Updated: Mar 2
This morning I was afforded one moment of bliss, before I remembered. Kakek. The dead wallaby. Patrick and Sloane and Frank and Mary and baby Joey.
“Jumilah!” Charlotte’s voice was high-pitched. “I need you to come.”
Following her distracted me from everything else going on. When we arrived at the holding yard, Meredith was in with the females. She was crouched down near Magani. My eyes bulged at the sight of a joey, whose head poked out of her pouch. We departed the holding yards, smiles on our faces. As the group dispersed, I hung back. I retrieved my phone from my pocket, noticing a missed call from Patrick. While I could have thrown up, I held it in. We spent the morning cleaning exhibits for the animals due to be transferred to their new homes. Short-beaked echidnas, standing in for their long-beaked cousins, followed at our heels. I was a little worried I’d step on one. Thankfully, I didn’t. We paused, exiting the exhibit.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah.” I swigged some water. “No, not really. Have you got bandwidth for me to tell you something personal?”
“Earlier this year, I was dating this guy.”
“He thought that he was the father of our colleague’s baby.”
“So, he cheated on you.”
“No, he didn’t, this was before we were together.”
“Anyway, he turned out not to be the father. The father was our boss.”
I noticed something shift within Charlotte’s demeanour. It felt a little cathartic to have said it all out loud. I didn’t have the chance to expand on the point.
“I’m sorry, morning tea’s over,” Reuben told us. “Jumilah, could you please come with me?”
“Yeah, sure,” I accepted.
I swigged down the last of my water. Reuben escorted me to the wildlife hospital.
“Nice to see you again, Jumilah,” Meredith greeted me.
Our task became obvious. The crate was placed within Kwabema’s quarantine area, his breakfast supplied.
“Hard to believe that’s been a whole month.”
The silverback accepted his reward and Meredith closed the slide.
“I reckon we’ll be able to transport him awake.”
The forklift moved in, manoeuvering through the building and out into the zoo.
“Are you going to Werribee?”
I looked at Reuben.
“That’s the plan.”
We moved through the grounds, slowly.
“Well, say hello to the boys for me. We all miss them here, although Kwabema’s been alright.”
Alright didn’t seem like a stellar term.
“Werribee only is a hop, skip and a jump away, Meredith,” Reuben pointed out.
“That’s true, I should come and visit.”
She seemed to ponder the idea, while we moved Kwabema through the zoo at a somewhat awkward pace – too slow and he’d become stressed, but too fast and he would panic. Meredith’s eye contact darted between the silverback and the forklift driver, silently reassuring them both. It was unusual to conduct the move at this time of the day. A member of the zoo’s media team started filming. He impressively walked backwards, staying just out of Kwabema’s view, managing not to bump into any of the obstacles on the way. Lina and Ella went ahead of our convoy, to ensure that the holding area would be ready, upon our arrival.
“Which female do you think will be first to get pregnant?”
“Well, it might all depend on Kwabema,” Reuben reckoned, “but if I was a betting man, I’d say Naomi.”
“You know, I would be happy with that. She is in the best position to model mothering skills to Nyani,” Meredith outlined. “All of the females are going to be off contraception, aren’t they?”
“Yes, that’s still the plan.”
Upon almost reaching the Main Drive, I knew we’d travelled the majority of the way to the gorilla complex, our destination. A little boy walked in the other direction. He wore a Blue’s Clues T-shirt, a little faded, like it was a beloved hand-me-down.
"Oh, I remember watching that when I was little.”
“My kids would.”
I heard a gate creak open and, in their exhibit, Kwabema caught sight of the lemurs. For a moment I was concerned, that either might be startled. Instead, they watched with wonder and awe, providing great enrichment. Kwabema’s shoulders rose as we reached the back-of-house area. He thrashed against the crate, loud in contrast to the gentle birdsong I could hear from elsewhere in the zoo. Kwabema bounded out of his crate and into the holding area. Reuben led me to the main gate, where Sam stood.
We gave each other a loose hug.
“I’m here as part of the transfer to Taronga,” he explained. “I leave this afternoon.”
Reuben and I started to take Sam around the zoo.
“Oh, there’s a joey. One of the imported females--.”
“Wow. Wouldn’t have expected that.”
Before reaching the New Guinea habitat, we stopped off at Melita’s yard.
“I remember the day this girl was born,” Sam reflected.
Melita rolled around in her mud wallow. Eventually, she hauled herself back into the barn. I wanted to pick Sam’s brains further about the viability of the Malayan Tapir program, with only three individuals left in the region. Still, there was work to be done. We continued on to where Melbourne’s tree kangaroo and the echidnas were exhibited, the other keepers having moved the wallabies from quarantine.
“I’m sure you’re really proud of this. I can’t wait to get our animals home.”
Time had finally come to open the exhibit – at least for the animals. Likely there would be an official opening at some stage, attended by dignitaries. For now, and hopefully always, the animals were most important. I flashed back to leaving Sumatra. Next I knew, we were back-of-house.
“You do the honours,” Reuben offered, handing the rope over to Emmie.
She grinned, then pulled on it to open the slide. The wallabies hopped out of their crates. With the job done, we were able to disperse and continue on with our days. I walked a loop around the zoo, looking to see if I could track down the others. Outside the pygmy hippo exhibit, I paused. The exhibit on the right was still empty, although both Washington and Emeka were in the one on the left, following each other around the pool. At the sound of footsteps, I glanced to my right, expecting a visitor, encountering Violet.
“Oh, hey,” I greeted her, surprised. “I didn’t realise you were still here.”
Violet shrugged her shoulders.
“Yes, I am. I leave at the end of the week.”
My mouth felt dry. With resentment or pleasure? I wasn’t sure.
“Have you spoken with the ungulate TAG about it?” I was running my mouth, most likely unhelpfully. “I mean, it isn’t any of my business.”
“Yes, I have, of course.”
“Are they going to throw you a party?”
Violet squinted, bemused.
“You know, when Alex went to Werribee, there was cake in the staffroom. I remember that.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t know. It’s not really up to me.”
“People know, right?”
“Ara knows, she’ll be taking over my duties.”
“And you’ve given your notice to Reuben?”
“Yes, of course. I would have to in order to leave my job.”
“So, you’re not coming back.”
“The AI program lasts for three years. I can’t expect Reuben to hold my job for that long.” Violet swallowed. “Some things aren’t meant to last.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed that.
“There have been plenty of good times here. We bred two bongo calves.”
The sunlight shifted through the leaves, across Violet’s expression.
“We were so excited, especially for the first calf, the first bongo calf born at Melbourne Zoo. The young males, they got to an age when they would start sparring with their father at every opportunity they got.”
“We had to squirt them with the hose to separate them. That’s how we knew that we had to move the calves on. They weren’t babies anymore by that point, and one went to Monarto and the other to Altina, in the end.”
“You’re contributing towards saving a critically endangered species. I really admire your work.”
“Thank you, Jumilah, you too. It’s been good getting to know you.”
Checking my watch, I detoured towards the office block. I’d not had any lunch, so my stomach grumbled, but hopefully I would get the chance to have something to eat, later on. I joined the primate TAG meeting, even though I felt a little guilty to be away from the others’ work. While we waited in the meeting room for Reuben to get the screens hooked up, Sam leaned across, outstretching his phone.
“I took photos of the dholes, before I left,” he explained, prompting me to glance down at the screen.
At the sight of Luca, I smiled. Sam scrolled across, the second shot taken through mesh. Two of the dholes were at the back of a grassy area, and I recognised them instantly as Gamba and Ajag, mother and son.
“It’s off-display, their area.”
“It seems like a great place. They won’t want to leave.”
“I’m sure that your exhibit will be stellar.”
I thought about the other dholes, the ones which had been slain. The thought filled me with a melancholy which distracted me from Reuben connecting us to the meeting. All of a sudden, faces appeared on the screen.
“It never used to be this flash,” I remarked, then Reuben unmuted us as he shot me a look, then sat down.
With the extra company, we were pulling out all the stops.
“Welcome to the primate TAG meeting for this afternoon,” Christine greeted. “I understand that there’s a major operation going on at Melbourne today.”
“Yes. The fauna imported from Papua New Guinea are being processed through quarantine to be transferred to their new homes.”
“We’ll be checking back in about the orangutan programs today,” Christine noted, “and I welcome Mick Sutton, from Coolangatta Zoo.”
“I have a strong interest in obtaining orangutans,” Mick outlined. “Of course, breeding purebreds would be the goal. In the meantime, we’d be happy to help out and house hybrids in their twilight years.”
He cleared his throat.
“And I see that we have Peter Switakowski with us from Bungarribee, welcome, Peter.”
“Thank you, thanks for having me.”
“Ah, Reuben, can you update us on your impending orangutan import?”
“Yes, we have plans in place for the import of two Sumatran females from Israel,” Reuben explained. “They’re arriving for quarantine next week. We have three exhibits across our complex – the open-air exhibit, the meshed exhibit, and the dayroom, shared between our male Sumatran, the Siamang family, and the female hybrid orangs.”
“That would leave you with the older two siamang offspring.”
“They’ve been separated from their parents and sister,” Reuben explained. “They were causing problems.”
“What sort of problems?”
“Gerard, do you have older brothers?”
“Ah, yes, I do, I have one older brother.” He nodded. “I’m starting to get what you mean.”
Reuben bobbed his head.
“We can house them long-term, or they could get transferred to another facility for breeding.”
“Of course, if we paired one of the males, we’d need to pair both of them in some capacity.”
“What do you mean?” Bill asked.
“It’s against the husbandry guidelines to hold a lone siamang.”
“Tasmania Zoo does,” Bill reminded.
“With all due respect, I have raised before multiple times that it is a less than ideal scenario,” David pointed out. “Possibly, if they could be integrated, we could receive the males from Melbourne, in order to move them on, especially if breeding placements weren’t immediately forthcoming for both of those siamangs.”
“Jumilah, you’re the species coordinator. What do you reckon?”
Reuben waited a beat, then took us off mute. My heart thumped; I was sure they could hear. Kakek was with me; I would not be afraid.
“For Bukit and Barat to go to Tasmania Zoo, I think that would be a very reasonable outcome.”
The faces on the screen waited. I find that referring to the animals by their names, rather than their studbook numbers, fosters a sense of connection which grants me peace.
“That’s my decision, so we’ll need to organise that.”
“That will free up the island in the Japanese gardens.”
“Peter, I was hoping to speak with you about your chimpanzee troop,” Blessing spoke up.
“Yes, of course,” Peter accepted, seeming like a nice enough man, probably in his thirties.
“The animals you imported are reasonably genetically valuable, so we would be looking at between three and five breeding recommendations.”
“That would be wonderful,” Peter affirmed.
I thought that Angelique looked like she was trying to speak, even though she was on mute. Maybe she was just talking to someone else within the room, therefore muting herself on purpose, so I didn’t interrupt the meeting on her behalf.
“One of my suggestions would be to move your neutered males as a bachelor group to another facility,” Blessing recommended. “That would free up more space, allowing you to breed further.”
“Yes, mate, whatever you reckon,” Peter agreed. “Where were you thinking of sending them?”
“Claire, do you have any updates from Dubbo?”
“We’re scoping out the site for a chimp exhibit.”
“We have been giving our chimp exhibit a bit of a refurbishment, with fresh glass.”
We’d ended up with an impromptu chimpanzee review, previewing next week’s meeting.
“We’ve moved our new silverback over to the rainforest complex. From now, we’ll commence the introduction process to the females.”
“That’s very exciting news.”
“Yes, it is,” Reuben confirmed. “All four females are off contraception. How many births we get in the short-term will really depend on the compatibility of the troop.”
“Mogo Wildlife Park?”
“Sorry, I was trying to get a word in before,” Angelique spoke up.
“Of course, sorry, go ahead,” Christine allowed in apology.
“Thank you. I’m going to have to renege on what I was requesting a few weeks ago, in terms of receiving the bachelor group of lemurs. We’ve found a breeding pair which we’re applying to import from overseas.”
“That’s fine, that’s great.”
After the TAG meeting ended, we switched off the screens. We emerged from the office buildings, finding Charlotte and Joel outside.
“How’s things?” I asked.
“Yeah, good,” I answered. “I was just in the primate TAG meeting.”
As the day was drawing to a close, I joined Charlotte and Joel in tending to the wallabies and ensuring that the cuscuses were fed. I thought about the lives that they’d previously led, back in their homeland of Papua New Guinea. We returned to Reuben’s cottage for the evening. Joel headed off for a shower. I took my phone out onto the front veranda. Charlotte located me, presenting a glass of red wine.
“Thanks,” I said as I reached for it.
“Wait.” Charlotte drew back the glass. “Are you old enough to drink?”
“Yes, of course, I’m eighteen.”
“Good.” Charlotte handed me the glass of wine. “I thought so, really.”
She sat down next to me, on the edge of Reuben’s wooden veranda.
“This is really peaceful here.” Charlotte sipped her wine. “I like it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a smile. “It’s really nice.”
I heard footsteps approaching us from within the house.
“Jumilah, your phone’s ringing.”
Reuben stepped out the front door and handed my phone over to me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I need to take this,” I told Charlotte, upon reading Patrick’s name on the screen.
She nodded her head, giving me permission, as Reuben withdrew back into the house.
“Hello,” I answered the call as I scampered to my feet.
“Hey, Jumilah, how are you going?”
“Yeah, I’m good, I’m alright.” I walked through the cottage. “How are you?”
I walked into my bedroom and sat down on my bed, cursing under my breath as I almost spilled my wine.
“Did you just swear in Indonesian?”
“No, that was English. You just didn’t hear me.”
“That’s OK. Can you swear in Indonesian?”
I laughed uncomfortably, setting down my glass to avoid a repeat.
“What, would you like me to demonstrate or something?”
“Nah, I didn’t mean that. I just wondered--.”
“Yes, I know Bahasa swears. I’m not going to say them for you.”
For a moment I doubted myself, but decided to stick to my first instincts – I’m not usually a swearer.
“My Mum’s first language was Indonesian, but her parents could speak English as well. That meant she knew English when she came to Australia.”
“How are you going with your learning?”
“Oh, not really going anywhere, to be honest. I’ve been pretty busy.”
I sipped from my wine. It calmed me down for a moment, then gave me a headache.
“Well, we can talk about it whenever you want.”
“Yeah, sure, I’d like that.”
“Anyway, I can hear Joey, I’d better go.”
“See you later.”
After finishing on the phone with Patrick, I called Mum.
“We’ve been working on the dhole exhibit today,” she told me. “It’ll be really good when it’s finished, I reckon.”
“That’s great,” I praised. “Sam’s been here today and he sent me some photos of the dholes.”
“Oh, you’ll have to send them,” she requested, which I did while we were still on the phone.
After ending the call, I returned to the porch, where Charlotte had finished her glass of wine.
“Whatever Reuben’s cooking, it smells amazing,” she commented. “He’s a very talented man.”
“He is,” I confirmed, “but I think he’s trying to impress us.”
“I honestly don’t mind,” Charlotte admitted, slurping from her empty glass.
We walked into the house, so that we could eat dinner, Reuben’s chickpea coconut curry. The conversation ceased while we stuffed our faces. If Reuben was trying to get on our good sides, I certainly had been impressed by the food. After we’d eaten, I excused myself to join class. Sam wasn’t staying at Melbourne Zoo.
“Tonight is our class on animal reproduction,” he introduced. “We will be discussing some topics which are scientifically interesting but occasionally cause students to giggle.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve done sex ed,” Zach mentioned.
“I know, I know that you would have,” Sam assured, “but still. If you laugh, if you feel embarrassed, don’t worry. We’re all like that from time to time.”
Alice blushed, trying to secure her fringe back into her hairstyle.
“We’re obviously not going to be able to cover everything.”
Sam brought up his slides and started flicking through them. I could hear the phone ringing in Reuben’s cottage, although I wasn’t sure whether it was the landline or his mobile. He didn’t strike me like the sort of man to talk on the landline, but I couldn’t be sure, even though I’d previously lived there for six weeks.
“Within a captive breeding context, most reproduction is controlled through breeding recommendations coming from species coordinators, either regionally or globally. Some species are breed for release, as is the case with the Corroboree Frog here at Taronga, and there is also a program for the orange-bellied parrot.”
“Do Australian zoos breed any non-Australian species for release overseas?” Kenneth wanted to know.
“Ah, not specifically at the moment to my knowledge,” Sam answered. “That doesn’t mean that animals here aren’t exported for release. Sumatran Orangutans have been exported from Perth Zoo and released into national parks in Sumatra.”
“And gibbons,” Piper stammered, “in Java?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Sam confirmed. “Silvery or Javan Gibbons are being released back into the wild. I don’t believe any have been released directly from Australia, but I would love to see that take place in the future.”
“On that note, a number of breeding programs are coordinated internationally.”
The room seemed to be getting a bit darker. Thankfully, Reuben flicked on a light on my behalf, so that I didn’t need to get up.
“Examples of this sort of model include Western lowland gorilla and Sri Lankan Leopard. Those programs are both managed through the EEP. That’s the endangered species management program in Europe. This is the reason why most of the gorillas imported to Australia have come from Europe.”
“Do you think that places like America or Japan could be included in the future?”
“Yes, of course. In fact, following the example of gorillas, Japanese zoos are part of the EEP. Gorillas have been sent from Taronga to zoos in Japan before,” Sam outlined. “I know that zoos talk a big game about saving species from extinction. Sometimes, I will admit, it is all smoke and mirrors, but the work we do with native species is crucial, and we can partner with Indonesia to breed Sumatran Tigers.”
The thought crystallised even further in my mind, and I scribbled down a note to make sure that I spoke with Nanek about the possibilities. After all, these lands are closer to Asia, geographically, than they are to Europe or North America. Lucia covered her face with her hands. She was on mute, making it hard to read whether or not she just felt tired.
“Sometimes, animals do die giving birth and from pregnancy complications,” Sam confirmed.
I noticed a shadow come across his face. There must have been an animal he lost. I couldn’t help but think about Luna. We came so close to losing her. At least Luna’s recent sterilisation would prevent a repeat accidental pregnancy.
“Can I ask, please, what happens after that?” Lucia wanted to know. “Is there any emotional support provided?”
“To be perfectly honest, it’s not something we’ve considered enough. I think we’ve all come to a growing realisation that mental health is very important.”
That was something we could all agree on. Sam invited us to share any experience we had of handraising wildlife, to commence the following topic in the lesson on breeding.
“There’s a joey at Healesville Sanctuary at the moment. There were two for about an hour or so, then one went to a wildlife carer.”
“That’s so cool, Jumilah,” Kenneth gushed.
“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed, “although it’s sad when you think about how she got there. Her mother got caught in a barbed wire fence. She’s still alive, but just.”
“That’s not the sort of kangaroo shish kebab you want,” Lucia remarked, deadpan.
Kenneth bowed his head to hide his smile, although I could hear his soft laughter.
“OK, Lucia, would you be happy to give your presentation now?”
She nodded and commenced the assessment.
“The region and biome I will be covering is the Australian woodland.”
Lucia started sharing her screen.
“Australian woodlands are under extreme threat from climate change due to bushfires. Presenting species from this biome in a captive environment helps to breed insurance populations and educate the public about threats facing this habitat.”
As I sat back in my chair to listen, I pondered her joke further. I made sure I was on mute, heart beating faster. I’d left it too late to object, but maybe I was just running on emotion. If there had truly been an offence, surely Sam would have said something? Maybe that was why he moved the conversation on so quickly, for Lucia to give her presentation. I tried to refocus on the screen, whilst listening out for the sounds of Melbourne Zoo.
“The indoor exhibit allows the reptiles to be adequately housed. Within warmer climates, it may be possible to provide outdoor housing year-round. Either way, it is vital that electricity for the development is sourced from renewable energy.”
I was sure I could hear the lions. A part of me wanted to be able to call back to them, but instead I found myself tuning in to the creaks of footsteps through the house.
“Just grabbing a drink of water,” Joel murmured as he passed.
I nodded my head.
“The centrepiece of the woodlands precinct would be a walk-through aviary. This would in turn be surrounded by an exhibit for koalas, so that visitors can view the koalas through mesh.”
“Thank you, Lucia, that was very impressive.”
Sam brought up his slides once again.
“Alright, our last topic, alloparenting.”
“I had a question about alloparenting in elephants,” Zach mentioned. “Is that something you’d see at all?”
“I’ll look that up in the husbandry guidelines.”
While Sam tried to find the document in question on his computer, Kenneth was shovelling his dinner into his mouth.
“What are you having?” I asked.
“Lontong sayur Medan,” Kenneth responded. “Do you have it?”
“Yeah, Mum’s made it, I’m mostly vego so I like it for that reason. I wouldn’t say we’ve had it heaps, though. Soto padang’s Mum’s signature dish.”
“I thought you said you were vego,” Kenneth quipped.
“Well, I have exceptions for some things.”
Sam located what he’d been looking for, allowing the class to resume.
“Yes, alloparenting has been demonstrated in Asian Elephants. It will largely depend on the species. In captivity with many solitary species, there simply wouldn’t be the opportunity for alloparenting to take place.”
Sam gave a polite smile.
“I think that covers alloparenting, unless you’ve got any questions.”
For a moment, I thought Zach might have been about to say something. Yet, he didn’t, and nobody else did, so our class came to a close. I shut down my laptop and headed into bed.
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.