I woke up before dawn and found myself with a smile on my face. Once I checked my phone, I got out of bed and got changed into black leggings and a tank top. I sensed that today would be a warm one, making sure that I had my room key tucked into my pocket. Trying to be as quiet as possible, I left my room and padded down the hallway. Tessa is a livewire and I’m glad that I’ve got a friend, a young woman battling everything this world can throw at her. This morning we got coffee together. We went for a walk through the zoo, enjoying the hint of warmth in the morning.
“It’s really nice to be here.”
We paused outside the red panda exhibit. The keepers had already let them out for the morning.
“You see, this guy, Pabu, he was born at Hamilton.”
Tessa climbed a precarious stone staircase to get a better look into the exhibit.
“Hey, buddy.” She grinned. “I remember when he was born. You miss them, but he’s been able to breed here, and that’s been fantastic.”
A slightly smaller red panda scampered across a branch.
“This is one of Pabu’s daughters, Maiya, I’ve never seen her in person before.”
Tessa beamed. I thought of meeting Georgia’s baby.
“She looks just like him, I think,” Tessa remarked. “She’s the spitting image.”
We stayed at the red panda exhibit for a little while, watching Maiya exploring her exhibit, before we decided to leave.
“Well, now we have to trek right back up that hill.”
“You don’t think that they could open the sky safari for us early, as a special treat.”
Tessa shook her head with a laugh.
“No, I don’t think so. Come on, it’s not that far.”
We returned to the wildlife retreat in time for breakfast, a little puffed out. My chest felt too tight to bother having eggs, hash browns and haloumi, so instead I poured myself and Tessa much-needed glasses of water.
I downed the water, then made conversation while the others ate. After breakfast, it was finally time for the TAG meetings. I presumed that I would go along to the primate meeting, although, to my surprise, things were being shaken up a little bit and I ended up going to a carnivore meeting.
“And small exotic mammals,” Gemma chimed in.
“It’s carnies,” Reuben insisted over his shoulder.
All Gemma could do was laugh. We arrived in the meeting room. Hunter started tapping his pen against the edge of the table, which irritated me. Nonetheless, I smiled towards him. Gilham commenced the meeting with an Acknowledgement of Country, to the Cammeraygal custodians.
“Alright, what’s on the agenda first?”
As he flipped open his folder, Jimmy seemed to be asking himself just as much as us.
“Dingoes seem to be next big thing,” Reuben mentioned. “We’ve just got them back, I heard Sam’s got some pups just waiting for a new exhibit.”
“Dingoes aren’t under carnivore TAG, are they?” George enquired. “They’re in Aus mammals.”
“Yes, they are,” Cathy confirmed. “The purpose of us being all together in person is that we can have these conversations, so if you want to talk about dingoes, I reckon that we should.”
“Honestly, I can wait,” Sam admitted.
He shifted his chair a little.
“My view would be that it’s unwarranted,” Reuben remarked, “but I know we could agree to disagree on that.”
“That settles things,” Raffa agreed. “What is on the agenda, Jimmy?”
“The first item is lion planning for the year.”
Jimmy, therefore, handed over to Sam, who is the species coordinator for African Lion.
“The purpose for this time together is to go through the lion groupings within the region, and determine any changes which need to be made during 2023.”
“That sounds good,” Des agreed.
I stifled a yawn, a little tired but not wanting to seem disinterested. Glancing towards my watch would have been a meaningless habit, but I resisted the urge.
“Perhaps, Sam, you could start with your own plans,” Reuben urged.
“Alright. Considering the size of the previous litter, I wouldn’t plan on breeding the current pair again. We do need to be aware of space constraints, especially seeing as there’s also a successful breeding pair at Dubbo.”
“Would you be planning on keeping the pride together?” Des wanted to know.
“If we contracept the females, then that could work. The concern is what happens with the two male cubs, because I don’t think we would be able to keep them with their parents and sisters. There’s at least no guarantee of that, although it sometimes works.”
“There isn’t a great need for male lions within the region.”
Des turned to Allira.
“Are you holding lions up in Queensland?”
“No, we don’t, not at the moment,” she answered.
“Would you be interested?”
“Potentially. It would depend on whether we can secure additional land.”
“That’s fair enough,” Sam assured.
“They wouldn’t be the only new lions in Queensland,” Reuben added. “Apparently our friend Mick from Coolangatta would like to acquire them.”
He opened his laptop and clicked at the keyboard. I happened to catch Hunter’s eye across the room and we smiled at each other, while Reuben pulled up the email he’d received from Mick Sutton at the new Coolangatta Zoo.
“Yes, I received that too,” Sam affirmed, looking over the other man’s shoulder at the screen.
“We will import from Africa,” Reuben read. “If you wish to import with us, then please let me know by the end of the year.”
Even Des pulled a face.
“Well, are there any takers?” Raffa asked, and I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious.
“Clearly this guy is trying to throw his weight around.”
“I’m sure that he’ll go through the proper channels,” Julie defended, “but the question is whether we’re going to try and make him an ally or an enemy.”
I sat back, absorbing the conversation. That was at least part of the purpose of me being in Sydney.
“You had mentioned seeking to secure additional land, Allira,” Reuben raised. “I can’t speak for the others, but if there’s anything the ZAA can do, we would be happy to help you out.”
“Thank you,” Allira responded. “That’s really quite kind of you.”
“You’re a ZAA member, this is what we do.”
Allira smiled politely.
“It’s mostly a local council matter. We’re hopeful we will be able to add a further eight hectares to the zoo.”
I noticed Don’s eyebrows raise. Adelaide Zoo is only eight hectares to begin with.
“I understand this is very hypothetical,” Allira raised, “but I gather we would be looking at a bachelor pride first. That might impact the exhibit we seek to build. If it’s not going to house females and cubs, certain eventualities don’t have to be provided for.”
“My view would be, if you’re building an exhibit, it should be equipped to house breeding animals. Cubbing facilities can be useful even if they’re never used for that purpose, for instance, to separate animals for medical procedures or during times of illness.”
Nods went around the room, accepting the good point.
“Mother-raised animals, generally, will be more socially normal,” Claire pointed out. “Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.”
“We have mother-raised animals on site here, of course,” Sam mentioned.
Possibly, one day those cubs could end up in Queensland, as part of the eight hectares.
“The next agenda item is in relation to bear keeping and breeding,” Jimmy announced.
“I gather you’re talking about sun bears.”
“Yes,” Jimmy confirmed. “Our population is on something of the precipice with few recent births.”
“If the region’s zoos were more proactive,” Stefan levelled, “we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
“I think that you’re being a little harsh,” Christine reasoned, subbing in for Amy, who hadn’t made the trip from New Zealand for the conference, “but I don’t know, maybe that’s just my opinion.”
“No, I agree, Christine,” Raffa affirmed. “This is the same conversation which we have every time any potential bear program comes up.”
“If we could receive a male, we would breed,” Christine promised. “The problem is that sun bears are in short supply in Europe and North America. Previously, we have received rescue bears. Unfortunately, many sanctuary bears are infected with tuberculosis.”
“Perhaps snow leopards would be a better option,” Stefan suggested.
“Still, realistically, I disagree,” Reuben challenged. “Sun bears can be kept in most climates across Australia and New Zealand.”
“I think that we’ve decided that we would like to retain at least one program bear species long-term,” Blessing surmised.
“Are there new carnivore species in your masterplan?”
“Yes,” Blessing confirmed. “We’ll add maned wolves at least.”
“How are you going with your masterplan?” Jimmy asked. “Hopefully better than us.”
“We’re relatively on track, actually,” Blessing confirmed, “which is very fortunate, I know that.”
While I wondered if dholes were on the table, I didn’t ask. I thought about Mum and Dad back home and what they might have been up to. Glancing at my watch, I knew they would have been working, although that’s soon about to change as they reduce their hours to help out with the zoo and ensure we have people in place. Dholes, as it turned out, were one of few carnivore species only held at one institution. The generic leopard held at Gilead Wildlife Sanctuary was also in the same boat, and the only leopard in New Zealand, even though there will soon be snow leopards at Wellington Zoo – a slightly different breed of cat.
“He’s a very, very old animal,” Angelique reminded. “Once he goes, he will be the last leopard, at least for now, but for the meantime, we’re giving him the very best of care and hoping that his twilight years are peaceful.”
“I don’t mean to be obtuse, but when--.”
“You mean when he dies.”
“Well, yes,” Raffa agreed.
“Were you going to ask if I would be interested in joining the Sri Lankan Leopard breeding program?” Angelique presumed, and he nodded in confirmation.
“Oh, if you make a decent enough case.”
“What about dholes?” I asked.
“I hadn’t thought about dholes for a long time,” Don admitted.
He ran his hands over his face.
“We phased out dholes because our breeding female had a hysterectomy following the second birth, and we didn’t have capacity to hold multiple pairs. Now, of course, there are dholes at Taronga again. Currently, that’s a temporary measure. The dholes will be transferred to Tasmania and Jumilah and her family have constructed a good exhibit for them.”
“The three dholes are purebred Sumatran Dhole. Our females were wild-born, and the male is the captive-bred son of the older female.”
“Dholes are a grassland species, but what we’re lacking are desert species.”
“If we did go ahead with a desert species precinct, then that would open up a few avenues in relation to this TAG.”
“As far as I’m aware, pumas need to be desexed to be imported, now,” Hunter mentioned. “I’m not saying we can’t import them as display animals, but it is a pity breeding is off the cards.”
“Alright, so that rules out North America.”
I thought Claire spoke with a sarcastic tone, but maybe I was reading too much into her words. The tendency was one I slipped into from time to time.
“What about South American carnivores?”
“We’ve housed jaguar in the past. I would be interested in holding them again, and we have quite a few South American species already with the tapirs, capybara and small monkeys.”
“So, Raffa, would you be keen to acquire them again?” Jimmy wanted to know.
“Well, yes, in an ideal world, but I understand that there would be other priorities.”
“We’ll certainly continue these conversations,” Jimmy affirmed. “Our next TAG meeting will be on December 1.”
The meeting came to an end and we broke for morning tea. I noticed that Hunter’s hands were in his pockets, and I felt the urge to go over to him and speak to him. He grabbed himself an apple and seemed to disappear. I checked my phone and found myself scrolling through my Instagram feed. Faintly I listened to a chirp of birds. I thought that it might have been coming from the nearby Wollemi area, or maybe the Rainforest Aviary which is slightly further up the slope of Taronga. Following morning tea, we all came back together. I hadn’t checked the timetable to know what was happening. Sam started to move the chairs so that we’d all be sitting in a circle, facing each other. I found somewhere to sit down, while Reuben was at the front of the room, in order to address the group as ZAA president.
“Welcome, Reuben Hendricks, Melbourne Zoo. Today, we will be discussing the streamlining of the region’s managed programs in order to better achieve our conversation aims.”
My eyes panned up to Reuben’s slides, the photographs providing something of a hint at what his opinions probably are.
“For the purposes of this new chapter, we seek to split our program species into three categories – priority programs, supplementary programs, and additional programs. We will discuss together what will fit into each category.”
I glanced around the room, faces more solemn than I would have anticipated.
“I’m going to get techno with you.”
Tessa laughed. Reuben fixed her a playful glare.
“I meant technical.”
With a touch pen, he scrambled up the images.
“As we discuss this, we can move the photos around. Let’s start with the ungulate program.”
Reuben pressed a button, which made the other images – of non-ungulates – disappear. This did feel rather techno.
“I would say pygmy hippos should be a priority program,” Sam said.
“If we’re going to do that, we need to be investing more resources into the process in order to actually get the IRAs through for hippos. Giraffes are a slightly different matter.”
“If they’re a priority program, it needs to be purebreds with fresh genetics,” Reuben assured. “That’s already the case with the hippos, obviously.”
“If, and this is a big if, we managed to get the IRA in place for New Zealand to allow hippo imports, we would consider housing pygmies, but I don’t think we’d ever house commons again,” Gerard made clear. “There are just too many resources involved. I acknowledge that that puts us in a difficult position in New Zealand, different to Australia.”
“Having pygmy hippos in New Zealand would be a benefit.”
Reuben shifted the image across. I felt a little uneasy in my stomach, disconnected from the conversation.
“So, what about commons?”
“Well, it all depends on the IRA,” Des mentioned. “I wouldn’t consider them a priority. There’s only one bull left in the country.”
“Well, in Europe, I know, there is a separate tapir and suiform TAG, rather than just a generic ungulate one.” Don rose his palm. “Look, I’m not proposing that for here, I understand it’s different here.”
“And that group is responsible for hippos?”
“Yes,” Don confirmed. “The EEP’s understanding is that their function isn’t just about captive breeding--.”
“So, the purpose of a captive breeding program isn’t captive breeding?”
“It stands for ex situ program. That’s not the same thing, technically.”
“Yes, fair point,” Reuben conceded.
“Antelope and giraffid is another one, but we digress.” Don rested his linked fingers on the table. “We’ll get to each species in due course.”
“Well, pygmy hippos, they are ideal for city zoos.”
“I think that’s settled,” Reuben confirmed with a smile.
One species down, still so many to go. My body coursed with enthusiasm. I’d come back to the mainland to learn, and learn I was.
“So, bongos will be a priority program.”
Reuben looked at Sam.
“Yes, I would agree with that,” he said, answering the unspoken question. “Once the gorillas move out, we’ll redevelop an area for bongo.”
“And will that mean their existing exhibit will be empty?”
“Well, yes, that’s the plan,” Sam confirmed, “but we can discuss that later. There’s still a bit which needs to be sorted out, first. Essentially, Taronga Zoo plans to maintain bongo long-term. However, I expect that the breeding will continue to take place at Dubbo, rather than in the city.”
“Can we settle on a planned population of thirty-two Eastern Bongo in the region?” Claire proposed.
Reuben’s brow was furrowed.
“That’s what was in the minutes from the ungulate TAG,” Sam explained, and Reuben accepted this.
“I’m not objecting to that,” Graeme spoke up, “but it would be good to clarify where we are intending for those spaces to be, if we have time for that.”
“Of course, just give me a second.”
Claire brought up the minutes from the most recent ungulate TAG meeting.
“That would be sixteen spaces for Taronga Western Plains, one space for Taronga, seven spaces for Monarto Safari Park, and eight spaces available for other holders.”
“Thank you,” Graeme replied. “Of those eight additional spaces, Altina would be interested in holding up to four bongo, if possible.”
“I’d be agreeable with that,” Sam affirmed. “You’ve been unlucky with losing your bull.”
Graeme nodded, a little sadly.
“We know our male isn’t going to live forever. Upon Ekundu’s passing, our plan would be to transfer Masikio into the city, as he’s currently surplus. Maybe he should go to Altina instead in a year or two.”
In closing the ungulate TAG meeting minutes, Claire inadvertently brought up the bongo studbook on her computer.
“I’d forgotten about Kiazi, a young reproductively viable female, being exported to Singapore.”
“The export was an exchange, for Maisha.”
Claire pressed the red cross, closing the document.
“Alright, thanks, that refreshes my memory.”
“Claire, do you have any other updates to share?” Reuben wanted to know.
She sighed in thought, adjusting her chair.
“Maisha has been mated, but unfortunately, she’s not pregnant.”
I recalled Sam mentioning that in class.
“We’re still hopeful Maisha will breed.”
“We all have our fingers crossed.”
I felt my pulse accelerating, for no clear reason.
“Djembe is related to all the males in the region,” Claire reminded us. “Importing a male would allow this proven breeding female to breed without inbreeding. Of course, importing more females would be even better, but it doesn’t seem possible in the short-term.”
“I’m happy with either,” Blessing assessed.
“I reckon it would be a shame if we couldn’t work together,” Graeme stated. “We got a lot out of holding bongo, and would love to again. An import would assist with that.”
“Can I ask, do you still have the old exhibit?”
“The exhibit has been used for other ungulates since then. We can reclaim it, though.”
“Are Australia’s bongo part of the EEP or SSP?” Gerard enquired.
“The SSP,” I chimed in, from memory.
“Yeah, the bongo originally came from San Diego. The breeding pair at Taronga was a gift for our eightieth birthday--.”
“Because that’s what every octogenarian wants.”
Reuben laughed at my joke.
“And are they potentially on the cards for Melbourne Zoo again?”
“Well, yes, it’s one of our plans--.”
“Perhaps, Reuben, you could add bongo to your treetop monkey trail, on the ground level.”
“That could be a possibility. It would require significant renovation, though.”
The thought of bongos wandering under the boardwalk was enticing, but the meeting had started to drag on. I stifled a yawn. Luckily my phone was safely in my bag, otherwise I would have ended up scrolling through Instagram by habit. Across the table I found myself glancing upon Hunter, and the freckles dappled across his cheeks.
“We’ve got to be a little fearless. If we have the capacity, then the sky’s the limit.”
Blessing’s urge to dream ended up in the conversation being taken down the road of sitatunga, another majestic antelope.
“Sitatunga are a wetlands species.”
“Would you incorporate them in your waterhole precinct?”
“No, that’s not the plan, currently,” Des confirmed. “The waterhole precinct is for Asian species. I take it we’ll discuss one-horned rhino later.”
“Steve Barnett might be interested in bongo,” I mentioned.
“Of course, they wouldn’t go to non-ZAA member zoos. That’s a no brainer. We have an accreditation process for a reason. If your mate in Richmond wants to play ball, then we’ll talk.”
Reuben lowered his pen. “I’m sorry if that’s harsh.”
“No, just your opinion.”
I reached for my glass and took a sip of water. Reuben was harsh, but he was just as entitled to express his opinion. I hadn’t considered that, personally.
“Alright, I think that’s enough on the bongo. Let’s assess the giraffe program.”
Blessing would take the lead in this discussion, holding the largest herd in the country.
“The history of giraffes in Australasia goes back about a hundred years. A keeper was killed by one at Taronga in the 1930s.”
Shared as a quirky anecdote, my stomach dropped like a stone at the thought. For a moment I re-tuned my attention to the windows. I sighted the harbour breeze to ground myself in the tranquility of our surroundings, beyond the slightly dated function centre. In my mind I crystallised an image of a bongo, drawing me back to our previous discussion. I named her Maisha, even though I’d never met the girl in person. Hopefully she would breed, either with Kulungu or his son.
“Ah, giraffe,” Stefan mused. “Like okapi, but shorter.”
“Are you going to expand on that?” I wanted to know, with an incredulous chuckle.
“The giraffe herds are a jewel in the crown of both Taronga Western Plains and Monarto.”
“Are you staying city zoos need to get some of their own back?” Reuben quipped.
“Taronga Western Plains and Monarto Safari Park will continue to breed giraffe.”
“As will both of the Queensland holders,” Hunter chimed in.
“At one stage, I would have thought you’d have more hope for a polar bear--.”
I snorted a laugh, then dipped my head.
“Now, though, the bovid IRA is sorted. The hippo IRA is pretty close, and I think we would all agree that giraffes are next.”
“Meaning Australia can import purebreds.”
I fiddled with Kakek’s cross, wondering what he would think about the discussion. My suspicion was he would have supported the formation of a purebred breeding program, even if purely for perfectionist reasons. Finally, I allowed the pendant to drop against my collarbone.
“With careful planning, we could make it work.”
“So, does that mean we would stop breeding other giraffes altogether?” Hunter enquired.
“It’s something which we need to seriously consider if we’re going to import purebreds.”
“From my perspective, it would be a mistake to stop breeding the generics, especially before we have the purebreds on the ground,” Mal reasoned. “Now, you know I support the purebred program.”
“None of us doubt that, Mal.”
“I agree,” Claire affirmed. “The question from here is, which purebred subspecies?”
“Rothschild’s, obviously. We still have some purebreds, we hold some here at Mogo.”
That decision was made relatively easily, even though it remained hypothetical, at least for Australia.
“And, where should we source them from?”
“Europe would be preferred. They have larger numbers of purebred animals. Surplus bulls from Europe would be easily acquired.”
“Provided that we can change the regulations allowing us to actually import them.”
“Of course, New Zealand can import giraffes already,” Mal reminded.
I’d forgotten this, or maybe I didn’t know to begin with.
“I will be in touch with the EEP coordinator for Rothschild’s Giraffes,” Mal promised, “and we’ll see where we can go from there.”
He curved his lips into a smile and, despite the challenges, I felt confident of a resolution. Were we to house giraffe in the future, we’d be in a good position to create an African savannah exhibit. I reached out for one of the lollies in the middle of the table. Discarding the wrapper, I felt like I was committing an environmental sin. We needed to try harder, although I understood the food safety value of having wrapped lollies, with all of us sticking our hands in the bowls.
“Alright, let’s move on.”
Sam shifted the icon of the giraffe onto the edge of the circle for priority programs – assuming that the purebred program would be a priority program, and the generics would probably stay that way nonetheless, for the meantime.
“I’d strongly recommend both black rhino and white rhino,” Blessing suggested. “We have the facilities to breed both once we have females on the ground.”
He spoke in an even tone.
“I would agree,” Claire raised.
“So, is there a female you can spare?”
“Look, I’m aware much of this history predates me, but Western Plains has a responsibility to the black rhino program. Originally, we didn’t have enough males, now we don’t have enough females.”
“Is there the opportunity to import from overseas?”
“Yes, potentially, although the Southcentral Black Rhinoceros program is quite small worldwide. Zoos around the place are relying on Dubbo to breed more females from the wild-caught herd, to build up numbers.”
“Not through inbreeding, though.”
“Well, there wouldn’t be much point of that, would there? Were Bakhita to be sent to Monarto, she would be able to breed with unrelated males. I can see where you’re coming from there.”
Claire and Blessing were finally able to reach consensus, which allowed us to move on. From black rhinos, to white rhinos.
“I know there have been a lot of challenges with breeding white rhinos. A number of young females, in particular, have been lost in recent years. Unfortunately, often the cause of death hasn’t been determined.”
“Once the new animals arrive from Africa, our current rhinos won’t be as genetically valuable.”
“But we won’t have to worry about that, will we?”
“Well, yes, it is a good problem to have,” Claire agreed. “If there are any genetic problems, we’ll be able to exclude the affected animals from the breeding program.”
“I hold the white rhinoceros studbook, as a matter of fact,” Sam spoke up, a piece of information which caught me by surprise.
Perhaps Taronga Zoo had held white rhinos long ago, before Dubbo was opened, or Sam might have worked at another facility before moving to Sydney, but I wasn’t aware of either possibility. I could faintly hear construction noise, and wondered what was taking place at the reptile centre. Reaching instinctively for my phone, I consulted the screen, noticing the time and the lack of messages from home. If it wouldn’t have been rude to do so, I would have quickly texted Mum and Dad, but I would check in later. My stomach started to grumble, presuming lunch would be soon.
“What’s the next species we need to discuss?”
Raffa squinted towards the screen, as Reuben enlarged the next icon, for addax.
“I didn’t know this was on the agenda,” Des mentioned, quizzical.
“Hey.” He raised his palms. “It wasn’t my idea.”
“Actually, it was my idea,” Raffa admitted. “I thought that it would be worth talking about while we’re all together.”
Addax are a nice enough antelope, from Africa.
“There have been a few problems with the breeding program,” Raffa reported.
Des parted his lips to speak.
“And, look, I understand your position. I’m not trying to change your mind about phasing out addax from Werribee.”
“Performing vet procedures on large antelopes is not without its risks, of course,” Claire mentioned.
“Exactly,” Raffa agreed. “Through close observations, it makes it much easier to determine whether the lack of offspring is practical or medical.”
“Everyone has their kinks, Kevin.”
“Well, you do need to make observations. I’m aware that there are technical developments these days which make it easier--.”
There was not a cheek escaping a blush in the room, my tan complexion helping to obscure the growing redness in my face, at the thought of a pair of addax with an audience, remote or otherwise.
“Let’s bring this back to the topic,” Raffa declared, although I didn’t know how he was keeping himself together.
“We would hope to breed three calves within the next few years,” Claire outlined. “Depending on whether that occurs, and their genders, we can monitor the progress of the studbook from there.”
“So, we’re thinking of designating them a supplementary program.”
“It would depend on the involvement of private breeders, as to whether or not imports will be necessary to prevent inbreeding.”
“Do go on.”
“Look, having addax in private hands is a double-edged sword,” Raffa told us. “On one hand, I understand why it makes you feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel uncomfortable too, the thought of someone wanting to pay for the privilege of blowing their brains out.”
I swallowed hard. Raffa did the same, then glanced towards me.
“My apologies, that was a thoughtless choice of words. On the other hand, seeking genetics from private breeders assists with diversity.”
He took a breath, thinking.
“We’re hopeful of having our new addax exhibit open by the end of the year. That will open up a few possibilities. Either way, we will be able to breed more addax and giraffe. Additional males of both species can be accommodate on-site, in bachelor groups.”
“That’s excellent, Raffa. I trust you’ll be involved with the breeding program for years to come.”
“Let’s speak about tapir species.”
“Uh, let’s not,” Reuben retorted.
I pulled a face, reserved only for him.
“We could raise the topic of Brazilian Tapirs,” Don suggested, as a compromise.
“I disagree, respectfully,” I spoke up. “We’ve built a nocturnal house for non-Australian animals. It’s possible, and that means that it would be possible to keep going with Malayan tapir. I would love the opportunity to house the species, one day.”
The thought of importing them seemed to be a long way off, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t keen. I held my ground, while the others pondered.
“One thing we haven’t discussed is the zebra program,” Raffa mentioned.
“Yes, I would be very keen to discuss this,” Angelique agreed. “Werribee are seeking to breed purebred Chapman’s, while there’s also a Grants Zebra program, and the rest of the zoos have generic stock.”
“Unfortunately, zebras aren’t one of the species on the agenda.”
This surprised me, and there was a little bit of grumbling around the room which made me suspect the plans would change. Different views around the room shouldn’t have led to shying away from discussion, but rather diving straight in.
“I know elephants have their own TAG, but I reckon this might be the time to speak about them.”
“Is there any other interest in African Bush Elephants?” Blessing wanted to know.
He glanced around the room, but everyone stared back blankly. Housing any species of elephants remained a pipedream for me, especially those not even yet imported into this country.
“At this stage, we’re only importing one bull, but we understand that will only sustain us for the first generation,” Blessing admitted. “We’ll see how many bull calves are bred to the females. The international zoo community would be open to further imports down the line.”
“And that’s alongside three reproductively viable cows?” Claire checked.
Blessing nodded his head.
“The matriarch, Amboseli, is eighteen years old. Etosha is twelve, and then Chobe is only nine, so hopefully they will both have long reproductive futures ahead of them.”
“Have any of these elephants bred before?”
“They’re wild-born, so we can’t know for sure. Our understanding is that none of the females have.
With Samburu the bull, we’d never truly know, although at fifteen, it’s unlikely.”
“Have you confirmed that none of these animals are already related?”
I hadn’t realised this would turn into such a robust discussion.
“Yes, we have,” Blessing confirmed, “and none of them are closely related, according to DNA testing. They are genetically and physically viable breeders.”
I ran my fingers through the ends of my hair, happening to glance towards Sam, whose lips were pursed.
“Well, Asian Elephants are a priority program, at species level.”
“Respectfully, I believe we should run two programs,” Hunter stated. “I don’t begrudge what you’re doing. There’s great value in a breeding program for Indian Elephants.”
“Our future with elephants might very well depend on the sex of the calf Nandi is currently expecting. We’ll retain a female calf. A bull, though, we’ll need to export.”
“I gather that’s a conversation for after the birth.”
“Do we have time to speak about the primate programs?” Christine wanted to know.
“Of course, we’re going through all the TAGs.”
She nodded her head, pleased.
“Primates can be imported into both Australia and New Zealand with ease. There should be a strong regional focus on holding a variety of species. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no value in following through this process with primates. Especially, great apes would be worthy of discussion. As you might be aware, in Europe, there is a TAG dedicated to the breeding of great apes.”
Staff from the retreat swept into the room, placing down platters. We were able to start tucking into wraps, dressing dripping down our fingers, while the meeting continued.
“Gorillas would be my choice for a priority ape species,” Mal declared, “especially if we have to choose just one.”
“I think this is the issue with not having a subtaxon coordinator,” Sam murmured. “There isn’t a clear person to make this decision and guide the process going forward.”
“Look, we all come into this with our own agendas, me included,” Reuben reckoned. “I’d have a connection to gorillas ever since I first laid eyes on Buluman and Betsy years ago.”
He bore a fond smile on his lips. Reuben had been at Melbourne Zoo since before I was born.
“We miss them both greatly,” he mentioned. “It’s a loss which affects us all, even still. You’ll walk down the corridor and expect one of them to come up and say hello.”
This sort of vulnerability came infrequently from Reuben in public, and distracted me.
“If you want to know what I think, I think giving access to real trees is fantastic. It’s brilliant enrichment for lots of species. Yes, I know you have to replace the trees, but it’s a small price to pay.”
“Or, you could choose to house different species, or species in different exhibits. There are always options.”
“Yes, we’re here to make decisions about those options.”
The statement was matter-of-fact.
“We can only breed orangutans so quickly, and they’re different to gorillas and chimps.”
“Plus, there are two species, as well as the hybrids we’re still accommodating.”
“At the end of the day, I think we can conclude that gorillas are the priority ape species.”
“Yes, that sounds reasonable,” Reuben agreed, although I studied Jimmy and Don’s expressions.
Neither of them objected. The western lowland gorilla is a purebred, endangered species, which lives in a troop, assisting in the accommodation of offspring. This allowed the discussion to move on. Staff from the retreat collected the empty trays from lunch. Shortly after, they were replaced with dishes of slices and cake.
“We’re not breeding cheetah at the moment. In fact, all of New Zealand is considering phasing them out. There are other places where we can dedicate our resources.”
“I think it would be remiss of me not to bring up fishing cat,” Tessa noted. “Taronga and Hamilton have been trying to breed them--.”
“’Trying’ the operative word there,” Reuben pointed out. “You haven’t actually bred them, nobody has for twenty years.”
“Yes, as I said, we’ve been trying.”
“Is this where we can raise the fennec fox program?” Raffa wanted to know.
“I didn’t know that you were interested in fennecs.”
“What would make you think that I wouldn’t have been?”
Raffa raised a fair point.
“There is still plenty of work to do.”
I glanced to my side, as Tessa coughed, her fingers balling into a fist. For a moment, I thought she could have been about to produce a lung, such was the ferocity of the violence within her chest.
“Are you feeling alright?” I checked in a low voice.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Tessa assured, although she sounded a little croaky. “I just need some water.”
She reached for her drink bottle. Tessa took a swig of water. She then stashed her drunk bottle back in her backpack and flashed me a grin to reassure me that all remained well.
“We’ve had an awful lot of discussion about mammal species,” Raffa mentioned. “That’s not talking about birds or reptiles, or anything else. I think that’s important to discuss, rather than just focusing on mammals.”
“I agree,” I chimed in.
Raffa smiled towards me.
“Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time for now.”
The session broke up. I noticed Julie on her phone again. She managed to capture the attention of the room.
“We’ve decided on the name Barika,” Julie announced. “It means ‘to be successful’ or ‘bloom’ in Swahili.”
“That’s a beautiful name.”
It buoyed us, making the group of us feel like the afternoon turned out to be worthwhile. Some of the others started migrating from the function rooms to the bar. I turned to Tessa, ready to join them. Her expression appeared a little more pale than usual, so I pulled a face of concern. Tessa was rummaging around in her bag, a grey backpack between her feet. I was distracted, given that Reuben approached me and wanted my attention for a bit. He sat down next to me.
“There’s something I’d like to check with you about the program for tomorrow. We’re going to have a session on zoo map design--.”
My heartrate soared, anxiety and excitement mixing.
“So, I was wondering if we could chat about your Acarda Zoo map.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “That would be great.”
Reuben nodded his head and smiled.
“Thanks for that.”
“I’ll send you the file.”
“Thank you,” Reuben responded.
I turned back to Tessa. Her brow was furrowed, seeming a little distressed. We’d bonded quickly over the course of the conference, both young women in a man’s world.
“Are you feeling alright, Tessa?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured, throwing a tablet into her mouth.
Tessa swilled some water. I still looked at her with a concerned face.
“I’m fine, trust me,” Tessa insisted. “Let’s go and have a drink.”
“Because alcohol’s going to fix it?” I quipped.
Tessa laughed. We approached the bar and she requested beers for both of us. The food and drinks are free-flowing during this conference, all provided by the ZAA. At least I know where the money for our membership fees go, although it’s not just to putting on this sort of gathering.
“You’re eighteen, aren’t you?”
“You’re a baby.”
Tessa sipped her beer.
“You still have your whole life ahead of you.”
I started to feel a little bit emotional, but I managed to pull myself together and refrained from actually crying. Even though I knew it was probably the alcohol, I finished the rest of my beer. As night fell, I listened to beautiful birds outside the building. At the end of the day, as much as I wanted to go to bed, I still had a little bit of work to do. I looked through the notes which I’d taken, mostly sparse, and added anything else I could remember. The discussions about reclassifying breeding programs could have somewhat of an impact on us. It remains to be seen what comes next.
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.