Updated: Dec 9, 2022
This morning, I awoke with a sense of anticipation, knowing Kwabema the silverback would be arriving. As I emerged from bed, I could sense the racing of my heart rate. I dressed myself, then headed out to the kitchen. Reuben passed a keep-cup of coffee into my hands, allowing me to leave for the zoo grounds with a hit of caffeine. I glanced up at the blue above, not a cloud in the sky, and couldn’t help but smile.
“Good morning, Jumilah.”
I looked back to earth, Ella approaching.
“I’m just on the way to do the feed run.”
Therefore, I followed Ella to the feed room.
“Siamangs, first,” she told me.
By this stage, I’d become relatively similar with the siamangs’ diet – a kilo-and-a-half of apple, six chopped bananas, and seven oranges, segmented. This morning, they would be receiving grapes, rather than kiwi fruit, as the two options alternated so that the animals would have a bit of variety.
“What’s the melon for today?”
Ella placed one down on the chopping board, slicing it in half with a large knife.
“This is a real treat for them.”
After we’d finished preparing the food, we stepped back out into the sunshine. Our first stop was the Japanese gardens, sunlight glistening on the moat.
“How long has this been here?”
“It’s certainly been here the whole time I’ve been working here,” Ella supplied. “I reckon that it would be twenty or thirty years, at least.”
We supplied the morning feed to the siamang brothers. The visitors started to come into the zoo about the same time, as if they were beckoned by the calls of both groups of siamangs, echoing throughout the grounds. The sound was evocative, but I remained thinking about Kwabema and his impending arrival. From there we walked back to the Main Drive and arrived at the baboon exhibit. Some of the younger males were squabbling, so Ella opened the slide.
“Hopefully this will sort things out.”
They rolled out into the exhibit. I heard Reuben’s footsteps, before I saw him.
“Jumilah, are you coming with me to the airport?”
“Yeah, if that alright?”
I glanced between Reuben and Ella, searching for permission. They both nodded their heads.
“Is there room for one more?” Ella wanted to know.
“Yes, there is. Come along, we can all jump into the truck.”
Grinning, Ella followed. We squished into the truck. I had the middle seatbelt, which just went across my lap. Privately, I gripped the seat, while Reuben drove to the airport. It’s only a twenty-minute drive, at the most, from the zoo to Tullamarine. I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like, to be heading from Sorell to Hobart Airport, to collect animals for our own zoo. We arrived and drove onto the tarmac. A forklift was used to remove the crate from the plane, shifting Kwabema into the back of the Melbourne Zoo truck. I figured we’d need to use the same back at the zoo, to move him out of the truck again. Luckily, I knew that Melbourne Zoo was in possession of a forklift. A keeper from France joined us. Reuben drove the truck back to the zoo. Lina was waiting for our return, along with some other, bulky keepers, and a forklift with a driver sitting in it. We emerged from the cabin. There, we met Lina and Meredith, as well as other staff who had been asked to assist, and quarantine workers. The keeper from France provided Kwabema with a hand injection, demonstrating an incredible level of trust. I knew that Kakek and Nanek had trained the gibbons in the same way. They both possessed an incredible amount of knowledge about caring for animals, half of which I would never get to fully learn, save from the pages of the diary. After about fifteen minutes, Kwabema was confirmed as asleep. The walls of the crate were broken down. I helped to carry planks of wood away. They’d be recycled, I gathered, reused the next time that a large animal needed to be transported. I wondered whether the pieces of the crate would be sent back to France. All the strength of Melbourne Zoo’s keepers carried Kwabema into the examination room. They placed him onto the table, where Meredith could transfer him onto the gas. Then, she breathed a sigh of relief, that his initial anaesthetic would be able to wear off without incident. On the whiteboard, the list of procedures which would be carried out on Kwabema was outlined.
“I’m a little bit worried about his blood pressure. It’s high.”
“Is that to be expected?” I murmured.
I could tell Reuben looked concerned. Reinforcements were called in; other vets and vet nurses to assist Meredith.
“We’d prefer it wasn’t high.”
The vet team managed to stabilise his blood pressure and complete their procedures. About an hour and a half had passed. Apart from my rumbling stomach, I barely noticed the time. Thankfully, Meredith confirmed that Kwabema had, as best as she could tell, a clean bill of health. Therefore, he was finally delivered into the quarantine quarters where he would spend the next thirty days. Meredith supplied the reversal drugs. She then slipped back out of the quarantine area, ensuring the door was locked. Over the next little while, Kwabema came to. The vet team felt satisfied that their work was complete, and now he just needed to serve his quarantine period. Curious about the gorilla, I lingered. I peered through the glass window which looked into Kwabema’s quarantine area, his head up close.
“What’s on your plate now?” Reuben wanted to know.
I rocked back on the balls of my feet, away from the glass, and looked at him.
“Oh, I’m not sure.”
“Perhaps you could go with Monica. You could get a bit more experience with carnivores.”
“Yeah, alright, that would be great.”
We departed the vet quarters.
I felt a little worried about Kwabema, being on his own. Unfortunately, that’s just what has to happen, until he’s completed his quarantine period and then can be integrated with the female troop. Out on the Main Drive, we encountered Monica. Reuben bid farewell to the two of us, heading off for other work.
“You’re coming with me, right?”
I followed her. Monica and I arrived at the lion exhibit, where Melbourne Zoo houses two brothers born at Werribee, Harare and Johari. I know that they used to breed lions in the past, but that was a long time ago, in a different exhibit.
“We have two keepers at all times when working with dangerous animals.”
That would be something Mum, Dad and I would need to accommodate at home.
“If you’re going to work with carnies, you need to know this,” Monica insisted.
I nodded, then finished up with her. I did a loop around the African savannah area, hoping I’d encounter Ella. Instead, I took a moment near the giraffe and zebra exhibit, looking out over the long grass. I observed how they serve as a barrier between the animals, the fence and the people. Were we ever to house ungulates in the future, I thought that a similar method could be employed to separate the exhibited animals from the public. In the late afternoon, I returned home. Reuben was in the cottage, wearing a cap. It had been a long day, but an exciting one. The arrival of Kwabema the silverback gorilla is a new chapter for Melbourne Zoo, like the birth of the elephant calf was a couple of weeks ago. I felt like I was learning more than I would ever be able to fully take in.
“Do you have an elephant TAG meeting this afternoon?” I checked.
“No, not today,” Reuben confirmed, “so I thought that we could stretch our legs.”
There was a proud smile on his lips, so I narrowed my eyes with suspicion. Obviously there mustn’t be much happening with the elephant program.
Reuben took me for a walk around the corner of the zoo where the old elephant house is located.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush here, Jumilah. You’ve only got one more week here. What are you going to do next?”
“I don’t know. There’s plenty of construction work to do back home.”
I breathed out as we reached the Japanese gardens. Bukit and Barat the siamang brothers were sitting peacefully on a platform in their exhibit. From the island exhibit we traipsed through a shortcut, into a precinct called Growing Wild. It’s a dark and quiet area, especially at that time of the day. Shadows were cast over the concrete, a shiver running through my body.
“You need to do something else with this area, buddy,” I surveyed. “It feels like such a dead zone.”
“Well, what would you do with it, genius?”
We walked along the path.
“You’ve already got another meerkat exhibit. You don’t need this duplicate here.”
“Says you,” Reuben retorted. “I know your plans. You’re going to have duplicate tarsier exhibits.”
“And aren’t you jealous?”
Reuben nodded his head, conceded the point.
“Alright, what would you do with this area?”
“You’ve got a Congo rainforest and a southeast Asian rainforest. What about an Amazon-inspired rainforest precinct?”
“I really should be paying you.”
“Yeah, about that,” I quipped, although I wasn’t completely joking.
“I know that you’re here to learn--.”
“I’m not totally working as a keeper, I know, but it would still be nice.”
We returned to Reuben’s cottage. He started putting some dinner on, so I wandered through into my bedroom and fetched my phone off the charger by my bed. I called Mum and Dad, to update them.
“Reuben wants me to stay on here for a little bit longer,” I admitted, “and I would like to stay, too. There’s still more for me to learn here, and not just about primates and dholes.”
“The dholes are in Sydney, they aren’t even in Melbourne.”
“Adriano, could you please check the penne?”
There was a part I didn’t hear, then it was just Mum’s voice.
“Sorry, I just wanted to talk about this just the two of us,” she admitted. “If you need to stay, you stay, Jumilah. It’s a fabulous opportunity.”
“Thank you, Mum. I really want to learn more. Reuben’s been talking about maybe Healesville and Werribee after this. Now, I don’t know if that’s in the budget, but--.”
“Things are OK, we’re OK.”
“So, you don’t think I need that?”
“No, I meant the opposite. All the experience you can receive is wonderful.”
“Thank you, thank you, Mum,” I responded.
“Tell me about your day today.”
“It was really exciting. The silverback gorilla arrived.”
Once we ended the call, I returned to the lounge. As promised, Mum texted me through a few photos from the interior of the nocturnal house. Jasmine crawled up the walls, grow lights installed to replicate sunlight for plants and animals alike. In return, I sent her the photos which I’d taken of Kwabema in his quarantine area. Smelling the dinner Reuben was cooking, I put my phone away. I walked through the cottage and into the kitchen, as he chopped lettuce for our tacos. Reuben let out the dinner on our plates, with sour cream, bean chili and cheese accompanying the chopped lettuce and tomato to be wrapped up in each tortilla.
“Does your mother know that you know?”
“You’re going to have to be more specific?”
We sat down at the table for dinner.
“Does your mother know that you know that I had feelings for her?”
“That you have feelings for her,” I corrected him.
“I’ve always acted as if she knew.” Reuben shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know how she could not have cottoned on.”
He pushed a bottle of cider into my hands.
“I want to talk more about the Amazon rainforest.”
“The actual Amazon rainforest?”
A part of me wanted to press further about Reuben and Mum, but obviously it was a touchy subject. I didn’t actually want to learn more than I bargained for.
“No, having a precinct here.”
“Have you thought much about clouded leopards?”
“They’re not from the Amazon, though.”
“I know. Adelaide seem to want to import them, though. I think that’s happening.”
“I’m not opposed.”
“Do you think it’s a frolic?”
“Anything can be a frolic, really.”
We finished off our ciders, contemplating what could be.
“Alright, I’m off to bed.”
I walked through the cottage, then got into bed and said my prayers.
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.