I scrambled out of bed, then dressed to head out of the house, following Reuben into the cold. The two of us joined a group of keepers on the Main Drive.
“Thanks for meeting with me this morning. I wanted to thank you for your hard work, especially over the last few weeks. It hasn’t been easy. Always, you’ve risen to the challenges.”
The keepers nodded. Reuben stood there, awkwardly.
“Alright, that’s all I had to say. We can get to work now.”
The group dispersed. I glanced around to see who would invite me to go with them, and I ended up tagging along with Ara, Violet and Emmie. Vel, I noticed, made a beeline for the reptile house.
I wasn’t going to say anything.
“What’s going on with you and Vel?”
Beth didn’t pull any punches.
“We’re just not getting along at the moment.”
“Everyone has a big fight right before they’re about to get engaged. It’s how it happens.”
Emmie showed a skeptical expression, glancing sideways towards Violet.
“I’m right, though. You fight because you realise that your relationship is worth fighting for.”
“We’re already engaged, though.”
“Is it something about the wedding?”
Emmie shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Alright, who am I going with today?”
“Me,” Emmie and Violet spoke at once, raising their hands in unison.
They spun around to face me.
“Who do you want to go with?”
“Please don’t put that much pressure on me.”
Emmie and Violet looked at each other instead.
“Scissors, paper, rock?”
They shook out their fists. Violet went rock, Emmie chose paper – and I would be having a morning in the carnivore department. They shook hands.
“If I don’t need an extra pair of hands later, I might send her to you.”
As I followed Emmie, my phone buzzed, Patrick calling me. I felt queasy at the sight of his name, a state I’d never want to get to, even though it wasn’t solely Patrick’s fault. Dropping my phone back into my pocket, we headed around the Carnivore Trail. Being morning rounds, my responsibility would be to shadow Emmie. She needed an extra set of eyes, someone who had her back and was able to speak up if she was inadvertently placed in any danger. What Emmie didn’t need was someone who was distracted, by loves of old. We collected the meat from the refrigerated shed. On the way to the lion exhibit, Emmie could sense I felt off.
“What’s the matter?”
I didn’t really want to say.
“Oh, it’s just this guy back home. I missed a call from him just then.”
One of the other carnivore keepers approached.
“It’s alright, give him a call. We’ll sort out the feed this morning, and you can catch up when you’re ready.”
I withdrew and returned Patrick’s call.
“Hey, sorry that I missed you.” I could feel the bite of Melbourne winter against every patch of exposed skin. “Reuben called a little meeting for the staff this morning, which was nice of him, to keep everyone’s spirits up.”
“I’ve been speaking with Reg again. He said that, if he gets a kidney transplant, he’ll live. I’m his kid. I can have a test and if I’m a match, I’ll give him a kidney.”
It wasn’t more than a fifty-percent likelihood. The odds were still stacked against both of them.
“Mum doesn’t want me to do it. She says that she doesn’t want me to risk myself. It’s an operation, and then I’ll only have one kidney, but I’ll still have one. One is better than none, right?”
“Yeah,” I answered in a soft voice.
We eventually finished on the phone. I breathed out slowly. Whilst I wanted to be with the animals, I didn’t necessarily trust myself to follow instructions around carnivores. Still, Emmie wanted me working with her. What would have Kakek done? He would have pushed on, but maybe that was the problem, why tension bubbled under the surface between him and Mum. Listening to the chatter of birds, I tracked Emmie down nonetheless. She was striding down the Main Drive. Emmie retrieved her phone from her pocket.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” she confirmed. “That was just a notification from the AFL app.”
“Do you have a team, Jumilah?”
“Oh, I’m kind of waiting for a Tasmanian team. I’ll get right behind them.”
We approached the lion exhibit.
“Adelaide Zoo is going to receive a breeding recommendation for the first time in about twenty years soon, with their new exhibit. I don’t begrudge them, it wouldn’t be fair to. I’d love to be able to breed here again,” Emmie mentioned. “The problem is we don’t have that much space here, not anymore.”
I nodded. She unlocked the back-of-house area.
“The same thing is true about Werribee. We can’t just dump everything at Werribee. It’s not like they have unlimited space.”
Emmie made a good point. I followed her down the hallway and we let the lions out for the morning.
“We chose hyena because they’re a growing species within the region, and animals were available quickly. Once the wild dogs passed, we didn’t want the exhibit to sit empty.”
Next, we reached the Tasmanian Devil enclosure. They were the only Australian species housed on the Carnivore Trail. Letting the devil out into his exhibit, he found a pile of leaf litter. After a quick snack, it was time for a snooze. I couldn’t blame him.
“We’d spoken about transferring devils to Acarda Zoo.”
“They’ll make a decision sooner rather than later. I’m sure you could ask if you’re worried.”
I nodded. As we walked towards the snow leopards, I could hear them before seeing them.
“Oh, settle down,” Emmie called out. “They’ve been restless lately. The move for the girls to Wellington can’t come soon enough.”
We set Miska out into the exhibit.
“Do you have a timeframe?”
“It’ll all depend on the construction of their exhibit, which will all depend on weather, and funding to actually build the thing.”
I bobbed my head. In the winter atmosphere, Miska seemed just fine. Emmie made a note on the whiteboard. We let ourselves further down the corridor to access the off-exhibit cages. Mesh repurposed from the previous enclosures, the sisters from the last litter would live there until they could be transferred to their new home.
“Do you have records of how many hours you’ve spent with each division?”
“What are you still short on?”
“I’d have to double check to be sure. I haven’t spent too much time with birds, off the top of my head.”
Emmie let us back out into the public areas of the zoo.
“Well, I’ve finished morning rounds. If you’d like some more time with birds, feel free.”
I scampered through the zoo in search of Isaac, or one of the other bird keepers. He turned out to be by the rice paddy aviary.
“Hi, Isaac, I’m finished with Emmie for the morning. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Oh, not really.”
I wandered off, to find something else to do. As I walked through the reptile house, my phone vibrated within my pocket. I paused to check it.
“Oh, Jumilah, hi, can I help you with anything?”
I glanced up, Vel standing in front of me.
“Well, I was going to say the same to you. I was with Emmie this morning, but she doesn’t have anything else for me to do, so I’m available.”
“You’re welcome to hang around here if you’d like to, but I’m sorry to say, Jumilah, I don’t actually have any more work for you.”
I glanced towards my watch. Reuben would have been in the ungulate TAG meeting, so I figured that I’d return to home to get myself a cup of coffee and see what I could listen into. I slipped in quietly through the front door, then scampered through to the kitchen.
“Are you making coffee?” Reuben called out.
“Yes.” I waited a beat. “I’ll make you one too.”
I prepared the coffee, then walked out to the loungeroom carrying both mugs, careful not to spill. Reuben thanked me again as I handed one over to him.
“Come and join me for a bit,” he urged, “if you don’t have anything better to do.”
I pulled up a chair and sat down next to him.
“Yes, I would support that,” Reuben affirmed. “Sorry, Jumilah Fioray’s just joining us.”
I waved towards the faces on the screen.
“We’re speaking about the pygmy hippo program,” Sam explained.
“I understand the value of Emeka breeding, absolutely,” Raffa noted, “but she’s our only pygmy hippo. My view is that we need to advance the IRA as soon as possible. Then, we can import unrelated animals. To breed Emeka with Washington would still be an uncle-niece mating.”
“Which is more remote than other options,” Don pointed out.
“Not to be bullish, but we have two exhibits,” Reuben reminded. “We have the breeding facilities and this isn’t the first time I’ve made that case.”
“Where are you placed at the moment, Don?” Sam wanted to know.
“We’re developing a new exhibit, it’s nearly done,” Don mentioned. “Anakin was displaced by our previous development. He’s still housed off-display over on that side of the zoo near the entrance. In the next few weeks, we’ll move him across to opposite the new lion exhibit. Our African area is taking shape faster than we would have dreamed.”
“That’s great news, mate.”
“Although, Anakin’s unlikely to receive a breeding partner.”
“Is there any reason he wouldn’t?”
“I’m not saying that he’s not a viable breeder.”
“I understand that, at this present time, for the good of the species, we need to consider pairing up Emeka with Washington. At the same time, pushing through the IRA is our biggest priority.”
“Alright, well, we’ll do our best.”
“To confirm, Emeka to Melbourne and Amara and Lincoln paired again,” Sam outlined.
A chorus of nods went around the Zoom meeting.
“Alright, let’s move onto the member reports. Adelaide Zoo?”
“Our new pygmy hippo exhibit is almost finished, like I mentioned earlier.”
I tried to think of if I’d seen it last time that I’d been at the zoo.
“We’ve had a Tahki foal born, yesterday in fact. Wait, I’ll show you a photo.”
Graeme took a moment to track down the image, then he flashed the screen of his phone.
“Gorgeous,” I praised the foal.
“Darling Downs Zoo?”
“Well, we’ll obviously be losing pygmy hippo from the zoo, hopefully for the short-term.”
“Will you be filling the exhibit with something else?”
“It’s a very difficult decision. Potentially we will temporarily, but hopefully we’ll receive a calf.”
I did feel sorry for Raffa, even though I understood his decision.
“Hunter Valley Zoo?”
“I’ve heard that you’ve acquired bison,” Graeme mentioned to Gershon.
“No, we haven’t,” he clarified. “I think you’re thinking of the Hunter Valley Farm.”
“Right, yeah, I might be.”
“They’re not affiliated with us. It’s a property nearby which keeps bison.”
“Mogo Wildlife Park?”
“Another of our giraffes is pregnant,” Julie announced.
“Monarto Safari Park?”
“Unfortunately, we needed to put down one of our zebras. He had a wound on his rump which became infected. This developed into sepsis and he went downhill pretty quickly, sadly.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Blessing,” Julie responded with sympathy.
“Yes, I’ve got an update about our plans for okapi for our Congo rainforest precinct development,” Sam reported. “We’ve identified a pair named Epulu, the male, and Ituri, the female, who we would want to import.”
I flashed a surprised smile. I’d not even known that Sam planned to import okapi.
“Werribee Open Range Zoo?”
“As mentioned before, we’re having a little switcheroo with our zebras. Marnus, our Chapman’s stallion, is being retired from the breeding group on the savannah.”
Des cleared his throat.
“That will allow us to import a new male. He’ll be arriving from France in late September.”
“That sounds great.”
The TAG meeting came to an end.
“Thank you for having me.”
Reuben and I made tracks, for the afternoon. I headed off for a wander around the carnivore trail, where Harare was resting on the branch of the tree, surveying the zoo under a clear blue sky. The morning fog had burned away to glory. Popping out the other end, I was keen to visit Melita. She lay, front legs crossed, face in the sun and bottom-end in the shade cast by the sail covering the majority of her exhibit. By the end of the day, I headed to the staff quarters. I greeted Vel with a smile. He had a cup of tea, and I consider making myself a coffee.
“Oh, there’s some mail here for Reuben,” Vel pointed out.
He shook his hands dry, then handed it over.
Emmie burst into the room.
“Our wedding band cancelled,” she divulged. “When were you going to tell me?”
Vel sighed heavily.
“I didn’t want to tell you. Once I’d fixed it, there would have been nothing to worry about.”
“So, have you? Fixed it?”
Vel nodded calmly.
“They recommended another band. It’s all sorted out. They’ll be great.”
Emmie and Vel kissed and made up. I smiled, and left them to it, turning over Reuben’s letters. From the envelopes, I couldn’t work out what the contents were, none of my business as it might have been. I walked back into the house, pile of mail in my hand. In the kitchen, I dropped it onto the bench.
“It’s all for you,” I said to Reuben.
He got up from his desk and ambled over, checking the envelopes.
“Actually, this one’s for you.”
Reuben handed me over one of the envelopes.
“On Saturday, a journo’s coming, from the TV news to film a puff piece about the zoo,” Reuben mentioned. “Can you, like, show her around, babysit her?”
I scanned through the information.
“How twentieth century to send a letter.”
“Well, I’ve been--.”
“Kind of avoiding their emails?”
Reuben nodded, caught in the act. My phone ringing meant that I walked off, to have a chat with Mum.
“Yeah, I’m going alright. It’s just been a regular sort of day.”
Mum filled me in about her day, working with the kids coming in for story time. She was again the topic of conversation, when Reuben and I sat down on the lounge for a drink.
“I love your mother completely and truly and deeply.”
“And you still do, by the sounds of things, even now.”
“Look, I think that I’ve said too much already,” Reuben insisted, then downed the rest of his wine. “You need to go to bed.”
I wanted to retort that he’s not my father. That would have been too cruel, so instead I just stormed off. I ended up in my bedroom, where I lay down. For a moment I closed my eyes, thinking that I’d go to sleep. Eventually, I returned to Reuben in the loungeroom, licking my wounds from our fight. This promised the sort of hard conversation I did not desire. He seemed a little drunker than he’d been when I left the loungeroom, although maybe he was just half asleep.
“Go to bed, Reuben,” I urged, keeping my voice low so as not to startle him. “Everything will be better in the morning.”
At least, getting back into bed and listening to the rain, I hoped so.
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'.