cheetah exhibit. Kulinda approached us, chuffling and rubbing herself up against the mesh to greet us for the morning.


“Hey, beautiful girl.”


A question mark lingered over whether or not she would breed in the future. Once we fed Kulinda, Jamila and I reached the wild dog exhibit.


“You know, it’s a bit of a shame that Melbourne phased this species out, but at the end of the day, it’s fair enough. There’s certainly a lot more room for them here.”


I nodded my head. We finished the carnivore rotation for the morning. I headed back to the staff quarters, to get some study done. When the phone rang, I startled, glancing around to see who would answer it. Finding myself alone, I realised it would be my responsibility.


“Hello, Jumilah Fioray speaking.”


“I’m sorry, who’s speaking?”


“Jumilah Fioray,” I repeated. “May I ask whom I’m speaking with?”


The man scoffed. I had my suspicions, although I wasn’t sure.


“Bill Nevill,” he growled.


I left a pause, only partially intentionally. Whoever he’d want to speak to, Bill would have to ask himself.


“Put me onto Des, would you, love?”


My heart thumped within my chest, instinctively glancing over my shoulder. He’s not here, he’s not here, he’s not here.


“Yes, of course, I’ll put you through to his office,” I assured. “Just a second.”


My eyes widened as I studied the switchboard. I’d done this before, albeit at Healesville. Thankfully it didn’t take me too long to find the right button, which I pressed.


“Putting you through now,” I said, then the line went dead.


I peeled myself away. A part of me wanted to walk through and linger in the doorway to Des’ office. He didn’t, though, need my support, so I abandoned my studies and exited the building. The cool breeze coated my lungs. I listened to the roar of the lions, and the shuffle of visitors’ feet. Eventually I found myself outside the cheetah exhibit, just as Jamila concluded her keeper talk.


“Bill Nevill called Des Perry about half an hour ago,” I divulged, “and he didn’t sound happy.”


“I mean, if I were him, I wouldn’t be particularly thrilled by the situation that I’m in, either,” Jamila conceded, “not that it means I feel sorry for him. It’ll just depend on how far they go.”


She turned around, so that she could face the cheetah exhibit. My stomach grumbled.


“What do you think that the coroner’s going to say?”


“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Of course, I wasn’t there, I can’t know.”


I exhaled.


“Well, there’s not much we can do right now.”


I wandered off to the elephant complex site. Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I wanted to call Mum, even though she would have been working and I wasn’t sure whether or not she would answer. Jamila and I both needed a breather, given the anxiety-inducing morning. Thankfully, Mum did answer.


“So, I’ve got some news,” I divulged, and I knew that I would eventually get around to mentioning that Bill Nevill had called the zoo, but before then I found myself beating around the bush, even though it would make my mother worry.


“Don’t tell me you’ve fallen in love with someone on the mainland.”


“No, that’s not the case, not right now, anyway.” I couldn’t quite believe this was the path the conversation had gone down, but it wasn’t something I could blame Mum for. “Unless you go off and become a nun or something, it’s kind of always on the table.”


“Well, that was one of the possibilities,” she admitted with a laugh. “If they weren’t so keen for grandchildren, I don’t think my parents would have minded if things turned out that way. They didn’t, though, and I don’t regret going to university, not one bit.”


I reached for Kakek’s cross. Usually, it sat just underneath my Zoos Victoria uniform.


“Do you want me to become a nun?”


“Oh, darling, I never said that, I wouldn’t--.” Mum swallowed. “It’s not something that I’ve really thought about, but I will love you no matter what.”


We ended the call. I breathed out. Wanting to grab a bite to eat, I finally returned to the staff quarters, wondering how the rest of the day would unfold. Still, a primate TAG meeting was held. Des joined the call, but Bill didn’t, despite a part of me waiting for his face to pop up on the screen at any moment. Without a single focus for the meeting, Christine facilitated questions for species coordinators.


“Reuben, your female white-cheeked gibbon,” Don mentioned, “she’s still on contraception, isn’t she?”


“Yes, she is at the moment, but she’s integrated with the male.”


“I wasn’t saying that was the type. Do you think they could be re-partnered for breeding?”


“It’s not out of the question. We need to ensure genetic diversity within the population.”


I felt a little bit torn, even from my limited experience at Melbourne Zoo. To me, Ana and Ogilvy seemed to be a bonded pair. Therefore, it wouldn’t have been in their best interests to split them up, but the genetic factors need to be considered as well. Ogilvy is a genetically valuable male. He was imported from the US for the purposes of breeding. Were he and Ana never to produce offspring, that bloodline would come to naught.


“The gibbons we have here at Wellington Zoo were in a very similar position,” Christine recounted. “We chose that we would keep them together, although that was in a slightly different era. There were many more wild-caught gibbons within the global captive population back then.”


“Ogilvy isn’t wild-caught.”


“Yet, how do I put this, we’re more brutal these days.”


“I wouldn’t have put it that way,” I spoke up, “but I see what you mean, you know, in the context of what we’re talking about.”


“Can I ask, what would you do, Jumilah, if these were siamangs?”


I breathed out, giving myself some time to think. What would I think if this involved Medan or Georgia, or baby Jelita? It felt strange to think of her as one day being old enough to breed, but I looked forward to it nonetheless.


“Well, it’s important to ensure representation of all founders.” I was speaking around the question, but using a lofty vocabulary to do it. “Ana’s father, of course, Kayak is an underrepresented founder. If these were siamangs, I would want to secure representation of the line.”


“Can’t argue with that,” Reuben chimed in.


“Alright, let’s move onto the member reports. Adelaide Zoo?”


“How are your baboons going?”


“Look, the enclosure looks like a bomb’s hit it, half the time.”


Don allowed himself a bit of a laugh.


“What would you think of importing additional females?”


“I’d say that it would be possible, but it’s not something I’ve really considered. We have a number of baboon troops within the region already--.”


“Although new genetics are always valuable.”


“They are.”


Don started chatting back and forth with Reuben about the merits of importing from overseas versus transferring females from within the region.


“Have you ever read Romeo and Juliet?”


“I mean, have you?”


“Well, I’m sure I have, in Year Eight or something.”


The conversation was ridiculously off-topic. I didn’t mind, even though I hoped it wouldn’t dominate the whole discussion. Somehow, Reuben managed to link it back to the point he was trying to make.


“Well, I think we’ve finally got it working. I’ll say that.”


I resisted the urge to chew a rough bit off one of my fingernails.


“What about your gorilla plans?”


The questions seemed to mostly be for Don, rather than him giving an update.


“We have designed our exhibit with the intention of holding a breeding group,” Don outlined, “although we know that females will be hard to come by. By holding a breeding group at Adelaide, that can be supported with a bachelor facility at Monarto down the line.”


“There are four viable breeding females at Melbourne Zoo,” Sam reminded. “Currently, the region aims for three females in a troop.”


I sensed where he was going with this.


“There’s a possibility of transferring some to Adelaide.”


“I’d be lying if I tried to say it hadn’t crossed my mind,” Don admitted, “but I’m not going to cut Reuben’s grass. Our exhibit isn’t going to be ready for at least another year, and I know the effort which has been put in to ensuring that Kwabema is well-integrated with the females at Melbourne.”


“Auckland Zoo?”


“You moved your chimpanzees on quite some time ago--.”


“Yes, to Hamilton Zoo. That was in my first year with the primates, in fact. It was the right decision to make, we couldn’t care effectively for multiple species of apes. We’ve decided to focus on orangutans and Bornean Orangutans, specifically. It was the right call.”


“So, are you ruling out ever acquiring another great ape species?”


“Oh, never say never,” Gerard qualified, “but it’s not on the cards.”


“That’s fair enough,” Christine assured. “Currently, there aren’t any institutions which have expressed interest in acquiring chimpanzees in the future. Is that still the case?”


“Well, we might--,” Reuben spoke up.


I felt a shiver through my body – unexpectedly, in the circumstances. It would have been a big surprise, for sure, for Melbourne Zoo to bring chimpanzees back into their collection for the first time in three decades.


“Reuben, I wouldn’t have picked that. If you were going to complete the set, I figured that you would have a long time ago.”


“Well, we did have the opportunity when we demolished the ape grottoes, but we now have a larger holding capacity for lemurs, and an interactive visitor experience.”


Those three words sounded like marketing speak, but they were not without their substance.


“Would you be looking to hold a bachelor group or a breeding group?”


A hint of pink came into Reuben’s cheeks.


“You would think that a breeding group would be more engaging for the public.”


“Oh, of course, with the babies. There’s more to captive breeding than that, though.”


“Oh, of course, I know. It’s just that everyone has an opinion on what the right thing to do is. I’m just being realistic when I say that babies, whether they’re lemurs or chimpanzees, are good for business, never mind how they got there.”


“Chimpanzees are promiscuous, I suppose, if you speak about them like you would conceive of human beings, but I think that’s flawed,” Reuben outlined, a hint of a smile creeping onto his lips. “Anyway, I think that we’ve spent more than enough time on this, don’t you, Christine?”


“Yes, I’m satisfied,” she assured. “Darling Downs Zoo?”


“Oh, I did have a question about your Red-Handed Tamarins,” Sam wanted to know. “Are there any animals you would be in a position to transfer, or should we import if we want to hold them as part of our Mini Monkeys precinct?”


“Well,” Raffa responded, “we do have two young males.”


“Can we make a deal?” Sam requested.


He spoke in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, but I believed he was serious.


“That is, of course, if you think it’s in the best interest of the breeding program that this species be housed at Taronga.”


“There’s absolutely no reason to think that you shouldn’t include them. Indeed, I believe it would be beneficial,” Raffa insisted. “Without blowing our horn, Gershon and I have put the work in to import. We want this program to work, and we’d love you to be a part of it.”


“Thank you, that’s great.”


“Hamilton Zoo?” Christine enquired. “Anything to add, Tessa, about your chimpanzees?”


“I don’t anticipate us breeding again for quite a few years,” she outlined, “because we’d need to bring in a new male with fresh genetics, but I understand that it will be a matter for the species coordinator to determine that.”


“I’m not sure if you would be able to do that while your existing males are still alive,” Blessing noted. “You’d either have to bring in adolescent males and hope, or wait a decade.”


“Sam, do you have a preferred outcome?”


“You’ve got some juveniles in the troop at the moment. In my view, there’s no urgency.”


“Melbourne Zoo?”


“We’re--.” Reuben breathed in. “Just a second.”


He muted himself, then coughed.


“Sorry,” Reuben apologised once he pulled himself together. “We have fire safety upgrades planned.”


He took a quick sip of water from a drink bottle.


“And we’ve confirmed that the capuchins will be leaving the collection. They’re moving off-display this week. From there, they’ll go onto Coolangatta Zoo in Queensland, and be phased out of our collection for the long-term.”


“Will they be the last capuchins in a statutory zoo, at least for the moment?” Sam asked.


Reuben squinted in thought.


“Yeah, I think so,” he answered, in a bemused tone.


“Thanks, Reuben. Do you have anything else to add?”


“Two of our keepers have travelled up to Canberra today. They’re transporting one of our zebras, who will be joining the breeding program up there. They’ll be bringing back the male colobus, for pairing with Mapenzi.”


I wondered who those two keepers were. If I was to guess, I would have suspected Ara and Ella – one ungulate keeper, and one primate keeper.


“Rockhampton Zoo?”


“Yeah, thanks, Christine. Now that the gibbons have arrived, we’ll be looking to acquire our next primate species.”


“Would you be interested in Hamadryas baboon?”


“Yes, we would be.”


“You know, I might have a deal for you.”


“Oh, right.”


That would have seemed like a good proposal all round. Separating off the males from Melbourne’s troop would allow them to transfer in fresh genetics, to breed with their multiple generations of females.


“How are your chimpanzees going?”


“Good, thanks,” Gilham assured. “Our exhibit’s pretty good, especially after the expansions a few years back. The problem we have is a small troop.”


“Do you think it would be helpful to bring in some more animals?” Sam enquired.


“Well, we are planning on bringing in another male.”


This news was a surprise to me. Usually it would be close to impossible to introduce male chimps.


“Cassius isn’t going to have too many more years left in him, we know that. That’s why we’re fortunate that we’ve been able to acquire a castrated male who has easily been integrated with the rest of the troop, so we won’t be reduced to a solitary adult male upon Cassius’ passing.”


“Taronga Zoo?”


“Just to let you know, we’re developing plans for a South American precinct.”


“Ooh, that’s exciting,” I commented.


Sam smiled.


“Yeah, it is. From a primate perspective, I acquiring we’ll be listing our intention to acquire a larger number of South American primates. The plans are still being finalised, though. I’m just giving you a heads up.”


“That sounds good,” Mal commented. “Do you have an update on breeding from Johari?”


“I’ve been in touch with Doctor Hope. His wife is sadly very unwell at the moment.”


“So, you won’t be proceeding with the AI?”


“Well, it’s still up in the air. It will just depend on Doctor Hope’s timeframe, or whether we’re able to proceed without him.”


“Alright, make sure you keep us posted.”


A heaviness hung over me. While it would be lovely for Johari to get to welcome a baby of her own, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe proceeding with the artificial insemination wasn’t such a good idea after all.


“We’ve had some really good news here.” Christine was beaming. “A little emperor tamarin baby was born late Saturday night.”


She shared her screen to bring up a picture, so that we could all swoon. The tiny baby was snuggled against her mother’s chest. I knew some of the difficulties which Wellington had with the species. Therefore, this was beautiful news to hear, even more so than an animal birth usually would be.


“We’re all pretty smitten.”


“That’s great news.”


“Jumilah, is there anything you’d like to add?”


“Oh, no, not off the top of my head. This is my last week on the mainland, so I’ve been pretty fortunate to spend some time with some wonderful people and some wonderful primates, across Melbourne Zoo and Werribee.”


“Our pleasure,” Reuben assured.


“Is there anything else we need to cover?”


“No, not today,” Christine confirmed. “Thank you, everyone. We know it’s been a tough day. I’ll see you again next week, if not before.”


“Bye.”


The TAG meeting came to an end. I closed my laptop. After slipping it back into my bag, I stood and breathed out. Checking my watch, I knew that there would be more work to do, but I stretched instead. Once I got my act together, I headed outside, to help Hamish out with the gorillas. Working with the great apes left me awestruck.


“You know, I reckon Ebo would make a great silverback, down the track. The thing is, now he’s been in a bachelor troop, they probably wouldn’t remove him, unless he’s the last man standing and he’s still young.” Hamish drew over the slides. “Really, we don’t want that. We want all three of them to live long and healthy lives.”


“Of course.”


I noticed that the two Melbourne-born males still had plenty of growing to do in comparison to their silverback sire. We conducted a training session and I appreciated my time up close and personal with these gentle giants.


“I know that there are some giraffes somewhere in New Zealand.”


“There’s Kalgoorlie Game Park, I know that.”


“Oh, really?”


“Yeah, they’re not ZAA.”


“I would have thought that would have been very difficult.”


Considering our challenges, I would have preferred it be a little less difficult.


“They’ve even got gorillas. A little family group, I’ve heard, not part of the main breeding program. The place has drifted in and out of the ZAA.”


“There you go.”


The four of us returned home from the zoo. Jamila prepared a simple dinner of leftovers. We sat in silence for a moment, tired out of our brains but unable to haul ourselves to bed. Finally, the phone rang, and it startled me. Jamila popped up in a hurry.


“It’s strange for someone to be ringing this late,” she noted.


My heart leapt in my chest. If there was a problem at home, Mum and Dad would have called my mobile.


I wasn’t even sure if they had the landline number. Jamila answered the call, then handed the phone over to me.


“It’s for you.”


“Hi, Jumilah, it’s Reuben here.”


“Oh, hello,” I responded, a little surprised to be hearing Reuben’s voice. “Are you alright? We’re all pretty spent, here.”


“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”


“Alright,” I replied. “Why are you ringing on the home phone?”


“I’m in the office and my mobile’s flat. We’ve lost power here.”


 

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.


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