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Ecosystem

I woke up a little early, snuggled and warm in bed. For a moment I thought about ringing Nanek, but it definitely would have been too early, even for her. Next I considered Mum and Dad, although it felt cruel not to permit them a Sunday sleep-in if they happened to be indulging. Therefore, I flicked through social media for a little bit, liking Tessa’s stories from the last twenty-four hours. I hadn’t realised she’d taken so many photos throughout the zoo. Finally getting out of bed and dressing myself, I padded down the last few wooden stairs and into the dining room. Reuben, Frank, Des and Margie were clustered around one end of a table. I joined the queue for food, Don in front of me.


“Did you sleep well, Jumilah?” he queried, to make small talk.


“Yes, thank you.”


I always thought it was a bit of a personal question, albeit one which was commonplace, therefore I wasn’t offended to answer.


“Yourself?”


“Yes, I slept well.”


Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long, and shortly I was scooping food onto a gleaming white plate. Don and I found somewhere to sit down at the long tables, amidst the others and their conversation. I wasn’t sick of company, but I didn’t mind just listening, rather than speaking. Faintly I could hear the birds in the nearby Blue Mountains Aviary, while I was tucking into my baked beans and hash browns. Following breakfast, I scampered back into the rooms. I was teetering close to the part of the conference when I was ready to be back home. It didn’t escape me how much work there was still to do before we could open, now in less than a month. I brushed my teeth, then left my room. Arriving at the conference centre, I took a seat at the front of the room, leaning back in my chair and stretching out my arms in front of me, before getting out my pen, notebook and computer, setting them on the table. The room started to fill up, Reuben sitting down at the same table as me, bringing his keep-cup with him. I glanced at my watch. There was still time to get coffee before we commenced. Just as I approached the machine, though, I wondered whether or not I truly needed the caffeine. It was a question which I seldom asked myself. Perhaps the fact I was making the enquiry demonstrated I should have shown restraint.


“What’s your usual coffee order?”


My gaze snapped up, just as Hunter’s customary smile faltered a little.


“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he apologised, looking me in the eye.


“That’s alright.”


I took a moment to register his question. My hands had moved in the interim, going past the point of no return in making myself a coffee.


“Oh, I mix it up a little bit--.”


“Yeah, same, to be perfectly honest,” Hunter agreed.


“Want one?”


“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”


I nodded and started preparing a coffee for Hunter. The machine gave me all sorts of options, which felt a little impersonal, even if it did speed up the task. Hunter tried to help. I didn’t really know what to say to him. Finally, the coffee was prepared and I placed one into Hunter’s hands, which he thanked me for. I yawned as I walked away from the coffee machine, hot beverage in hand. Deciding to make one had been the right call. I found myself gazing upon Hunter as we sat down. This morning’s first session would be a presentation on artificial insemination in great apes. I suspected the session would primarily focus on gorillas. However, the discussion soon turned to orangutans. It cast my mind back to earlier in the year. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Don had talked about artificially inseminating Adelaide Zoo’s female orangutan, Merah.


“I don’t think that we’re going to do it. It’s not worth the anaesthetic risk. We put him under for the sperm and then he dies on the table--.”


“And then you have his sperm which can contribute to the breeding program, or you could not bother and not breed from him at all.”


Following the session, we broke for morning tea. I found myself in the queue after George, making myself a coffee to go with my biscuits.


“You sound like you’ve built a pretty impressive zoo down in Hobart, Jumilah,” he commented. “I’ll have to come down and visit at some stage, if you’ll have me.”


“Oh, that would be lovely.”


I suspected that I might feel a bit jittery by the conclusion of my second coffee. At least then I knew that I wouldn’t fall asleep during the proceedings, so I allowed myself to enjoy it, adding plenty of sugar to wash down the biscuits. We walked back into the rooms. The bowls of lollies on the tables had been refilled. I sat down at my regular seat, with Reuben nearby. He reached for a Sherbie.


“I love these,” Reuben mentioned. “I’m a bit addicted to them.”


We would be having another brainstorming session for the rest of the morning before lunch. Christine ran the session, bringing up a mind-map on the screen.


“A number of species are only held in one institution. The purpose of this morning’s session will be to consider whether these are programs worth expanding, or what plans will be in place for these spaces going forward.”


“We’re the record holder, you know.” Reuben unwrapped a lolly from the bowl on the table. “We’ve got twelve species which are only held in Australia at Melbourne Zoo. That’s more than anywhere else.”


He popped the Sherbie into his mouth. Mentally, I did the maths of how many unique species we would hold.


“That’s nice,” Gerard remarked.


“Thank you.”


Reuben flashed something of a smug smile. I did the maths – we would be the only place to hold dholes, tarsiers, and both macaque species. The conference broke for lunch. If I wasn’t hungry enough, my stomach rumbled as I stood, at the smell of the delicious food. We were being served a lemon myrtle vegetable curry and rice, which I heaped onto my plate from the buffet, then found somewhere to sit and chat with the others. The combination of spice and tang in my food was hard to resist, despite its heat straight out of the bain marie. I was too busy eating to contribute much to the conversation. Jimmy shared with a heavy heart about some of his older animals at Perth Zoo, like Memphis the rhino, whose health and quality of life were starting to suffer with age. I soaked in the information about aged animal assessments and scored for every species. This was what I needed to learn. Sometimes it could be hard to make a decision. The sessions earlier in the day had only confirmed that. Throwing around accusations of division was easy to do, but fixing the problems proved much more challenging. I had no idea what I would do if I needed to make decisions about the end of an animal’s life. Hopefully I would make the right choice at the time. We stacked up our plates and returned to work mode. Of discussion would be what is termed the ZAA ecosystem. A small smile came to my lips at the pun. Occasionally zoo people had a very good sense of humour. I looked forward to participating in the discussion.


“We did used to have the PNG TAG in the past,” Margie pointed out. “I, for one, think that it could be useful to go back to that. It would be of benefit to our region to have better relationships with the wildlife parks in Papua. It’s the right thing to do.”


“I agree,” Hunter affirmed.


The resolution was passed to recreate the Papua New Guinea Fauna TAG. From there, the other taxon advisory groups would be evaluated.


“Of course, we need an elephant TAG,” Hunter insisted. “There are fundamentally different issues at play than for ungulates.”


Elephants represented a more exclusive club. There were particular considerations in regard to the public perception of their husbandry, which didn’t pertain to your average zoo holding bison or buffalo, or even giraffe or zebra. Sometimes I forgot that they held elephants at Beerwah. Other than those at Sydney Zoo, usually they were the domain of public zoos.


“What species are we talking about?


I caught Hunter’s glance across the room. Usually I would have smiled, but it didn’t feel appropriate in those circumstances.


“Well, African Bush Elephants, obviously.”


Forest elephants were not in captivity. We returned from afternoon tea for a presentation about feeding schedules. It was a lot of learning for so late in the day, but I tried to relax in my chair. I clicked my pen so that the nib retreated back within the plastic. Unfolding my legs, I paid attention to the screen. Thankfully, we were going to be sent out the slides after the event. We had a little bit of time on our hands following the end of proceedings for the day, and before dinner. Therefore, the attendees at the conference broke off into their own little groups. I was one of the people who opted that we would walk around the zoo, right around the time that it was closing to the public. I headed off with Sam. Blessing was up in front of us, and Reuben and Allira lingered behind. I wasn’t quite sure where Hunter had got to, but that didn’t need to be a concern of mine. We’re fine with each other, I think. I walked underneath some lush red and green foliage. It reminded me a little bit of Christmas. I paused to read the signage. While I could hear the birds warbling in the nearby aviary, I soaked in the information about Australian native bees. They were much smaller than the stereotype of the European bumblebee, which caught me by surprise, even though I should have known better. I was aware that these insects played a vital role in the ecosystem.


“Australia has an extinction crisis,” I pointed out. “Sometimes you’ve got to deal with the problems in your own backyard.”


I nodded. It was tempting to feel heavy-hearted. To lose the bee, as well as so many other species, would be catastrophic.


“You know, Chinese dragons aren’t necessarily fire-breathers. The ones my mum used to tell me bedtime stories about when I was a little boy had rain powers.”


I loved the thought of Sam, as a child, and his mother sharing in these treasured stories. We reached the red panda exhibit. It had been converted from an old bear grotto. Mostly, visitors would glance up at the pandas in the treetops. Sam started scaling a metal staircase which was cut within the rock. It seemed like it had been there for a long while, and I wasn’t even sure whether this was meant to form part of the public area of the exhibit, or if it was a special platform for the keepers.


“Up you come, you’ll be fine.”


With a smile on my lips, I accepted Sam’s hand to help me up the rock.


“This is the spot.”


Indeed, when I was brave enough to glance around, the view was magical. In one direction, I had full vantage into the red panda exhibits. The other peeked through the foliage, towards the glistening blue of Sydney Harbour.


“My parents, there’s a lot of mental illness and trauma in my family,” Sam divulged. “When my first wife died, I thought that I’d never get out of it.”


Even with my own trauma, it was a grief I couldn’t imagine. Having to get on with life each day was a struggle enough.


“My mother, she’s never stopped trying to do her best for me. It broke my heart that I felt like I’d let her down.”


Finally, we returned to our accommodation. Mum called, just as I was slipping off my shoes.


“How are you?” she greeted me after I answered the call.


I sat down on the bed, smiling at the sound of her voice.


“Yeah, it’s been a good day.”


Once I finished on the phone with Mum, I ambled downstairs to the bar. I ordered myself a lemonade and sat down.


“So, you and Hunter, eh?”


I cocked one eyebrow, sipping from my drink while looking in Reuben’s direction.


“Please, you’re not my father. I’ve learned my lesson, trust me.”


Really, I didn’t want to talk about it. After dinner, I returned to my room, dropping onto the bed and flicking through my phone. Mum had sent me a text message, wishing me sweet dreams.


 

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.


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