Updated: Nov 12, 2022
The calf went out into the exhibit for the first time this morning. Apparently, there’s going to be a public naming competition. There have been five choices which the keepers have selected – Amari, Aroon, Niran, Cea Chay and Mrdk. I’m not exactly sure which name I like the most. Melbourne has a storied tradition of naming baby animals using the first letter of their mother’s name. That would make Cea Chay the favourite, even though the practice hasn’t been followed with the elephants so far. I stood amongst the crowd, soaking up the winter sun and the cuteness of the baby elephant, surveying the herd, Willow the next due to give birth. Even in an elephant’s body, I could tell the bulge of her pregnancy. Eventually, Reuben tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hi,” I responded. “Is there something that you want me to come and do?”
“No, no,” Reuben assured. “It is a Sunday, after all. I just wanted to make sure you’re alright.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Reuben nodded his head.
I sensed that he was still lingering. Therefore, I turned around.
“Are you alright?” I checked.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
With that, Reuben departed. My version of a day off was still walking around the zoo. I decided to go and visit the siamang brothers, beckoned by their loud calls. I glanced across the Japanese gardens, noticing a couple facing each other and holding both hands. All of a sudden, the man dropped to one knee, and I found myself listening in as the woman gasped softly.
“So, I was just wondering, will you marry me?”
She pulled him to his feet. They kissed passionately. I beamed. The groom slid the ring onto his new bride’s finger. I was distracted from the proposal by my phone vibrating within my pocket. Retrieving it, I checked the message from Tallulah.
Jamie told me that he’s popping into the zoo with Eliza today. Just letting you know that they’re there, you don’t have to show them around or anything.
I’ll keep an eye out; I promised her.
I thought that I’d do the rounds of the various primate exhibits, spending time in the company of the animals. Next, I headed to the orangutan complex. Sure enough, Jamie and Eliza were outside the netted exhibit, and recognised me. He seemed to spot the Zoos Victoria logo on my jacket.
“Are you working here now?”
“Yes, well, sort of. I’m here on work experience for a little while.”
I thought that Tallulah might have mentioned it. We all turned our attention into the orangutan exhibit.
“Are they going to have some babies?” Eliza wanted to know.
Jamie caught my eye. He took Eliza’s hand.
“She’s obsessed with baby animals at the moment,” Jamie explained.
“Maybe,” I answered Eliza, then subverted the topic. “Have you seen the new baby elephant yet?”
“Yes, of course,” she insisted, swinging off the barricade in front of her.
“Well, we’d better let Jumilah get back to work.”
“Nice to see you again,” I farewelled them.
Once they’d walked off, I headed down the stairs. I checked in to see if there were any tasks I could complete at the orangs, but Ella had everything under control already. Feeling peckish, I popped back to Reuben’s cottage for lunch.
“Hi there,” he greeted me, still looking at his computer.
“I saw a couple get engaged in the Japanese gardens this morning.”
Reuben nodded dismissively, not really say anything.
“It’s sweet, isn’t it?” I knew that I was pushing, but I wanted him to let me in. “Reuben?”
“Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “I mean, sickly sweet, but if it floats your boat.”
I sat down at the table opposite Reuben.
“What do you think about alligators?”
“I’m not opposed to them.”
Reuben swore at his laptop, then closed it.
“What do you think about macaques?”
“We phased out macaques a long time ago. There were concerns about Herpes B transmission.”
I nodded my head, patiently.
“I’m aware of that, but the risks can be mitigated, can’t they?”
“You’ll need to talk to Raffa about that. He reckons so.”
Reuben got up from the table.
“What have you been working on?”
“Oh, I’ve been trying to look for places to import hippos from, but to no avail, unfortunately.”
“Isn’t there that place in America?”
“Yes, but no.”
I stuffed my hands into my pockets. We both headed out of the cottage, down the path and into the zoo.
“I’ve got to go and see Meredith.”
“See you later.”
Reuben headed off towards the vet hospital. I would have gone with him, but it didn’t seem like the right time. I walked down the Main Drive. My destination was the gorilla exhibit, just housing the girls. We even had a hint of much-appreciated sunshine for the day. I spent some time at the gorilla exhibit, then left the rainforest. The zoo was packed, although everyone rushed towards Trail of the Elephants, desperate to see the gorgeous little baby elephant. I found myself thinking about Auckland Zoo. Hopefully, with all going to plan, they would experience their own version of this joy and togetherness. Coming in the other direction, I spotted Reuben, his demeanour more reserved than I would have expected given the circumstances.
“Hi,” I greeted him.
Reuben burrowed his hands into his pockets.
“I wanted to come and tell you in person. We’re starting the euthanasia procedure with Twiga shortly.”
“Right, do you want me to come with you?”
I nodded my head sadly, following Reuben towards the giraffe exhibit. We took the most direct route, back down the Main Drive. With construction fencing, the path past the turnoff to the Australian bush section, up until the baboons, was blocked off, which it hadn’t been earlier that day. That way the general public wouldn’t be disturbed.
“We’re starting a procedure at Giraffes shortly,” Meredith announced over the radio. “It would be appreciated if we could keep the area quiet and retain the barriers between Giraffes and Baboons.”
Birth and death are part of the lifecycle, especially within the environment of a zoo. Meredith was holding a tranquiliser gun, which she loaded with a dart. She would be the only one to approach the fence. I could feel my chest tightening. Meredith fired the dart, hitting Twiga. It seemed to shake through my body, even though nothing actually touched me. Twiga swayed a little. I had expected that she was going to fall and was bracing myself for that eventuality. Twiga went down, hitting the ground with a thud which surely could have been heard across the zoo. We needed to make sure that she was affected by the sedation enough that she could not kick. Finally, Meredith entered the yard and was able to administer the euthanasia drugs by injection into Twiga’s thigh. Once this was done, the rest of us were able to follow. I ran my eyes over Twiga’s skin. She had bred multiple times at Melbourne Zoo, her descendants now living across Australia and New Zealand. As we waited, Ara and Violet sung gentle songs to Twiga, to surround her with peace. I could tell that Reuben was looking at me. Last thing I wanted was for him to regret asking me to come. I hadn’t expected that it would take this long. Truthfully, I wanted to be anywhere but there. I could feel my own heart beating, flapping like the wings of a bird. As much as I tried to keep myself in the moment, for Twiga, my mind wandered. I’d witnessed the beginning, and now the end, of life. Just after three o’clock, Twiga took her final breath. We stayed in the barn with her for another couple of hours. With my knuckle I wiped tears away from the corner of my eye. Twiga had lived a long life, almost taking the record for the oldest giraffe within the Australasian region. I genuinely believe that she is at peace now, whatever that looks like. Reuben leaned over and stroked his hand down Twiga’s neck. Finally, we left the barn. We walked out through the exhibit. Soggy sand transferred from our shoes onto the concrete path. The construction fences remained, for the pathway would stay closed for another few days, to allow the other giraffes time to grieve.
We returned home to the cottage. I didn’t know what to say to Reuben. I’d not taken my medication in the morning, so I ducked down the hallway to my bedroom. I made sure to take my medication, to suppress the brain zaps which start whenever my tablet is delayed. After chugging some water, I lay down for a moment before returning to the kitchen. Dinner, as it turned out, was ready. Reuben and I sat on the lounge, holding our plates of dinner, eating our food without speaking. The lights and sounds of the television news washed over us. Finally, the story of the baby elephant came on.
“Melbourne Zoo’s new elephant calf went on public display for the first time today.”
The program shifted to footage of the calf. I hadn’t even realised the cameras were around. After the segment shifted, Reuben and I finished off our food.
“Here, let me take your plate.”
“Thanks,” I said, then Reuben took the plates to the kitchen, and returned.
“Alright, I need you to help me with something.”
“We’d like to come onboard with the program for fishing cats, to help Sam out and introduce another felid species to the zoo.”
“Yeah, alright, I’m onboard with that,” I agreed. “What’s your problem?”
“We don’t know where to house them.”
“Right, alright, well.” I smiled. “Maybe you should have thought of it before you filled the wild dog exhibit.”
Reuben playfully glared at me.
“I need a drink.”
“Me too, please,” I requested.
Reuben scampered through back into the kitchen and fetched two bottles of cider.
I removed the cap.
Reuben tilted the neck of his bottle in my direction.
We clinked our bottles. I sipped my apple cider, appreciating the fizz and depth of the taste of the alcohol, alongside the sweetness of the apple flavour. The news moved onto a movie which I wasn’t that keen on watching.
“I think I saw on TV once that some zoos house otters with orangutans. Maybe you could do that?”
“That is a really good idea.”
Reuben ran his hand over his hair.
Reuben reached for the remote. He flicked through the channels and eventually settled upon an AFL game from Sydney.
“Do you want to put the fishing cats into an already-existing exhibit, or are you thinking that you’d build something new?”
“We’re keen to splash some cash to build a new exhibit, but again, I go back to the first question. Where?”
“You could always ask the carnivore TAG.”
“True,” Reuben agreed, “but then they’d have all sorts of other ideas.”
“I mean, mate, Patrick’s pretty keen on jaguars--.”
Reuben laughed wearily.
“You don’t have to listen to what he says.”
“I know, I know.”
The heaviness of the day getting to me, I breathed out.
“I think it’s a good thing that you’re joining the fishing cat program.”
“Yes. Well, it’s something we’ve been considering,” Reuben mentioned, “and, Sam’s been in my ear. We really want to make sure that we’re connecting with the in-situ conservation programs.”
Eventually, the game ended. I yawned.
“Thanks for the drink.”
I bid Reuben goodnight, then stood up and started heading to bed.
“There is one other option.”
“We use the rice paddy aviary for fishing cats.”
“And where do we put the birds?”
I padded back into the loungeroom.
“Mesh aviaries. Build them wherever.”
“Well, that at least solves one problem,” Reuben concluded, “while still leaving all the others.”
“I’m not a miracle worker.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to be.”
With my pinky I brushed some hair away from my face.
“That’s a good idea, Jumilah.” Reuben finished the last of his cider. “I’ll talk to our works team to draw up some plans.”
I felt pleased to be able to help Reuben out. I returned to my bedroom and checked my phone, where Maryam had sent through some photos of her and Ricky starting to put together their nursery. The walls were painted pale blue. I suspected that Maryam and Ricky were expecting a baby boy, but I didn’t know for sure.
Looks wonderful; I messaged back, then put down my phone.
I lay down. It had been a big day, so I was more than ready for sleep, and I sensed that Reuben felt the same. He wasn’t long behind me to bed. Shortly after all went dark, a light flicked on again. Reuben reemerged from his bedroom.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, there’s a light left on at the elephants which shouldn’t be.”
Reuben fetched his keys. I, the teenager, reached for my phone. I’d figured this wouldn’t tend to be the CEO’s job but falls within his role considering that he lives on-site.
“Come with me, it’ll be good for you to see how this works.”
I followed Reuben out of the cottage and across the darkened zoo. Moonlight blocked out by the trees, I felt my heart jump. Of course, I didn’t say anything, particularly once the offending light came further into view.
“Turn your torch on, if you’re scared of the dark.”
I did as I was told, instinctively, then Reuben turned off the light.
He started to walk back home. I just so happened to swing the torch on my phone around. As it illuminated the orangutan building, I paused. I could hear some sort of whimpering noise coming from inside. Reuben and I turned to look at each other, a shiver going through my body. Neither of us had to say anything, for us to made haste to get inside. Reuben flicked on the lights. The floor of the dayroom was covered in blood – Luna's blood.
He tossed me his phone. Even though my fingers quivered, I located the number and made the call. Somehow the words came out of my mouth, and Meredith promised she’d come. While we waited, I shivered, having not even brought a jacket to wear over my pyjamas.
“This is ridiculous.”
“I’m sure Meredith’s coming--.”
Just like that, she raced in. The medical equipment she carried indicated she’d detoured via the hospital. Meredith darted Luna, hitting her in the thigh. She seemed to only wait a beat before entering the den, the rest of us following. My eyes were welling with tears. I needed to keep myself together for long enough for the procedure to be complete.
“She’s lost the foetus,” Meredith confirmed. “I have given her some medication to expel the rest of the retained products, and another injection to cut down on the bleeding and cramping and help with the pain.”
She took a breath.
“Luna is a very lucky orangutan. It could have been a lot worse.”
Meredith sighed heavily.
“Now, we all need to get some sleep.”
I nodded my head solemnly. The other keepers who had heard the call, started to disperse. I thought Ella was about to cry, so I reached out and gave her a brief hug, offering her all the love I could muster. We walked away from the orangutan complex. Through the darkened zoo, we returned to the cottage, with heavy bodies and heavy hearts. Reuben held open the front door for me.
“No need to make a decision now, ey,” he remarked.
I walked through, into the cottage.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” I answered.
I still didn’t get any delight out of the idea.
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.