Nikki’s car was out the front before I knew it. I rushed out, bag half-packed. Opening the door and dropping onto the passenger seat, I narrowly avoided spilling my coffee.
“Derek called not so long ago. Hisiu, one of the wallabies, was dead in the yard this morning.”
My heart thumped all the way to Healesville Sanctuary. Upon our arrival, we headed into a meeting room, to call an emergency session of the carnivore TAG. All the major players were there – Reuben, Bill, Harold and Sam.
“Thank you very much for joining us.” Margie chaired the meeting. “I’ll hand over to Dr Nikki Thompson. She’s our head vet and has been overseeing care of the animals in quarantine.”
“We will give all the animals another thorough medical check.”
“Well, I hate to ask, but whose wallaby was it?”
“Excuse me,” Harold retorted.
“I asked, whose wallaby was it?” Bill repeated. “Whoever’s wallaby it was, they don’t get the male.”
“I think that’s short-sighted.”
“The male who passed was named Hisiu,” Nikki explained. “He had been intended for Perth Zoo.”
That changed Bill’s tune.
“It’s probably realistic if Perth still receives a male,” Reuben conceded.
This surprised me a little, but I agreed with his point.
“We’re going to have two pairs in Victoria. Unless another male can be imported, it’s more feasible to just keep two females and a male across the Zoos Victoria sites.”
“Look, I can’t promise anything,” Isaiah conceded.
“That’s alright, we understand, mate.”
“Considering all of that, it’s reasonable to house the group in Melbourne,” Margie allowed. “We will have four cuscuses to display at Healesville. Hopefully, there will be breeding, and then we’ll be able to acquire animals.”
Everyone agreed on that decision. Once the call was finished, Nikki, Derek and I departed for the quarantine area. We dressed in extra protective gear, to take all precautions while performing health checks on each animal. I felt a little stifled in a mask, gown, gloves and glasses. Still, I understood why we needed to be careful. We still didn’t know why Hisiu died. Magani was the wallaby we were most concerned about. As Hisiu’s intended partner, if an infectious disease had caused his death, she was most likely to also succumb. Thankfully, Magani’s temperature was normal and there wasn’t anything amiss identifiable with her fur or in her throat.
“Jumilah, could you please let the others know that there are no signs of illness in the other wallabies?”
I nodded and I stripped off my protective gear, then sanitised my hands sent an email. Leaving my laptop open on the table, I redressed myself. My cheeks felt hot with nerves, my body warm from the growing spring humidity. At least the rain had cleared overnight. Nikki continued the health checks, moving onto the cuscuses, just to be sure that they were as well as could be. Medu was a male with smaller flecks of white across his body. Thankfully, the cuscus all received a clean bill of health. We stripped down our biosecurity gear and departed the quarantine area.
“It’s not really ideal, is it?”
“No,” Nikki confirmed, “but we’re doing our best.”
“You can take a break if you’d like, talk a walk.”
Even though I didn’t want to abandon Nikki, I nodded. I found my way towards the nocturnal house. The long-footed potoroo fascinated me, as I’d never seen one before coming to Healesville. As far as I was aware, they were very rare in captivity. I watched him through the glass. From there I headed back towards the wildlife hospital, pausing outside the Goodfellow Tree Kangaroo exhibit. Ori reached out, with both hands this time. She grasped the piece of sweet potato. I wondered whether Ori would take the plunge and emerge fully from her mother’s pouch, but she remained inside. Nikki arrived at the tree kangaroo exhibit, collecting me to drive me back to the Roberts’ farm, the long day not yet done. I knew we’d see each other again before we knew it. Mrs Roberts and I took the time to have a cup of tea together. I savoured every last sip, as well as the conversation. Once we were finished, I collected enough clothes and things for my brief return to Melbourne. Just as I fastened the zipper on my suitcase for what felt like the millionth time this year, I heard a car pull in. My heart beat faster as I wheeled out my bag. I bid farewell to the Roberts and Reuben drove to back to the sanctuary. The pairs were loaded into the trucks, for a convoy down to Melbourne. Reuben and I followed behind them. We lost the trucks a little in the traffic, so it was likely that the animals would be offloaded by the time that we arrived.
“There are zoos interested in acquiring the first-generation offspring,” Reuben mentioned. “Perth Zoo is keen, although a number will be returning to Papua New Guinea. The plan would be to breed at least two males and two females from each pair.”
“That’s a lot.”
“It is, but when you consider that we’ll be splitting the offspring between Australia and PNG, we’re building up the numbers,” Reuben outlined. “What else has been happening at Healesville?”
“The plains wanderer program is going from strength to strength. There’s going to be a release into the wild pretty soon, which is exciting.”
“Are you looking forward to it?”
“Yes, I am,” I confirmed.
Reuben flicked on his blinker, then swerved into the turning lane. He pressed the button on his tiny remote to open the entrance. Reuben pulled back into the gate. He parked by the cottage, then we took a quick walk around the zoo. Vel greeted us with a smile, just as he was locking up the reptile house for the night.
“Good to see you back, Jumilah.”
Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay to chat long. As Vel headed home, I listened out to the sounds of Melbourne Zoo in the early evening – the chatter of the birds, the calls of the primates, and the soft chuffles of the tigers. We did a final loop past the African savannah exhibit, its inhabitants already put to bed, then headed home. While Reuben cooked dinner, my phone rang. I nearly didn’t check it, but I thought that I ought to, considering that it could have been the Roberts telling me I’d left something essential behind. With a grin, I greeted Uwak Andrew in Bahasa, then said hello as well.
“You’re still in Victoria, I hear.”
“Yes, I am. I’m actually back in Melbourne right now.”
I explained the story, and told him about what I have been learning. Uwak Andrew listened joyously, then chimed in with his own experiences, and how he’d been helping out Mum and Dad with the construction. Even since the last photos, there had been further progress.
“It’s been really good to speak to you, Uwak,” I told him with a smile. “I can’t wait to come and visit when I’m back.”
Abbey Sim is a candidate for Honours in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney. She lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Having started Huldah Media in 2021, Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.