This morning upon our arrival at the zoo, Jamila and I went back-of-house at the cheetah exhibit, the morning sun creating a tessellating pattern of shadow on the concrete underfoot as it shone through the mesh. Kulinda meowed on the other side of the barrier. I beamed as I crouched, feeling an affinity with the beautiful big cat.
“Look, I’ve got a briefing, something about the hyaena exhibit we’re apparently building,” Jamila announced. “Can I ask you a massive favour?”
“I need you to do some food prep for this afternoon.”
“Yes, of course.”
There, after all, wasn’t much that I would be able to learn from the meeting. Jamila copied her list of tasks from her Notes app and into a text message for me.
“I can do this.”
“Well, I might leave you to it.”
Jamila looked me in the eye.
She swivelled and walked away. I checked my phone, preparing to get to work. Food prep was a necessary part of any zookeeper’s work. At Werribee, the animals’ food was prepared in a room which resembled a shipping container from the outside. Being on the carnivore run meant that the tasks inevitably involved meat. The smell was overwhelming to me as someone who generally maintained a vegetarian diet. It would only be the devils and the dholes who would need to eat meat, as part of what we were planning for the zoo’s initial collection. We would need to decide how chores would be divided up. Even though the distraction was welcome, I knew I couldn’t make definite choices until I spoke with my parents. Finally, I exited the food prep room. Hopefully the notes I’d left would be satisfactory, and I went to find Jamila, or someone else who had a job for me to do.
I recognised a familiar voice behind me. My heart started thudding and I spun around.
“Sam Chen, it is wonderful to see you,” I gushed. “What brings you to Werribee?”
“This isn’t common knowledge, but we’re scoping out the potential for a chimp exhibit here.”
“Oh, wow, right.”
“Also, it’s nice to stretch my legs and breathe in the country air.”
Sam and I found a place where we were able to sit down, relatively quiet.
“What’s your verdict on the chimp plans?”
“Well, I’d rather that they take on an extra gorilla exhibit first. We need more gorilla holders.”
I nodded my head. The presence of Sam felt entwined with my healing. I’d met him back in Singapore when we were – quite literally – up in the air. This wasn’t an occasion for me to cry on Sam’s shoulder, but I couldn’t help but think of the tragedy which had taken place only a few short weeks ago. The breeze whistled through the leaves of the gumtrees.
“What’s going to happen now at Perth?”
“Well, their safe work regulator will work with them, try to make sure there isn’t another tragedy. The board’s got to stand down Bill.”
“Do you reckon?”
“Of course, I do. He clearly contributed to that poor young man’s death.” Sam shook his head. “We should have noticed something was very, very wrong.”
I listened to the drone of a plane over the zoo. It caught me by surprise. We heard the rushing of footsteps towards us, interrupting our conversation.
“Oh, hi, how are you?”
I wondered if she’d met Sam before – most likely, she had.
“There’s a threat on site,” Zola explained. “A non-animal threat.”
“Do you know what it is?”
She shook her head. For a moment I thought that I was about to faint, both Zola and Sam noticing the colour running from my complexion. Sam and I scurried back to the zoo offices. Given that we both lacked the power to do much, despite our qualifications, we figured that following the instructions was the safest place for both of us to be. I was kneeled on a chair in the office, cheek pressed against the cool pane.
“This is ridiculous, we need to know what’s happening,” I muttered.
I fished my phone from my bag and started a text to Jamila. I’d figured that it would be more discrete than calling her, and we were banned from non-essential comms over the radio. Just before I could hit send, she called.
“Hi. Where are you?”
“I’m in the office with Sam, we know nothing.” I spoke softly, although my heart thumped. “Can you please tell me anything you know?”
“Listen, the police are chasing some guys. Apparently, they’ve come into the zoo. That’s the reason for the lockdown.”
“What do they want with us?”
“It’s not about the zoo. They just think they’ll get protection here, blend into the crowd.”
I finished on the phone with her, then explained the situation to Sam. He nodded calmly, both the least and all that he could do in the circumstances which were so far outside of both of our control. I breathed out, hoping for the matter to the resolved quickly. Surely there was something else we could have been doing.
“Is this triggering for you?”
“Yeah, a little bit. Jamila didn’t say anything about weapons.”
My stomach rumbled. While my lunch wouldn’t have been far away, the last thing I wanted to do was move unnecessarily. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the door open. Gasping softly, I went to burst to my feet, only to spot Jamila.
“I’m sorry, it’s only me.”
“You can stand down now,” Jamila advised. “The police have been in, they’ve made their arrests. No harm done.”
“Alright. Crisis averted.”
The wind swirled when we were finally let out, and I was able to accompany Whitlam to the ute, to head out onto the savannah.
“Good to have that over and done with from this morning,” he remarked.
“Yeah,” I answered, a little breathlessly.
The giraffes trailed the vehicle. While they were capable of inflicting violence, their gracious, long necks seemed to be so peacefully wielded. I watched native birds riding on the backs of the rhinos, as we left the savannah again. Never we would have expected the chaos earlier in the day. Finally, we were able to return home from the zoo, parking the car in the driveway.
“I am getting so drunk tonight,” I gushed, then slurped my bottle of lemon lime and bitters.
“Well, that’s not going to get you very far.”
Jamila opened the fridge and fetched two bottles of cider.
“There you go.”
“Thanks,” I said, but didn’t accept the drink.
It seemed so tempting to me, with a little bit of condensation on the glass exterior from the fridge. The day we’d had was filled with triggers, even though ultimately none of us – or the animals – had come to harm.
“You do drink hard stuff, don’t you? I thought that I remembered you--.”
“Yes, I do,” I confirmed. “Sometimes a little too much.”
I narrowed my eyes a little.
“You knew that already, though, didn’t you?”
Jamila withdrew the cider.
“Truth be told, you’re eighteen.” She laughed. “Who doesn’t drink too much when they’re eighteen?”
Jamila took a sip.
“Actually, I know plenty of people who don’t.”
After all the back and forth, I decided to have one bottle. The chatter continued as I sipped slowly at my apple cider. I knew that I sounded a little merry, although hopefully not tipsy.
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.