I woke up in the early hours, caked in sweat. Gingerly, I rolled onto my side. It was just after three in the morning, not the time to be awake. I’d been dreaming, but I couldn’t remember what about. Somehow, I must have fallen back to sleep. Next thing I remember, it was still early, but at least it was light, the darkness disintegrating. I didn’t want to admit to the part of me which didn’t want to go to Healesville. Deep down I felt like Australian animals were other people’s responsibility. That wasn’t, however, a point of view which I cared to share with Reuben. For starters, I knew that I was skating on thin ice already, and he wouldn’t appreciate my pickiness. It wasn’t like I had a leg to stand on anyway. Therefore, I got up early this morning like I’d grown accustomed to, and took my packed bags with me. I was being picked up from the main gate of Melbourne Zoo at 6:45am sharp. When I arrived, sky bright and red, there was already a ute waiting for me, branded with the green iconography of Zoos Victoria. I opened the passenger door and hoicked onto the seat.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I apologised, stashing my bag at my feet and closing the door after me.
“You know that you can’t do this when you’re at Healesville.”
I fastened my seatbelt across my chest. Reuben drove away, to get out of the city.
“One thing will be different, though.”
“I’m kind of tough on you. Nikki actually has a heart, she’s kind.”
After an hour and a quarter, we arrived at Healesville Sanctuary. By 8am, the sunrise had given way to a pale blue, sunny sky – a gorgeous late winter’s day in country Victoria. Reuben parked. I took a moment to breathe, then followed him out of the vehicle. We approached a woman, probably in her mid-thirties, wearing Healesville Sanctuary-branded scrubs.
“I’m Jumilah, nice to meet you.”
“I’m Nikki, one of the vets here at Healesville.”
“The head vet,” Reuben pointed out.
Nikki smiled modestly.
“They do say I am. We have a start-of-the-art wildlife hospital here, if I do say so myself.”
I hoped that I would remember everyone’s names. Inside my stomach churned, not at the thought of being at the vet hospital – I was fine with that. I’d spent time with Meredith. Just a few days ago, I had assisted with the delivery of Jazz’s baby, so I would be alright.
“And you’ll be with us for five weeks.”
“Yes, that’s the plan,” I confirmed. “Thank you so, so much for having me. I do really, truly appreciate it.”
“It’s our pleasure, Reuben’s provided you with a glowing report.”
I smiled towards him, with thanks. Reuben left for Melbourne Zoo, a full day of work still ahead of him once he returned to the leafy city.
“Do you have any questions?”
“Not at the moment.”
“I’ll take you for a tour around the sanctuary. We’ll get to the wildlife hospital on the way.”
We passed exhibits for brolga and emu, just before we joined the main loop of the sanctuary and headed towards the left, the direction of the wildlife hospital, as Nikki was explaining to me while I soaked everything in. I listened out, for the birdsong and scampering of animal feet across the leaves and grass. At the tree kangaroo exhibit, I watched Mani move up the branch, eager for a glimpse at the joey. Finally, the little female poked her head out.
“My goodness, she’s gorgeous,” I gushed in a low voice, one hand raised to my mouth.
I’d tried to learn a fair bit about the animals of Healesville Sanctuary. It didn’t compare to seeing them in the flesh. I suspected the building behind us was the hospital. Nikki and I moved on to the next exhibit along, also housing Goodfellow’s Tree Kangaroo, with two individuals eating their breakfast of vegetables and the occasional flower.
“This is the pair which we’re trying to breed at the moment,” Nikki introduced. “The male, Taro, was born at Taronga.”
“Is his name short for Taronga?”
She tilted her head to the side.
“You know, I’ve never made that connection. I don’t think so, but I’ve never asked. He’s just Taro in the studbook I’m pretty sure. Well, as well as his studbook number – 202.”
I smiled at Nikki’s recall.
“And the female, Salsa, she was imported from the US. I’m not sure if her keepers liked corn chips.”
We crossed the path from the tree kangaroo exhibit.
“This is the wildlife hospital.”
“Well, at least our collective principality.”
We entered the building, which seemed quite modern.
“You can spend as much time here or as little time here as you’d like while you’re at Healesville,” Nikki assured me. “I know that you’re mainly here to learn the husbandry side of things, but in my view, it’s all connected.”
On the other side of the glass, a male vet was performing surgery.
“One of our young quolls has had an intestinal blockage, so we’ve had to operate on him.”
“I’ve seen quolls back in Tasmania. Just never seen them like this before.”
“Are you squeamish about blood and bodily fluids?”
“No, I’m not, I promise.”
We started walking away, exiting the hospital.
“How long have you been working at Healesville for?”
“Ah, it was thirteen years at the beginning of the year.”
Doing the maths, that would have been Nikki started at the beginning of 2009. I didn’t make a comment about it. Instead, I breathed in the fresh air. We reached a glass-fronted enclosure with a mesh roof, which reminded me of where meerkats might be housed.
“This is where we’ll house our new hopping mice when they are put on display.”
“I’ve heard about that.”
The next aviary, I could hear the inhabitants before I saw them.
“These are our noisy pittas.” Nikki laughed. “As you can probably tell.”
We watched them for a little bit. As Nikki and I continued around the loop of Healesville Sanctuary, she explained the brief histories of the exhibit, plus the information about their current inhabitants.
“This is such a beautiful place,” I gushed, winter sun on my face.
“Yeah, it is.”
Nikki and I reached the eastern side of the sanctuary.
“I’ve heard about the import next week, from Papua New Guinea,” I mentioned. “That’s really exciting.”
“It’s a big development, for sure, and a return of three species to the sanctuary.”
The new chapter was commencing, just in time for my five weeks’ experience at Healesville.
“We would like to add more species, of course, which will start with the animals from Papua New Guinea. I don’t think we’d add exotic species from other countries, maybe New Zealand.”
“Perhaps the bird TAG could spare a kiwi or two, surely.”
To show I was half-joking, I giggled.
“Oh, here’s Margie.”
A middle-aged, blonde woman approached from the other direction. She smiled to greet me.
“Margie is the director of Healesville Sanctuary. This is Jumilah Fioray.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jumilah. Reuben speaks very highly of you.”
With the tour complete, Nikki and I returned to the wildlife hospital. I felt a little overwhelmed at the bright lights.
“There will be still plenty to learn, for both of us, I’m sure.”
I spotted a flier on the wall, advertising a fundraising ball to be held, Saturday week. Previously, I hadn’t realised that the sanctuary would need to fundraise. I thought that would have only been for so-called private zoos.
“Technically, Zoos South Australia is run by a society, not the government. They do receive funding from the South Australian government, but they have to do a lot of their own funding.”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“That’s alright.” Nikki smiled. “I would have thought the same at your age.”
“Can I ask, did you come straight here, out of uni?”
“No, I didn’t, I worked for a little while at a practice which mainly saw dogs and cats. It was good experience for me, and then I joined Healesville Sanctuary and I’ve never looked back.”
I bobbed my head.
“You would probably know quite a bit of this from Reuben,” Nikki prefaced, “but there are certain criteria for Zoos Victoria to take on a species.”
A grey-haired man walked into the room. He wore veterinary scrubs, indicating that he, too, worked here.
“This is Derek.”
“Nice to meet you.”
We shook hands.
“Derek’s another one of our vets, but he’s a reptile guy.”
“And a carnivore guy,” he corrected.
Nikki nodded empathetically.
“Yes, of course, my apologies. What have you been up to today?”
He explained he’d mostly been working with the lace monitors.
“Some of the females are gravid at the moment, two of them, which is exciting.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve just got to do a bit of admin.” Nikki sat down and pulled herself into the desk. “I’m the veterinary consultant for the tree kangaroo conservation working group.”
While Nikki was working at her computer, I got a moment, in which I could text home and let them know I was settling in alright.
Good to hear it; Mum responded swiftly.
“Jumilah, could you please take out the rubbish?”
I fetched the bag from the bin and carried it outside. This reminded me of my Dodges Ferry days with Tallulah, and I missed her. I lifted the lid of the bin, then hoisted the bag into it and shut it again. On my way back, I noticed a bronze-coloured movement. The snake’s body formed S-shapes over the dry ground. I froze, like you’re supposed to, and waited until the snake disappeared. Then, I walked back into the hospital, as calmly as I could muster.
“I saw a snake outside,” I noted.
“Oh, thanks for telling us, we’ll radio through. Was it moving towards the sanctuary?”
“It just kind of went across the path.”
I gestured with my hands.
“It went into the garden, on the other side.”
“Alright, thank you.”
“Nikki, can we get your help in here, please?”
She glided from one room to the other, to assist with the treatment of a koala.
“When wild koalas end up in captivity, even when their bodies start to heal, they can become depressed,” Nikki explained, “so that’s something we need to keep an eye on, as well.”
She gently stroked her hand down the koala’s back. Nikki glanced towards the monitor. It displays the koala’s vital signs, including an increasingly slowing heartbeat. We stayed with him while he gave out laboured breaths. The monitors started to beep, so Nikki switched them off. I wasn’t sure what to do. Nikki checked with her stethoscope.
“Is there still a heartbeat?”
I knew little about koala resuscitation, but I figured I was about to learn.
“He’s dead, Jumilah. I’m sorry.”
“Sometimes it can be deceptive,” Nikki pointed out. “We can’t save them all, unfortunately.”
I nodded my head, feeling sobered.
“There’s been a new joey brought in which I could get your help with,” Nikki requested.
“Of course,” I accepted, and followed her through.
My heart felt heavy until I saw the kangaroo. I was able to give him a feed before the wildlife carer arrived, to take him to his new home. I turned up to the primate TAG meeting a fair bit late, but still eager to catch up on what had been happening during the past week.
“Our gibbon exhibit is all ready to go.”
“Well, what do you say? We could have them there on Friday.”
“That would be awesome, mate.”
“It’s a date.”
I couldn’t help but grin. The meeting came to an end. I must have missed the discussion about the region’s capuchin programs, not that it really impacts me. Housing the species doesn’t really interest me. I’m sure that Bill would have had plenty to say, even though I don’t think that Perth currently holds any capuchins at all, their last group being sent elsewhere. Just as I left the hospital, my phone rang.
“Hello, is this Jumilah?”
“It’s Marie Roberts here, I’m just calling to make sure you’re alright.”
“Oh, thank you, I’m all good, I’m just running late, I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright, I’ll see you soon.”
As we finished on the phone, Nikki ambled over.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. “If we’re finished for the day, I’ve got a farm where I’m staying while I’m here.”
“Would you like me to give you a lift?” Nikki offered.
“Oh, that would be great, thank you,” I accepted.
We headed out to Nikki’s car and I texted her the address.
“Oh, I know where we’re going. That’s the Roberts’ place. Marie’s sister, Jane, used to be our boss here. She works overseas now.”
Nikki drove over there, without needing Google Maps. Before long, she pulled down a long driveway and I thanked her for the lift, emerging from the car with my suitcase. Approaching the house, I knocked on the front door. A middle-aged woman came to answer it.
“Hello, you must be Jumilah.”
“Hello, it’s so lovely to meet you in person,” I gushed.
“It’s great to meet you too.”
Mrs Roberts led me through into the kitchen.
“Well, the rest of the family will be in soon.”
We chatted for a little while about the birdlife of the local area. The family came in one by one, Mr Roberts and the three teenage kids, home from school for the afternoon.
“Well, I’m Jumilah. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Kate,” the beautiful oldest daughter introduced, “and these are my brothers.”
“Hi, I’m Ben.”
“And I’m James.”
“They’re not actual twins, but they are Irish twins.”
“Can you guess which one of us is the oldest?” asked Ben, the shorter child.
I presumed that it would be him, despite his height appearing to signal the opposite, due to his enthusiasm for informing me, and I was correct.
“Mr Mark Roberts, how do you do?”
He extended his hand towards me for me to shake.
“Good, thank you, thank you for having me here. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s great to have you here.”
“Kate, would you show Jumilah to her room, please?”
I followed Kate down the hallway and into a room to the left. She reached around the corner and flicked on the light.
“This is where you’ll be staying.”
I could hear wild birds outside.
“This is great, thank you.”
I entered, while Kate slunk back into the hallway.
“Well, I’m sure Mum will have dinner ready before too long. Take your time, come out whenever you’re ready.”
Kate departed, allowing me time to survey the room. I changed myself out of my Zoos Victoria gear. As I emerged from the room, we sat down around the table for dinner.
“My grandparents ran a wildlife sanctuary in Sumatra. That’s where my mum grew up, and then she came to Australia for uni just before she turned eighteen.
“Have you ever been to the penguins at Phillip Island?” Mrs Roberts asked.
“No, I haven’t, to be honest,” I answered.
“Well, then, we’ll have to take you sometime while you’re here, won’t we?”
A smile came onto my lips.
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
“Mark can book the tickets, we’ll figure it out.”
“You’ll have your class soon, won’t you?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “but we can have dinner first.”
We tucked into our meal of meat and three veg, one of which was mashed potato cooked with lashings of butter. While I wasn’t usually one for steak, I was able to stomach it.
“How are your grandparents going with running their sanctuary?”
Surely, they’d been told?
“My grandfather died, actually. It was the end of last year, Boxing Day. He was killed, actually, killed by poachers who were seeking to target his sanctuary.”
We finished our dinner, my pulse racing now that I had divulged the truth about Kakek. I got my laptop out of my suitcase and set myself up to join class. While I didn’t have time to call Mum, I sent her a quick text to confirm that I’d arrived safely at the Roberts’ place.
“We’re going to start off with Kenneth’s presentation, then run through our personality types,” Sam mentioned, “so, if you haven’t done the test, I’d recommend doing it sooner rather than later.”
He allowed Kenneth to share his screen.
“For the Australian plains, I was keen to explore the grasslands environment. The precinct would be entered through a walk-through aviary for birds from semi-arid areas.”
He swapped to the next slide.
I found myself reaching for my phone. It was rude of me, I knew, especially with my camera turned on. Therefore, I set my phone down again, further away, and tapped my foot against the floor. Kenneth led us through an animation of an exhibit for Eastern Grey Kangaroo and Swamp Wallaby. It was impressively computer-generated, using skills I didn’t have.
“Visitors would walk through the exhibit and have the opportunity to feed animals. Perhaps a small fee of two dollars per cone could be charged, as has been seen at other zoos and wildlife parks.”
My mind drew me back to being a little kid. Mum, Dad and I had travelled to a sanctuary through the pouring rain, down towards Port Arthur. I refocused on the screen.
“Of course, no precinct would be complete without reptiles. This biome provides an ideal opportunity to house and breed Lace Monitors in open-topped exhibits.”
I formed a mental image of a Komodo Dragon, albeit one I knew was inaccurate. Through his next slide, Kenneth came to my rescue. He provided up-close photographs of Lace Monitors, followed by blueprints of the exhibits. No detail had been spared.
“Returning to mammals, I propose to house ring-tailed possums, in a human-impacted habitat.”
Kenneth cleared his throat.
“Housing ring-tailed possums in these exhibits would invoke in the visitor a reminder of the crossover between the urban and grassland environments.”
Kenneth’s ideas sounded clever, incorporating a built immersive experience, but without the wasted space of fake planes and pretend, cliched villages.
“The precinct would finally reach a breeding complex for Little Penguins. This species is threatened by human activity, especially around the beaches of the Sydney coastline. Providing a sandy, beach-like environment would allow the penguins to be viewed by visitors both on land and from underwater viewing windows.”
“That’s an interesting choice.”
“Yeah, I suppose it is, but it’s something I’ve thought long and hard about,” Kenneth justified. “There’s a clear link to the grasslands and it provides an opportunity to have a link to the marine environment, which I think creates a more holistic precinct.”
The brief had been plains, rather than grasslands. Yet, Sam nodded with approval. My mind was drawn back to our dinner conversation. What Kenneth proposed sounded not unlike the structure on Phillip Island, to view the wild penguins.
“Let’s circle back to the areas of this precinct which we’re yet to explore in depth.”
Kenneth zoomed across his model.
“Keeper areas would be constructed externally to the visitor structures and hidden by foliage, in order to increase the immersive potential of the exhibit. Alternatively, structures would be styled in accordance with a desert aesthetic.”
“Thank you for your presentation, Kenneth. That was really insightful.”
We gave him a virtual round of applause.
“We’ll now go through our personality test results. Would anyone want to go first to share their results with us?”
“I’ve actually done this test before. I’m a Type Eight, the challenger, and I think that tells you a lot about me.”
I wondered whether Sam wanted me to repeat the test or not, but it would have been too late for that now.
“I’m an enthusiast, Type Seven,” Zach revealed. “Originally, I bristled at that. I like to think of myself as someone who shows good attention to detail, but those things aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m quite enthusiastic, after all.”
I grinned, unable to argue with that.
“I’m a Type Five, the investigator,” Piper reported. “That’s what it says.”
“Yeah, I can see that about you,” Alice confirmed. “You’ve always been very inquisitive.”
Piper bobbed her head. She raised her wrist into the view of the camera.
“Did you find out your type, Alice?”
“Yes, I did, I’m Type Three, the achiever,” she stated with confidence.
“Kenneth? Lucia? Is there anything you’d like to share?”
“I came out as a Type Four, the individualist,” Lucia revealed.
“And I’m a Type Nine, but just a second.” Kenneth muted himself and turned his camera off for a brief moment. “Alright, I’m back, and apparently I’m a peacemaker.”
When my phone vibrated, I found myself checking it again. The notification previewed some photos from Mum, of the newest developments. I glanced up to the screen, to ensure I’d put myself on mute again. Then, I opened the text messages and checked out the photos for myself, impressed with Mum and Dad’s progress, but missing home.
“For the rest of the lesson, I’ll be focused on answering your questions.”
I realised that Sam hadn’t shared his own type. That would have to be left to our imagination, I supposed. I glanced towards my watch, to check how much time there was left in the lesson, but there was still plenty.
“At what point do you need to decide on your specialty?”
“Well.” Sam rolled his lips. “Theoretically, you never have to.”
I’d seen him in TAG meetings for both primates and carnivores, and I was aware of his involvement with the elephant program, too.
“Let me approach this from the flipside,” Sam levelled. “Let’s say you have a preference of where you want to work, in terms of a department. My advice would be to try and get as much experience as you can within that field, and then be looking for jobs in carnivores or primates or whatever it is. If you don’t care so much, then try to get as much of a variety of experience as you can.”
He reached for his cup of tea and took a sip.
“Just out of interest, does anyone have a preference?”
“Well, my preference is vet nursing,” Lucia reminded.
“Of course,” Sam affirmed, “and you’ve got a number of options within that.”
“We should talk about vet nursing stuff more,” Kenneth proposed. “The last thing I’d want you to feel is left out.”
Lucia offered a sweet smile to Kenneth. They would have made a cute couple, I thought. It wasn’t, of course, my place to ship them.
“My preference would be carnivores, maybe, or primates,” Piper mentioned.
“Primates would be wonderful,” Alice chimed in. “We could work together with the primates.”
“There are a number of interesting issues you could cover in terms of a research project,” Sam stated.
“What sort of thing would you recommend?” I wanted to know.
“I know that white-handed gibbons can sometimes be polyandrous, meaning that one female is paired with multiple males. I’m not aware of that occurring in our region, though.”
“I wouldn’t know off the top of my head what my grandparents have done in the past, I’m sorry.”
“You’d have to speak to Claire, but the group works for now. I wouldn’t change it.”
Sam cleared his throat.
“If you don’t mind, Jumilah, let’s move back to a veterinary subject.”
I saw Lucia beaming.
“Does anyone have a question or a story they’d like to share?”
“At Melbourne Zoo, oh, it would have been about a month ago now, I was involved with a tusk extraction. It was quite a challenging procedure.”
“Oh, I’d bet that it would be,” Sam concurred. “I’ve never seen one done, personally.”
I was a little surprised by that, and I felt fortunate.
“I gather they’ll have to complete another procedure at some stage. I’m not going to be around for that one.” I laughed. “No offence Lucia, but I’m glad about that. It was a bit stressful, to be honest.”
“I’ve got a quick question about Chaba, the elephant at Melbourne Zoo.”
I sat up straighter, then my shoulders puckered. Kenneth’s question had not been directed at me, but Sam. I kept quiet, not sure what I could reveal. Since commencing this course, I knew that I was different from my classmates.
“Do you think she’ll have another calf?”
“Probably once more,” Sam answered. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was her last breeding, considering that it would be her fourth calf. Of course, that’s still a way down the line. The herd is planned to be at Werribee by then, of course that’s something you’ll be well aware of, Jumilah.”
I nodded. As Sam spoke, he shifted his hands. I noticed the wedding band on his finger. We hadn’t spoken much before about his marriage – not at all, really. A wedding band on a man of a certain age blends in with his skin. It’s the same as a diamond on a woman – the sight communicates, but you don’t realise what until you really stop and think. Randomly, Tallulah came to mind. I thought that I could have called her, or at least texted. The conversation of the class moved on, Zach with yet another question. I heard the house creak, one of the family moving through it to get to the bathroom, or something. It came to mind the night when I was a child, and there was a car accident near the farm. I could faintly recall it, but maybe I had fabricated the memory. It wasn’t like we discussed it often. I would have been three years old, at the oldest, but it wasn’t helpful to dwell on it. There was enough trauma bubbling around in me, which I could still recall. I resolved that I would get in touch with Tallulah sooner rather than later, to let her know I’d made a successful start at Healesville. I’d need to tell Nanek, too. She would be proud of me, that I was sure. I wanted to know how Nanek was getting on, too, and whether she would be able to return to Binjai. Kakek is buried at the sanctuary, so we will always have a connection to that land. I hoped that Nanek would be able to see out her days there, but I didn’t want her to be alone. A part of me wanted her to live with us. If you ask me what I love about Tasmania, it’s how cozy the place is, yet how vast and blue the sky expands. I sometimes feel like I could know every person on the island if I tried. Maybe all you have to do for that, is to open the only zoo in the south of the state. Of course, everyone-knows-everyone isn’t wholly true; it’s a good dose of stereotype as well. I wondered whether the community was the same in this area. It wouldn’t have surprised me. Hopefully I would get to know some more people, beyond the Roberts family and the staff at Healesville Sanctuary.
“I’ve heard that birds can’t be imported into Australia,” Kenneth spoke up.
“That’s true, mostly,” I confirmed.
“Truth be told, it’s something we’ve been discussing in detail. Getting the ban overturned would be wonderful. Allowing imports and exports to and from New Zealand would be a good first step, and perhaps Papua New Guinea, too.”
That development would fit in with what I’ve heard about mammals. I found myself picturing a bee-eater in all its vivid colour, and imagined how vibrant the aviary space would be. It would be even more spectacular than what we were planning for the finches, fruit doves and lorikeets.
“Does anyone have an interest in ungulates?” Sam wanted to know.
“I would be extremely interested in Malayan Tapir. They’re a beautiful species and, yes, I’m aware of the difficulties in Australia.”
“We can talk about this later, if you would prefer.”
The two of us concluded that was wisest, although, Zach, at least seemed engrossed in the conversation. He couldn’t shake the enthusiast tag in a hurry. I stifled a yawn, knowing Sam and I would get plenty of chances to chat. The other students only got these few hours to pick his brains, on a Monday night. They didn’t have almost ready-made zoos to go home to. After class, I closed my laptop, figuring that there would be a powerpoint in my room, so that I could charge it. It’s quieter out here, but I can’t help but feel more at home with the agricultural environment around me. Our property isn’t that far from the suburbs, but I enjoy wide open spaces. I got into my new bed and I thought that I would be able to quickly fall asleep.
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.