I grunted when I was woken up by the calls of gibbons. Rolling over, I became more awake. I reached for my phone and consulted it for the time, then hauled myself from bed, somehow stumbling into the shower so that I could be soothed by the heat. Once I switched off the water, I stepped out and dried myself, dressing for the day. Out in the hallway, I encountered Reuben.
“Are you right to go?”
“Yes,” I confirmed, still clipping Kakek’s cross around my neck.
We left the house, heading in the direction of Trail of the Elephants. My chest felt tight. I couldn’t help but feel like I was spinning out of control. My body was so cold under the shade of the canopy. Reuben caught up to me, returning from the otter exhibit, which I could smell even from a distance. I felt like I couldn’t speak, because I couldn’t tell him how I truly felt. My frame, under siege, heard invisible bullets. I breathed out audibly to beat through. After today and tomorrow, Healesville will be a new challenge and a fresh opportunity. Reuben has confirmed where I will be staying. It won’t actually be at Healesville specifically. There’s a farm close by where Mr and Mrs Roberts live, and Mrs Roberts’ sister used to be the director at Healesville.
“Living on the land, you know me too well.”
“Remember, today’s the day that Gabby van Hilten’s coming from the news, she’ll be here at 10:30.”
“Right.” I had forgotten. “What would you like me to do?”
“Well, meet her at the gate, first and foremost. Show her around.”
“Just in the public areas?”
“She is allowed to go behind the scenes, but respect the animals, respect the keepers. You know what to do, I trust you.”
We arrived at the elephant exhibit. I immediately spotted the reason for our visit. A fence paling had snapped off, near the pool.
“Would the animals have done this?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Reuben and I replaced the paling with another. Then, he headed home, as this wasn’t technically his workday. It was nice of Reuben to complete such a menial task, but I believe that he was proving a point. Even the CEO is willing to get his hands dirty on occasion. Anyway, I’d ended up with some time out in the zoo, before Gabby was due to arrive. I took a moment to drop into the hippo exhibit. Washington had already been let out for the morning. He’d waded into the water, eyes visible above the surface, the rest of his body enlarged when viewed through the glass. Before coming to Melbourne Zoo, I’d given little thought to pygmy hippos. Now, thanks to Washington, I’m rather fond of them. From there, I walked around the back-of-house at the gorillas, as a detour on the way to the main gate. Through the night dens I could see the females – Judith on her own, Naomi chasing birds, Esther climbing, and Nyani lying on her back and eating her morning lettuce with glee. I glanced towards the whiteboard. Whilst there were tasks to complete, I had a job of my own. I noticed Gabby van Hilten before she spotted me, the entourage of a camera crew lugging their equipment a telltale sign. She seemed just as gorgeous in real life. I took a deep breath just before I approached, beaming and thrusting out my hand in greeting.
“Hello, I’m Jumilah Fioray.”
“Hi, Gabby van Hilten.”
“Lovely to meet you, Gabby.”
“So, what department do you work in?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. I’m here on work experience.”
I mused over whether or not to tell her.
“That’s lovely,” Gabby replied, although I sensed that she was trying to keep her tone measured – I am, after all, the ‘work experience kid’.
“I’m actually from Tasmania. My family and I are starting a zoo there, so that’s why I’m here, to learn as much as I can first.”
“Oh, that’s really cool.”
I smiled, gaining more confidence by the second.
“Do you think that we would be able to go behind the scenes?” Gabby requested.
“Well, I could ask,” I offered.
I figured that she’d want to see the elephant calf. Therefore, I led Gabby and her camera crew towards Trail of the Elephants, as our first stop.
“You know, I’ve heard a bit about your plans. It’s actually nice to put a face to the name.”
We strode down the path, the jungle breaking. The elephant exhibits sat before us, Chaba and her calf obediently right in the centre, for the camera crew to set up and start filming them.
“That’s great, that’s awesome,” Gabby confirmed, reviewing the footage. “What’s next?”
We headed to the orangutan exhibit. Visitors were milling about on the boardwalk. I really hoped that I wouldn’t be asked to clear them for filming. Indah was in the meshed exhibit we approached first, along with the siamangs, the two species largely ignoring each other as they ate their mid-morning meals.
“Is this the female who had an abortion?”
Tilting my head to the side, I felt like I’d answered her question.
“No, actually,” I finally spoke up. “This is Indah, Luna’s mother. Luna’s over in the outdoor exhibit.”
I started to lead Gabby and the film crew down the boardwalk, my pulse hitching.
“And, no, she didn’t have an abortion.”
That felt like too anthropomorphic an expression, anyway.
“Luna was pregnant, but she lost the pregnancy. I was there when the vets treated her.”
“Thankfully, she’s made a full recovery.”
“Physically and emotionally?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Reuben seemed to have underestimated Gabby van Hilten.
“You know, we’re planning on importing more orangutans. Melbourne Zoo would love to breed Sumatran Orangutan, as they’re critically endangered.”
I did noticed that I was flip-flopping on the pronouns which I was using, to refer to the zoo.
“So, you won’t breed with these females again?” Gabby enquired.
“Well, Indah and Luna are hybrid orangutans. They were both born here a long time ago. Things were different, then. Now, zoos in Australia only breed purebred orangutans.”
Gabby nodded. I hoped that I was making a good impression. Outside the orangutans, Gabby set up to film a piece to camera.
“Here at Melbourne Zoo, three orangutans live as ambassadors for their species. Only one of them, the young male Menyaru, is a purebred Sumatran Orangutan. The zoo hopes to import more females of the subspecies in order to continue breeding these critically endangered animals.”
After a pause, the cameras stopped rolling. Gabby checked the footage back.
“Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans are actually different species, not different subspecies,” I mentioned, because I couldn’t help myself.
“Oh,” she spoke up. “I didn’t know.”
Gabby glanced between me and the camera crew.
“I take it that you were always a little girl who loved animals growing up.”
“Yes,” I confirmed, feeling my heartrate rising with every word she spoke.
“I would love to visit the Butterfly House, if possible,” Gabby requested. “It’s a pretty iconic place at Melbourne Zoo.”
“Of course. Follow me.”
We backtracked through Trail of the Elephants and walked through the famous bejewelled archway.
“Oh, this is magical,” Gabby gushed.
An orange and black butterfly landed on top of her hand, the camera crew recording the majestic moment.
“That’s a Monarch butterfly,” I supplied.
Once the butterfly fluttered away, we continued along the boardwalk. I could just imagine the elevator music which that footage could be set to.
“It was so warm and humid in there,” Gabby observed.
From the Butterfly House, it was decided that the African savannah would be the ideal next destination for filming. Therefore, we strode back up the Main Drive, through the busy zoo crowds. It had not been long since the loss of Twiga. I wasn’t sure whether or not Gabby knew. It wasn’t information I would readily supply, although I didn’t quite know why I felt secretive. Gabby spent some time surveying the savannah. The breeze ruffled her hair, which she tucked behind her ear. It almost felt like Gabby was paying tribute. Perhaps she knew after all and just wanted to remember, rather than creating a sensationalised story. After completing the loop past the baboons, we ended up at the Platypus house. I led the camera crew inside. Beth happened to be there.
“Gabby, this is Beth, one of our Wild Sea keepers,” I introduced.
Following the greeting, we turned to the glass. The platypus, a rare monotreme, is truly a special animal. One was swimming around in the tank.
“Would we be able to do a piece to camera with the platypus?”
“Yeah, of course, if the glass doesn’t reflect.”
“No, I meant holding the platypus.”
“Well, the males have spurs.”
“We could hold a female?”
I glanced at Beth for back-up.
“How about we go down to Wild Sea?”
Gabby looked impressed by that plan.
“We have a touch pool there,” Beth quipped.
I offered her a small, cheeky smile. We moved quickly through the zoo. Arriving at Wild Sea, Beth led us towards the underwater viewing window.
“This is quite something,” Gabby remarked, looking through the glass.
“This is our female long-nosed fur seal,” Beth introduced. “She came to Melbourne Zoo as a rescue animal, from the wild. She’s very elderly now, we need to make sure that we monitor her health on a regular basis.”
“What specific concerns do you have?”
“It’s the same as in humans, I suppose. Eyesight, movement – all of that becomes a concern at older ages.”
She disappeared from view, so we moved on.
“I can take you over towards the African rainforest,” Beth suggested, “or Jumilah can.”
“Of course.” Gabby genuinely beamed. “I remember the gorilla babies when I was little.”
Bidding farewell to Beth, we strode diagonally across the Main Drive. The cameramen got some footage of the black and white ruffed lemurs, striking a pose.
“This complex is about ten years old,” I explained.
“Right, it looks great.”
We walked through the ring-tailed lemur exhibit. Some of the lemurs bounded over, eager to check out the crew and their equipment.
“Is this a breeding group?”
“No, these are all females,” I confirmed.
As soon as I crouched down, Sena jumped over to greet me.
“There are eleven females – Sena, Mamy, Mofy, Sahala, Zo, Hira, Lalaina--.”
I was a little cheesed off by the interruption. At the same time, it saved me from admitting that the rest of the lemurs’ names had slipped my mind. Eventually we exited out the other side. A smile came onto my lips as we ambled down the path.
“This is our gorilla rainforest.”
All four females were out on exhibit.
“There’s just the girls here at the moment – Judith, Esther, Naomi and Nyani, Naomi’s daughter, who is fully grown now. All of these females will hopefully breed with the new male when he comes out of quarantine.”
“Do you like it here?” Gabby wanted to know.
“Yes, I do,” I confirmed. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity.”
“And do they treat you well?”
“Yeah. It’s good that I already knew Reuben.”
Gabby, thankfully, accepted that without question. We continued down the path, under the canopy. As we approached the pygmy hippo exhibit, I couldn’t help but think about Violet. She’d dropped quite the bombshell when she’d spoken about leaving her husband to move to Africa to work on a bongo IVF program.
“What’s in that enclosure?”
“It’s empty at the moment.”
I could hear some of the primates squawking. Maybe that would sound great on the news. I didn’t suggest it, though, because I’m hardly a television expert. Gabby tilted her head to the side.
“What’s that noise?”
“Oh, there are primates nearby. I don’t know which species that would be, I’m sorry. That’s Treetop Monkeys and Apes, I can take you over there if you’d like.”
“I remember Treetop Monkeys and Apes,” Gabby assured me. “That’s where you had the fire, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I confirmed.
She seemed to know everything about Melbourne Zoo, and genuinely so, even if at times you couldn’t take the journalist out of the girl. Before the end of the day, I had to take Gabby for a quick walk through.
“Oh my goodness, this hasn’t changed one bit,” she gushed.
Gabby zig-zagged back and forth. The white-cheeked gibbons, on the left, came up close to the glass.
“What beautiful creatures.”
“Yes,” I agreed with a smile. “They are.”
The camera crew recorded the gibbons for a little while, until they retreated from view. As they stopped filming, we moved along to the next exhibit, for the emperor tamarin pair. It took a moment for us to spot them.
“What are these little fellas called?”
“Emperor Tamarins,” I explained. “They looked like some German emperor, apparently, with the moustaches.”
Back to the other side of the path, I could see all three colobuses in the exhibit. Melbourne stands at something of a crossroads, with a post-reproductive female and her adult offspring. Gabby paid brief attention to Makena, Mkasu and Mapenzi, before shifting across to the squirrel monkey exhibit. I kept an eye out for Jazz.
“We’ve had a new baby, born yesterday, in fact.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Gabby gushed, spotting mother and child. “The baby’s like a little backpack. How gorgeous.”
The camera crew made sure to film some footage, before moving on. The spider monkeys had all been integrated into the one enclosure. Therefore, Cotton-Top Tamarins were housed on both sides of the boardwalk, Melbourne’s old group as well as the new animals from Adelaide.
“Can they go underneath the path here?”
“No, they can’t. These are two separate groups. One of the groups has been at Melbourne Zoo for a while, I gather, and the other came from Adelaide recently. Their previous exhibit was being demolished.”
Gabby nodded her head.
“They’re building a new African exhibit, at Adelaide. That’s why they moved these animals out, but they’ll get the species back eventually.”
We eventually left Treetop Monkeys and Apes, heading back to the gorilla rainforest. Gabby filmed a glowing piece about the gorilla family and the plans to breed with Kwabema as the new silverback. Once the crew packed up, we emerged from the African Rainforest, back onto the Main Drive. I felt a pang that I wanted to call home, to talk to Mum. Hopefully the story would air on the news in Tassie, too. I bid farewell to Gabby and her cameramen, who departed out the Main Gate. With the zoo at closing time, I gathered that there would be someone around, who could do with an extra set of hands. Rather than a keeper, to my surprise it was Reuben whom I happened upon, strolling down the Main Drive with contentment.
“Has Gabby van Hilten left the building?”
“Yes, she has,” I confirmed. “I think that I had the most fun today.”
On the way back home, we passed the lemur exhibit. Ella was putting away the bachelor ruffed lemur group for the night.
“You’re coming to Emmie’s hens tonight, aren’t you?” I checked.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. See you then.”
We finally returned to Reuben’s cottage. I needed to have a shower and change. As I washed off the day, I reflected that it had been alright, after all. Once I got out of the shower and dressed, my phone rang. I sat down on the bed and answered the call.
“Hey, how have you been?”
“You’ve been on the news,” Isobel told me. “Nice promo for the zoo.”
“Why, thank you,” I replied.
Laughter crept into my tone of voice.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, to be honest,” I admitted, “but Reuben didn’t want to touch it.”
“That does not surprise me. He’s always been something of the suspicious type.” Isobel swallowed. “I hope you don’t mind me saying that.”
“No, not at all, I agree.”
We finished on the phone, as it was almost time for Emmie’s hens’. I snapped a selfie in my nice outfit. Once I sent it through to both Mum and Tallulah, they quickly responded with heart-eye emojis. I love-reacted to their kind messages, then I strode out of my bedroom, dressed for the hens party. Reuben offered me something of a smile.
“You look nice.”
I made sure I had my keys.
“Well, I’ll see you later,” I farewelled Reuben. “I’m not sure how late I’ll be.”
“Enjoy the bucks night.”
With a wave, I exited the cottage. On my way through the zoo grounds, I crossed paths with Ella.
“You look amazing,” I praised.
Ella wore a halter neck, orange dress which showed off her figure.
“Thank you, so do you,” she responded.
We slipped out the Rail Gate and strutted across to the tram stop. Emmie wore pale blue. A headband reading ‘Bride’ kept her red hair away from her face. We piled onto the tram and travelled into town. I was sitting next to Meredith.
“You were with Gabby van Hilten today, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” I confirmed with a nod of my head. “It was a lot of fun. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch what’s put to air at some stage.”
We chatted most of the way into the city. The tram motored into the free zone. We alighted to stroll through the town towards the first bar Emmie chosen. Sure, I’d been out in Tassie, but I could feel the electricity of the city. My heart thumped at double speed within my chest, although my lips were curved into a grin. Ara bought the first round of drinks, and I selected a simple vodka lemonade. We toasted the bride, then slurped down our drinks. I already felt a bit light-headed. Scanning the bar, I took note of the other patrons and their locations. None of them seemed to be paying too much attention to us. I ordered some pasta, which arrived shortly after, with steam rising from it. Despite the heat, I chowed into my food. Ara pulled up a stool beside me.
“Are you good?”
“I am now.”
The other hens quickly joined us. We easily slipped into conversation.
“Vel was born in Australia, but I wasn’t. I’m not an authority on racism, but there’s something not great behind the fact that people look at me twice if I point that out to them.”
“When people ask me, ‘where are you from?’, my answer is Tasmania.”
I finished off my pasta.
“Zookeeping is still pretty white,” Ella mentioned, and glancing around the group mostly confirmed what she was saying. “It doesn’t happen every day, but people every now and then, they won’t think that you’re meant to be there, that you’re actually the zookeeper.”
“Let me take that for you.”
While the bartender whisked away my empty bowl, I thanked him.
“I think that I’m the only Ghanian-Australian zookeeper I know.”
“I’m the only Indonesian-Italian-Australian aspiring zookeeper I know,” I chimed in.
“I’m glad to have you here.”
We clinked our glasses, then sipped from our drinks, ice swishing. I could smell and taste the intensity of the alcohol, even though I was trying to pace myself. Emmie and her bridesmaids were already determining their next steps. I could faintly hear a beeping noise. Eventually it ceased, so it can’t have been anything to worry about. Emmie read from her phone. I wanted a drink of water, but figured I could fetch that later.
“Alright, so, there’s a disco place just around the corner. I think it would be good.”
“I would be down for body glitter,” I accepted, “as long as it’s biodegradable.”
We left the bar. One of Emmie’s other friends directed us towards the next establishment. The lights were dim and another round of drinks were ordered, while I found myself sitting with Beth.
“You’re specialising in primates, aren’t you?”
“Well, not specifically,” I corrected her. “The plan is for a number of primate species at the zoo, if we manage to get it open, so that’s why I spend a lot of time with Ella and Lina working with the primates, to get that experience with them.”
“I really care about being a marine mammals keeper.”
Beth wiped tears from her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised, trying to pull herself together. “This isn’t the kind of messy I should be getting tonight.”
“How about I get us some water?”
Beth accepted the offer, and I appreciated the breather. I fetched two cups from the bar and filled one, handing one over to her.
“I’m sorry, it’s not about you.”
I was glad for the reassurance, although I would have been surprised if I had in fact made her cry.
“It’s about Isaac. I really love him. Working with him is really hard.”
I nodded with sympathy, as Patrick came to mind. Spying the dancefloor, I figured that a boogie would do us both good, so we finished our waters, then joined the others. ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ blasted through the speakers as we twirled the night away.
“I love Vel,” Emmie gushed, the skirt of her dress swishing as she spun around. “I’m so glad that we’re not tigers, we’re not solitary animals, they only get together to--.”
“We know, we know,” Ara assured.
“Velushomaz is a very sexy man, a very, very sexy man.”
Close to midnight, the happy hens dispersed around Southern Cross station. I needed to get back to the zoo. Meredith and I once again happened to find ourselves close by to each other.
“How are you getting home?”
“I’ll probably just catch the tram back to the zoo,” I responded.
“I can come with you,” Meredith offered. “Listen, I haven’t been drinking. I left my car at the zoo, so it’s no trouble.”
“Well, thank you, that’d be great.”
We travelled back to Royal Park. I was a little too sleepy for conversation, and farewelled Meredith at the carpark. Once I got into bed, I dozed off to sleep quickly, then woke up again. Still half asleep, I panned my eyes up the wall. For a moment I thought that the room was filled with smoke, until I blinked again and my vision regained clarity. It was just the night-time. Still with rest needed, I nodded back off.
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'.