I awoke this morning to a gentle but persistent sound of breathing, which brought me into a seated position pretty quickly. Through the glass doors, Hamish, sans shirt, was exercising, beads of sweat over his skin. I poured myself a glass of water from the tap, but tried not to gawk, especially because he hadn’t noticed me. Eventually, Hamish returned to the house. I tried to look as busy as possible, like this was just any other morning at our sharehouse.
“How was your workout?” I asked, nonchalantly, keeping my gaze on his face.
“Good,” Hamish answered, a little puffed out.
I nodded my head.
“I’m just going to go upstairs for a shower.”
I sipped my water again. Hamish departed. I waited until I could hear the water running. Eventually, I headed upstairs to get dressed. I could shower after I returned from the zoo. Once I had my clothes on, I stashed my pyjamas and headed back downstairs for breakfast. I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then the others were ready to leave. There was a bit more traffic than usual on the drive into the zoo, with Hamish behind the wheel.
“The conference is in Sydney this year,” Whitlam mentioned, reading from his phone.
“Were you thinking you’d get to go, Whitlam?” Jamila remarked.
“Well, Des isn’t getting any younger.”
“And do you reckon you’d be the one he’d send?”
“Well--,” Whitlam responded.
“If they can’t send the Director, they’d send the Senior Mammals Curator, you’d think,” Jamila interrupted.
I didn’t mention that I planned to go. It would have seemed a little presumptive. The secrecy made my heart thump faster, so I was more than grateful to finally arrive at the zoo and be out of the smothering traffic jam. On the ungulate rotation for the day, I followed Whitlam, once we’d signed in as being on site for the morning. Zola ran over to us.
“I think that there’s something wrong with Lancelot.”
By the time we arrived in the quarantine paddock, the zebra stallion was down on the ground. Whitlam raised his radio to his lips to call Bailey across at the rush. He arrived, with equipment for a darting. The ungulate team swiftly gathered. All I could focus on was Lancelot’s chest. It rose and fell, just like mine, proving that we were both still breathing. Bailey drew up the syringe with the sedative which he’d use to put Lancelot to sleep, showing it around so that we were all aware of exactly what he was doing.
“The drug is lethal to humans,” Whitlam pointed out.
“Roger,” I replied with a firm nod of my head.
“Now, you’ll need to learn how to work with this--.”
“But mostly I’ll just stay out of the way and leave it to the vets.”
“That is the course of action I’d advise.”
“Don’t worry, I have no problems going along with that.”
Bailey fired the shot into the stallion’s rump. We didn’t have to wait long before he entered and covered his face with a towel.
“Alright, let’s get fluids into him,” Bailey decided. “Be mindful of your skin.”
Zola hooked Lancelot up to a drip, although his vital signs were not improving. I watched in horror as the heartrate on the screen slowed to a stop, a flat line. Bailey, hands gloved, pressed his stethoscope over the zebra stallion’s body.
“Are you sure?” Whitlam spoke up.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Bailey confirmed, sounding bitingly irritated, but trying in vain to hold it back. “We’ll need to take the body to the vet hospital.”
He marked the site of the injection with green paint.
“I just don’t understand how this happened.”
“We’ll have to do an autopsy, mate.” Bailey patted Whitlam on the shoulder. “Help me carry him into the hospital.”
Once we’d shifted the body, Whitlam and I returned to the staff block, where we happened upon Jamila upon the way, with a concerned look.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
Whitlam continued into the building, but I lingered.
“Lancelot the zebra stallion died this morning.”
“What happened?” Jamila asked, before swiping her nose.
“We don’t know,” I responded. “The vets will perform an autopsy.”
“Whitlam must be taking it pretty hard.”
“He’d only just been imported. We’ll have to take extra care.”
Jamila nodded her head.
“Yeah, yeah, of course,” she affirmed.
The news brought a sombre mood over our conversation, which we needed to shake off.
“Do you know what’s on your agenda for the rest of the day?”
“Well, I think that I was meant to be with Whitlam and Zola with the ungulates, but I’m not so sure now.”
“You know, they might really appreciate the company, but let me know if you need anything.”
“Yeah, of course, thank you.”
We started to amble away, in the direction of the savannah bus terminal. Responding to her phone buzzing within her pocket, Jamila retrieved it and checked the message. It was still only eleven-thirty. I felt like I’d lived the day already three times over. At least I could sit down for the ungulate TAG meeting and breathe out. It wouldn’t be my responsibility to inform them of the loss. That would be left in Des’ hands, an unenviable task considering it hadn’t been too long ago that we were heralding Lancelot’s arrival.
“Thank you for coming, everybody.”
“Before we start, I’d like to say something,” Des spoke up. “This morning, our new zebra stallion, Lancelot, died.”
Nobody spoke. Shocked faces stared back at us. My heart started to beat even faster, but I, too, said nothing.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear. That’s awful news,” Claire responded.
Perhaps silence was the best language for such a time as this. It turned out that the meeting was due to discuss the regional zebra population, anyway, and the potential to import new founders – an even more pertinent need considering the passing of Lancelot.
“So, we’ve got five institutions with purebred Chapman’s Zebra, although there’s also a purebred Burchell’s at Monarto too?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Blessing confirmed. “She came from Adelaide. She’s very elderly by now.”
“And then the rest have generics?”
“Ah, except for us,” Raffa spoke up. “We have purebred zebras as well, purebred Grant’s Zebras. There is one generic mare within our group, but she’s non-breeding.”
“Right, of course.”
Blessing sounded understanding, rather than dismissive.
“Personally, I’d hope there could be a bit more vision. Breeding generics for display when we have the option not to, there’s no excuse in my opinion.”
I agreed with Raffa, glancing at Des in the hope that he would speak up to support the plan to breed purebreds, even though Werribee held a different subspecies.
“Well said, Raffa,” he interjected.
Raffa grinned, then a somewhat awkward silence followed – seemed to be the flavour of the meeting.
“Look, we might have to wait for the dust to settle, but until then,” Des continued. “Blessing, would you consider Monarto Safari Park as being willing to take on Asian Elephants as well?”
“Oh, I know this would be a matter for the elephant TAG. Just from my perspective, it’s not on the table until there’s no longer a threat from EEHV.”
I could hear a faint chirp of birds outside, presumably wild animals. With plans for finches, lorikeets and doves back home, I looked forward to a similar soundtrack going into the future.
“Let’s move onto the member reports now, please,” Mal requested. “Beerwah?”
“We’re going to be sending away two of our young male giraffes. They’ll be going to your neck of the woods, actually.”
My eyebrows rose – then I realised, he meant Tasmania Zoo.
“We’re planning on performing an ultrasound on our female pygmy hippo, Emeka. We have witnessed mating between her and the male, Washington, so we’re quietly hopeful that she’ll be pregnant.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“This isn’t exclusively a matter for this TAG, but we’re finalising the director role. I, as the CEO of Zoos Victoria, will work very closely with the director, as that’s the role which I’ve held previously and, in many ways, I’m still working in that capacity while we finalise the position. Currently, it appears that we’ll be recruiting from in-house.”
I wondered who the leading candidates might be. Perhaps even a smoky like Bob could have taken on the role, in which I reckoned he would excel. The other staff at Melbourne Zoo might have something to say about that. I hoped that, were it to be him, he would get along well with the others. The other, less explosive option, would be Lina, head of primates.
“How is the giraffe IRA for Australia progressing?” Gerard wanted to know.
“Well, it’s not, really, to be frank,” Frazer admitted. “It’s a very slow process, that’s for sure.”
“So, how long are we talking? One year? Two? Five? A decade?”
“Hopefully not longer than five years.”
“There has been some progress with the bovid IRA,” Sam noted. “We can import bongos now.”
“Well, how’s good old Kiazi going? The female you exported so that you could import a new, unrelated female.”
“Oh, I’m sure Singapore’s taking good care of her.”
“So, she hasn’t bred?”
“No, not yet,” Sam confirmed, although I suspected that answer was already known, before the question was asked.
“How many males has she been paired with?”
“Oh, two, I believe. The first one, that introduction didn’t go so well, there was a fair bit of aggression, so she’s onto male number two. They’re full brothers, full brothers of Maisha, actually, so hopefully things will be more successful with this new pairing.”
“Look, I understand why some of you might have preferred we kept her within the region. We swapped Kiazi for Maisha, though, and it’s not Singapore’s fault that Maisha hasn’t bred. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time.”
The TAG meeting came to an end. Even though it had been interesting, I needed fresh air. I breathed deeply as I ambled through the zoo, encountering Jamila on her way around.
“How has your day been?” I asked her.
“Oh, not as eventful as Whitlam’s, but still a dogfight.”
“We’ve been contacted about exporting Tasmanian Devils. It would be in a deal for hyaenas.”
“And that’s how it’s become your problem?”
Despite being carnivores, Tasmanian Devils fall under the Australian mammals TAG. I know this because I should be starting to get more involved in preparation for hopefully receiving the species, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always present at the meetings. On the other hand, I knew that Werribee were considering importing hyaenas and developing them an exhibit in the masterplan.
“We only allow post-reproductive devils to be exported. I have a feeling once we tell them that, they won’t be so keen.”
“Alright, I’m off. Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. All good.”
Jamila accepted my answer. Joel came to mind. I would have loved to ask his opinion, too. As Jamila departed, it struck me that this might have been one of the first times, after the fanfare of his funeral, that I’d really, truly missed him. I needed to find something to take my mind off the heaviness of grief, so I found myself called towards the river. The savannah was laid out beyond the Werribee River. I carefully sat down amidst the grass, eyes on the look out to ensure that there were no snakes in my vicinity. I appreciated the swish of the water, and the sensation of the gentle breeze upon my body. Eventually, I got up and returned to the staff quarters. The day was getting on in years. Whitlam, Jamila and I left for home. Hamish was staying behind at the zoo. One of the vervet monkeys was close to giving birth and, as much as that might have been a good learning opportunity for me, I chose not to remain. I needed a shower and a sleep more. Indeed, when I arrived home, I headed upstairs and showered, changing into fresh clothes, out of the zoo uniform. After that, I walked down the stairs, locating Whitlam and Jamila in the loungeroom. I had joined their conversation halfway through. Listening closely, I folded my arms in front of my chest.
“Safe to say I wasn’t particularly impressed.”
Whitlam buffed his fingertips against his teeth, trying to resist the urge to bite them.
“So, they did know that they were something wrong with him before he left France?”
“That is certainly the impression that I’ve gotten,” Whitlam confirmed. “At least from my rudimentary level of French.”
“So, what are you going to do now?”
“Well, we’ll have to take it back to the ungulate TAG,” Whitlam answered. “I do think that we need to take this further.”
Jamila rubbed circles into his back, to offer support. I tried not to pull a face. They’re housemates; they’re close. Besides, just the other night, Whitlam was dating a French ungulate keeper, but I presume that’s off now.
“Absolutely,” Jamila affirmed. “If someone tried to pull one with my animals--.”
She shook her head.
“You should go upstairs, have a shower,” Jamila urged.
Whitlam whiffed his shirt.
“Yeah, my whole body does smell like foot odour, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t want to say it,” Jamila responded.
Whitlam left the loungeroom and scampered up the stairs.
“Alright, what do you want for dinner?” Jamila asked.
“Your choice, but I really don’t feel like cooking.”
Jamila sat down on the lounge beside me.
“Yeah, neither do I,” she concurred.
Jamila sighed heavily. We located a macaroni cheese in the freezer, which we were able to defrost and eat up in the oven – it could hardly be called cooking, meaning that we were able to fulfil our desires. Tired from the long day, we lay on the lounges while we waited. Finally, the oven timer sounded. We got up from the lounge, keen for dinner.
“I am looking forward to having the elephants arrive,” Jamila admitted, as she dished up the dinner into bowls. “I’ll leave Whitlam’s in the oven, so that it stays hot for him.”
She handed my dinner to me. Whitlam finally came into the kitchen, hair wet and unbrushed.
“You’ve had a rough day.”
“Yep,” Whitlam agreed, and we cleared his path to the fridge.
He retrieved a beer. Whitlam removed the cap and took a sip, before he’d even closed the fridge. Jamila served him up some macaroni cheese. The three of us finally sat down on the lounges. Jamila switched on the television. The lights of the evening news washed over us.
“Oh, did we tell you, Jamila, that Wellington wants to house pygmy hippos?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter what Wellington Zoo wants. New Zealand can’t import hippos at the moment anyway, even pygmies. So, they have to put through an import risk assessment, or whatever it’s called over there, before they can even try.”
When I finished my dinner, I located my phone and started flicking through Instagram. Across the room, Jamila seemed to be doing the same, while Whitlam was still eating. Gemma Warren had been out for dinner. I liked her post. The sound accidentally played on a video Jamila was watching.
I recognised Hunter’s voice. Therefore, I found myself looking up the video for myself, in which Hunter was introducing the newest Komodo Dragon added to his zoo’s collection – the two of them interacting without any barriers between them.
“Would you do free contact with Komodos, if you had them?”
“Look, I don’t think I’d want to. I know that it’s pretty common though, it’s not just Hunter being a renegade. I know that Taronga does free contact with their Komodo as well. I’m not sure about Adelaide.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure.”
Like cheetahs, it puzzled me a touch that reputable zoos would work in with dangerous animals.
“Oh, you might want to see this, Jumilah, I’ll flick you the link,” Whitlam mentioned. “It’s a new book about the world’s most endangered primates.”
I opened up his message and clicked on the PDF. I scanned down the list. Very few of them were accommodated in Australian zoos, if in human care at all. Therein lay a paradox – captive breeding does increase the numbers of endangered species, but for the most, and most recently, endangered species, sometimes there is very little which the zoos can actually do. Scrolling through the pages, I became acquainted with all sorts of animals – lemurs and howler monkeys and even a Javan Slow Loris. I showed Jamila a picture of one of the species. Even though primates weren’t her main area of interest, the same could be said for Whitlam, and he’d showed care for my niche, by forwarding the book to me.
“They’re a bit ugly,” I remarked, feeling guilty for it, “but even ugly animals need to be taken care of, I suppose.”
We eventually made our way up to bed. I made sure that my phone was on the charger. Its battery had drained to low, and I liked to ensure I could be contacted. I found myself lying in bed late at night, listening. The day’s drama obviously hadn’t done enough to exhaust me. I rolled onto my side and closed my eyes. Maybe through sheer patience I would fall asleep, but instead I reached for my phone. I thought that the vervet would have been born by now. For a moment I thought of messaging Hamish, but I figured he’d have his hands full.
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'.