This morning the red letters screamed 3am when I woke up and rolled over. Next I came to with the chirping of the birds, the finches in the aviary acting as an alarm. As the sky swirled pale pink, I figured that I wouldn’t be getting more sleep. Therefore, I pulled myself out of bed, showered in the steam and dressed myself in my zoo uniform. I walked out into the quiet of the zoo with my fingers curled around the cool metal handle of a bucket, containing food for our newest residents, the Cotton-Top Tamarins and squirrel monkeys. Their islands were my first destination. Feeling content, if a little cold, I snapped a selfie and texted it to Tallulah, wishing her a good day. My feet in gumboots, I strode out onto the island. I unlocked the door to the small building – I thought of it almost as a cottage, containing their indoor quarters. There, I fed boiled eggs. These were high-value foods, provided with the intention that it would make Saturn and Diana feel more at ease about their new home. I opened the door, giving the tamarins the option to go outdoors. By the time that I returned to the house, Mum and Dad were awake and coffee was prepared. We made our plans for the rest of the day, then it rolled around close to nine rather quickly. I needed to complete administrative work, but I soon found myself distracted. I held Damian’s phone number on a piece of paper in my palm. All I would need to do is call him. That was the extent to which I could control things, not even whether he answered. I walked through the kitchen to the phone, knowing that I was alone in the house because both Mum and Dad were out in the zoo. There was work to do, I didn’t need to be wasting time on doing this. Nonetheless as my heart was beating faster, I reached for the phone and called him. As the phone rang, I placed my hand against my clammy forehead and paced around the room. I thought that he wasn’t going to answer, and I was already wondering whether or not I was going to leave a message, or just leave it be.
“Hello, Damian speaking.”
“Hey.” My throat felt dry, like I needed to cough. “It’s Jumilah.”
“Good, good to hear from you.”
“Yeah, good to talk to you too,” I affirmed.
I’d called, I needed to be the one who propelled the conversation forward, yet the Generation Z clawing in my gut compelled me that I needed to hang up, hang up now, and if I ended the conversation with a polite greeting, then it was a success. I looked up into the vibrant, blue sky.
“Um, you called, was there something in particular you wanted to talk about?”
“Yeah, they’re settling in well. The primates, I mean, I can send you some photos.”
“I’d love that, thank you.”
I lowered my phone from my ear, temporarily placing the call on speaker. Selecting images from my camera roll, I texted them to Damian.
“I’m so sorry, Jumilah, I’ve got to go.”
“Yeah, well, so do I.”
“Speak later, hey?”
Speaking to Damian, at the very least, was preferable to thinking about finances. Therefore, I found myself wandering out to the squirrel monkey exhibit for respite. I have a soft spot for Stumpy, the squirrel monkey with the short tail. Mum was already waiting for me there.
“I need to ask you something about Damian, from Sydney.”
“Yeah, anything, of course.”
“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” I confirmed, “but I nearly did. I would have, but this guy--.”
Redness swelled in my cheeks.
“We were interrupted, checking on the animals. After that, we decided to just sleep.”
Mum folded her arms in front of her chest, then uncrossed them again. If I had to guess, I would have thought she was uncertain as to how she should react. Inevitably, the topic would be changed sooner rather than later.
“You know, I could call Roz. She’s helped us out a lot. I’m sure--.”
“No,” I protested, noticing clouds out on the horizon. “It’s alright. I can speak with her. Last thing I want is people thinking we’re taking advantage.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference in that respect, you or I.”
“Yeah, sorry. There’s just a lot on my mind.”
Mum gave me a brief hug. We returned to the house. Shortly after I sat down, I heard the doorbell, which was unusual since the zoo had opened, so I rose to my feet and scampered over to answer it.
“Oh, hey, Pat, how are you?”
“Yeah, good, thanks.”
“Look, my parents would like to speak with you, neighbour to neighbour.”
Dad arrived over my shoulder, and I sensed that he’d heard all that Pat had said. Considering they were the one reaching out, I didn’t want to ignore the request.
“I’m not a lackey for Mum and Dad, I promise you,” Pat assured, “but they do want to talk to you, and I think it’s best for all of us that we get this sorted out.”
“Alright. I’ll be in soon.”
Pat returned to the carpark, whilst I gathered my things together. They gave Dad and I a lift to the property next door. I knew that I had to keep sweet, to ensure that the peace was kept between the zoo and our agricultural neighbours. As Pat parked outside the house, one of the farm dogs rushed up to greet us, dust swirling around his chocolate-coloured body. It was nice to be able to say hello, before we headed inside and got down to business.
“One of our sheep got caught in your boundary fence.”
“Right. Thanks for letting us know. I’m sorry about that.”
“She was caught in the top of your boundary fence.”
I tried not to laugh.
“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not our fault,” Dad insisted. “It’s not like we did it.”
“I didn’t say--.”
“Do you really want to involve the authorities?”
Lips closed, I pressed my teeth together.
“Dad--,” Pat spoke up.
I tried not to stare at them, not wanting to place unnecessary pressure on them.
“No, of course not,” Gavin assured, allowing us all to breathe out.
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Dad responded. “You’ve had the opportunity to participate in consultation.”
I glanced towards the clock, hopeful of getting back home soon.
“What has been happening at the zoo?”
“Well, one of our gibbons is pregnant. She’s due in early November.”
“That’s great news,” Pat praised.
“Was this pregnancy planned?”
“Your farm isn’t going to be overrun by gibbons if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Mawar wasn’t on contraception,” I supplied. “Contraception is fairly commonplace in zoos, actually, so in that respect, the pregnancy was planned.”
“It sounds a little bit like being half-pregnant.”
“Trust me, she’s fully pregnant.”
“Look, I understand. You’re running a zoo. It’s really not that much different to a farm, to have as neighbours, I get that’s your position.” I nodded. “It’s just a new thing for us to deal with. Next we know you’ll have elephants--.”
“Look, we have no plans for elephants at the current time,” Dad assured, although clearly he hadn’t been speaking with Uwak Andrew, “so you don’t need to worry about that.”
We all stood. The two fathers shook hands. I finally breathed out, feeling a bit more at ease about the situation we were in.
“I can give you a lift back,” Pat offered.
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
Pat, therefore, dropped Dad and I back home.
“Thanks again,” I told them, before waving them goodbye.
As I returned into the zoo grounds, the wind picked up. I flipped over my hood and zipped up my jacket. Stumpy chased Spirit back into their night quarters. I watched the animals through the window, curling up under their heat lamp. With the squirrel monkeys safe and sound, I needed to get back to the house. I sat down to join the carnivore TAG meeting, but Reuben wasn’t there. My hope was that nothing was wrong with Nyani.
“Alright, we’ll start with the member reports today. Acarda Zoo?”
“Yes, nothing much for us this week for carnivores. I’ve been away, so we haven’t--.” I was about to fill them in about the devils, but that was the wrong meeting. “Yeah, nothing for us.”
I swallowed, then I put myself on mute, as Mum walked into the room.
“Has Dad filled you in?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, he has. We sorted it out in the end.”
“Well, that’s something.”
Mum moved through into the kitchen.
“Yeah, we’ve got some sad news this week about Mary, our old girl.”
I suspected what it would be, before Hunter even had to say the words.
“She’s dying. We can’t deny that. We’ve brought in some of our ex-staff to say their goodbyes. Then, we’ll schedule the euthanasia procedure for some time next week.”
“Oh, Hunter, we’re all so sorry.”
His freckled face wore a downcast expression, his blonde hair scruffy, as Mum made a disgruntled noise.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, this food’s gone rotten. We’ll have to put it out in the compost, we can’t use it for the animals.”
“That’s a shame.”
I felt a little guilty, that I hadn’t been more on top of our stocks. We’d learn for next time. I turned my attention back to the meeting. To calm myself, I took a deep breath.
“Monarto Safari Park?”
“We’ve just transferred two of our male cheetahs to Taronga Western Plains, for breeding.”
From the meeting documents, I brought up the studbook. It appeared that the two males in question had been born at Monarto a few years prior.
“And will both of those animals be paired with a queen at Dubbo,” Angelique enquired, “or just one of them?”
“Well, we don’t decide which one of the brothers she breeds with. They’re all of the same genetic value, so we’re more likely to get a successful mating match if our female gets to choose her own breeding partner,” Claire outlined. “I do feel a little bit like Osher Gunsberg.”
A grin came onto my lips.
“What can I say? It’s just part of the process of breeding cheetah,” Blessing explained.
A familiar face popped up in the bottom-right corner of the Zoom meeting.
“Oh, Reuben, nice for you to finally join us.”
“I’m sorry for being late, it’s been a big day.”
“I note on the agenda there was a statement about you seeking to join the Fishing Cat program.”
“Yes, we would like to,” Reuben confirmed. “Well, join the program again, it’s a species we’ve phased out in the past. We have a structure, the Rice Paddy Aviary, which would be capable of housing one or two non-breeding individuals.”
“Right,” Monica replied. “Have you considered Paris Zoo?”
“No, I haven’t. I didn’t realise they held Fishing Cats.”
“They’ve recently acquired non-breeding animals. My understanding is that they do plan to breed. To do that, they will need to move on one of their sibling pair.”
It was a good tip-off.
“And you’re looking for clouded leopards as well?” Monica continued. “We might need to take this conversation offline.”
It was nice to see them working together again.
“And you would be looking to house them in the otter exhibit?”
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed.
“Well, the exhibit will require some refurbishments. We tried binturongs there about fifteen years ago and they kept liberating themselves. After that we had to put them back into a good old-fashioned cage, then phased them out of our collection altogether.”
“Would you be interested in binturongs again?” David enquired.
“They didn’t meet our species criteria. Now, with the purebred Javan program, we would consider it. Their old exhibit currently houses squirrel monkeys, and we are trying to get back to have zoogeographic precincts.”
I liked the sound of that, just as a question was raised about another collection.
“Look, we’re across this, for obvious reasons. I’ve been in close contact with the local authorities. They have Kalgoorlie on their radar and, unfortunately, from my perspective there’s not much we can do as the ZAA, considering they’re not members.” Jimmy spun a pen in his fingers. “Look, you’re welcome to disagree with me.”
He was an inoffensive enough bloke.
“I would have absolutely no problem with that,” I insisted.
It wasn’t in my interests for small collections to get walked all over, even though I needed to balance that attitude with animal welfare.
After zoo closing time, I ducked out to lock up the nocturnal house – there was little point having access to the facility when the public would not be traipsing through. My hope was that Belitung would appreciate the peace and quiet. With all the lights off, the nocturnal house slithered shivers down my spine. Returning home, I made sure to pour myself a glass of chilled water. Rain lashed against the windows.
“Dinner’s just simple, sorry it’s nothing flash.”
“I’m sure it will be marvellous.”
Mum returned, slipping off her raincoat. She hooked it up by the door. I wrapped Mum in a big hug. Dad served up macaroni cheese for dinner, which we ate in front of the television. After such an early start, I couldn’t keep going for too much longer. Bidding my parents goodnight, I snuggled into my warm bed, said my prayers, and was grateful for the chance to fall asleep.
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.