“Are you right to go?” I asked.
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed.
As I followed him out the door, my phone vibrated within my pocket. We slipped out the gate and, usually, I wouldn’t have checked it, but I happened to this morning. I paused, because Patrick was calling.
“Are you good?”
“Yeah, I just have to take this. You go, I’ll catch up with you.”
“Thank you.” I answered the phone. “Hi, Patrick, how are you?”
“Not great,” he responded. “It’s good to hear your voice, though.”
I sensed that something was wrong, by the shakiness and vulnerability of the way Patrick spoke. Therefore, I left silence so that he would have the opportunity to share, if he wanted to.
“My father’s sick, he’s really sick, it’s his kidneys,” Patrick explained. “I’ve been going up to Launceston most weekends.”
“Right,” I replied. “How does your mum feel about that?”
“She’s working most of the time, anyway. It’s good to get to know him. Last weekend, he passed out.”
“Oh, Patrick, that’s awful.”
“He walked out on Mum and I, when I was a little kid. I shouldn’t forgive him for running away and getting a brand-new family that didn’t have me in it. He doesn’t understand the consequences of that.”
Patrick let out a laboured breath. I could picture him shaking his head. I wanted to ask whether or not Reg was going to die, but I thought that might have not been a much-appreciated question.
“That’s so hard.”
I thought of Mum and her anguish following Kakek’s death, owing to their complicated relationship.
“You’re allowed to be angry and feel sorry for him at the same time.”
We ended our call. I breathed out. The birdsong was faint in the background, soothing yet eerie. I thought that I might have been able to hear the white-cheeked gibbons, too. Hearing from Patrick was a low, rather than a peak. I skulled the contents of my drink bottle. In my mind I said a prayer for Reg, Patrick’s father, for Patrick, and especially for his younger half-siblings, Reg’s little kids, then crossed myself. I tracked down Ella and greeted her with a grin.
“Good morning. How are you?”
“Yeah, alright,” I answered, trying to stay chipper.
I shadowed Ella around the zoo. The African Rainforest area, including Treetop Monkeys and Apes, holds the bulk of Melbourne Zoo’s primate species. I tried my best to pay attention to what we were doing, providing food and letting the animals out into their day enclosures. After the gorillas, Ella and I passed out onto the Main Drive. We came across a woman in Melbourne Zoo uniform, approaching in the other direction.
Once we were out of earshot, I leaned in.
“I don’t think I’ve met her before.”
“Oh, that’s Jaya, she’s one of our bird keepers, she works with Isaac.”
We entered Growing Wild.
“Can I asked, what’s the deal with the white-cheeked gibbons?” I queried. “I’ve heard a couple of contradictory things about whether or not there’s a breeding recommendation, if you don’t mind talking about it.”
“She was hand-raised, over in Perth. Hand-raised primates, as you probably know, often don’t breed. The concern, even if she fell pregnant, would be that she won’t raise the baby herself.”
“And then you’d have the same situation all over again.”
“Yeah, essentially,” Ella confirmed.
We turned the corner, encountering Reuben.
Ella wandered off for a bit, while the two of us stopped to chat.
“We’ve just been talking about white-cheeked gibbons.”
“Right,” Reuben replied. “I’m sure that’ll go on the agenda for the primate TAG at some stage.”
“Is there anything I can do to help you around the zoo?” I offered.
“Oh, I’ve got plenty of meetings today,” Reuben mentioned. “You see, that’s actually what my work life is like.”
“Right. It’s not all saving species every day.”
Ella returned, and we got back to work as Reuben headed off in the other direction. We fed the surplus squirrel monkeys in the Keeper Kids building. I listened to the chatter of birdsong from the nearby Amazon aviary, as we exited. Ella gestured across the path.
“I remember when the baboons were still in a cage over there. It was dreadful. I can’t believe it stayed that way for as long as it did.”
As we moved out onto the Main Drove again, I nodded.
“If you’d like to spend some time with Ara this arvo, I can spare you, get some ungulate sea legs before you go to Werribee.”
“I don’t know what that is,” I admitted with a laugh, “but sounds good. Thanks for letting me tag along with you this morning.”
I tracked Ara down outside the giraffe exhibit, one foot resting on the bottom of the fence.
“Hey, Ella mentioned that I could come work with you this arvo.”
“That’s great,” Ara affirmed with a smile. “I’m just able to head down to the pygmy hippos.”
We walked through the zoo, to the African rainforest. Upon our arrival, Washington was out of the water, and Ara noticed that he’d broken one of his nails, which had drawn a slight amount of blood. I winced for his sake, even though it didn’t make me feel queasy.
“Can we get Meredith down to Hippos when you can, please?” Ara requested over the radio.
“Roger that, Ara. Is forty-five minutes alright?” she checked.
“Yeah, that’ll be fine. Out.”
Ara clipped her radio back onto her belt.
“What do we do now?”
“Just wait,” Ara answered. “Well, I’ll just wait. If there’s anything else you’d like to do, I don’t mind.”
“Is there anything which I’m able to do for you?”
“Not really, I’m sorry to say.”
“Alright, I’m off. I’ve got the carnivores meeting.”
Bidding farewell to Ara and departing the pygmy hippos, I slipped into the room from where Monica had joined the carnivore TAG meeting. She pressed a button on her keyboard to mute us, then looked over her shoulder to greet me.
“Sorry I’m late,” I apologised.
“All good,” Monica assured, when we were on mute.
“We welcome our representative from Cairns to the meeting, as they’ll be entering the TAG upon receiving two female red pandas from Symbio.”
It felt exciting to have another new member, which felt like my kin. Finally, we’d come to the tiger review. They seemed to be coming a dime a dozen these days, although maybe it had been like this all along, owing to the significance of the program.
“My recommendation would be that Melbourne would give up any breeding privileges for the time being. This would allow non-breeding animals to be held there for the rest of their lives.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t see why we should have to permanently give up breeding privileges.”
“Sumatran Tiger breeding recommendations aren’t given that often these days,” Bill pointed out. “Potentially, you could hold your sibling pair for ten more years. We’re not making recommendations for that far into the future at this stage.”
“Can we at least agree on that? That’s not permanently giving up breeding privileges. It’s recognising the reality of the current situation. Really, we don’t disagree with each other. If we come at this in a combative way, no wonder we’re both going to end up displeased with the situation.”
“Alright,” Bill concluded, “let’s move onto the member reports. Adelaide?”
Bill didn’t sound amused.
“Yes,” Harold insisted. “We have a perfectly good exhibit sitting there for the meantime, even if that area is going to be redeveloped in our masterplan. We may as well fill it with something.”
“When are they going to come out of quarantine?”
“Ah, still another week.”
“Nothing for us this week.”
“All the plans are in place for us to transfer two of our otters to Orana for breeding purposes.”
“And we’re ready to receive them,” Mal confirmed.
“Do us all a favour, mate,” Bill urged. “Make sure you give them different names.”
I felt the urge to speak up and defend Hunter. His usual infectious grin faltered a little. Nobody said anything, and the meeting prepared to move on, although it left something of a bitter taste in my mouth, despite Hunter’s reputation of being somewhat of an unconventional name-giver, of his zoo animals.
“The two female porcupines we’ve received from Auckland have gone on display. The kiddos love them.”
I tried to think if I’ve ever seen a porcupine in real life, but I don’t think I have.
“Our eldest meerkat died.”
“That’s sad,” Des commented. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, I reckon that she might have made a longevity record, so she had a good life with us.”
“We’ve sexed our cheetah cubs as one male and one female.”
I made sure that Monica and I were on mute, while the others started to bicker again.
“What’s the matter with that?”
“Male cheetahs live in coalitions. If they don’t have brothers from the same litter, then they need to be integrated with other males. So far, we haven’t had any other males born this year who would be suitable candidates.”
Indeed, Tessa asked if there would be a breeding recommendation to assist, but there weren’t plans.
“As Bill mentioned earlier, we are sending the two females from our most recent red panda litter to Cairns. The sisters are from a represented line and we’ve been told they won’t be used for breeding for now.”
Sam was beaming.
“Christine, may I share my screen?” he requested.
Sam must have had some good news, but I couldn’t guess what it would be. He shared a slightly grainy photograph, of a sun bear with two tiny cubs. I slapped my hands over my mouth in delight and shock.
“This is really happy news. Of course, we’re still taking things day by day, but it’s really put a spring in our step after we lost their father.”
“We’ve been successful in our application for a funding grant. That will help us with the snow leopard exhibit.”
“We’ve finally named our lion cubs. The female is named Nala, she was the one who we had the public naming competition for.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Gerard quipped.
With the formalities over, the chatter returned to the snow leopard program.
“You’re going around again, aren’t you, Monica?” Bill asked.
“Yes, well, we’re trying to,” Monica confirmed, which I already knew.
“Fair enough. It’s not like breeding animals is easy. It requires tough stuff, you know, and sometimes even that’s not enough, which frustrates me.”
“You and me both, mate.”
“I think that we’ll call it a day there,” Bill decided.
After a gruelling meeting, it was beautiful to end with good news from Taronga. When I returned home to Reuben’s cottage, I popped a Panadol, swilling water as I smelt the dinner he was cooking.
“Carnies was an absolute dogfight.”
Reuben laughed, but I didn’t. He handed me dinner and we sat down. I twirled fettucine around my fork.
“Bill wanted us to give up Sumatran Tiger breeding privileges.”
“I think he was just teasing, trying to get a reaction out of Monica.”
Reuben burst from the couch.
“He shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I continued to eat, while Reuben moved through into the kitchen. When he returned, he brought drinks for us both, which quenched my thirst. My thoughts stewed while I consumed my dinner, running through the whole day, as well as the fracas at the TAG meeting. That turned out to be just the thing which capped it all off.
“Listen, I’m sorry about this morning. So, there’s this guy, Patrick--.”
“Well, kind of. He’s my ex-boyfriend.”
“I broke up with him,” I clarified.
My phone rang. Speak of the devil and he shall appear. I nearly didn’t answer the call.
“No, go, go, please.” Reuben swilled the wine within his glass. “Go and be a young person.”
I wandered away and answered my phone. Patrick didn’t talk, he only sobbed. I started to talk, but then I thought better of it, because I didn’t think that I would be able to comfort him.
My heart thumped within my chest.
“It’s OK,” I tried to reassure Patrick. “You’re going to be alright.”
“It’s my father, it’s Reg, he’s not good, he’s really sick.”
It occurred to me that his instinct was to call me, to tell me. Maybe Patrick would have justified it, by saying that I was just a safe person. Finally, he stopped crying.
“Tell me, what’s been happening?”
I didn’t really want to disclose, because it seemed not that important.
“Worked with any cool animals lately?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“He’s probably going to die, reasonably soon. That’s what I didn’t know this morning.”
I’d already started doing the mental calculations, of going back to Tasmania for the funeral. I finally finished on the phone with Patrick and could feel an empty place within my chest, which was pumped full of yearning like it was a drug. Faintly I could hear the primates. They were some of the closest animals to Reuben’s cottage. I returned to the lounge and sat down beside him, while he moved onto his second drink.
“Do you have bandwidth to talk for a little bit? There’s something I’d like to run through with you?”
“About what?” I wiped my nose. “I’m sorry, it’s just that--.”
“Jumilah, is everything alright?”
“No, not really.”
I talked, Reuben listened.
“So, Patrick and I worked together. Well, we still do work together. He works at Woolworths with me and he’s finishing school this year, but he was eighteen at the end of June.”
“Didn’t you say that you broke up with him?”
“Yes, just before I came here. I didn’t want to be tethered when I came to the mainland.”
“Is that how he makes you feel, tethered?”
I rolled my lips. Whatever answer Reuben would have been expecting, I couldn’t tell.
“Sometimes, but not always. We’ve both changed, in different ways.”
I sighed, my body feeling heavy.
“Anyway,” I concluded, exhausted, “that’s really all that I had to say.”
I leaned back and started scrolling through Instagram. A suggested video came up, of a tiger pulling down an enrichment activity. It revealed three slabs of meat, two of which seemed to be coloured blue. When I laughed, Reuben queried as to what was so funny.
“Oh, a zoo in America has done a gender reveal for their tiger cubs.”
“It’s not, it’s cute.”
Reuben shot me a glare.
“Alright, what do you want to talk about, then?”
“On Monday, both the bird TAG and the primate TAG have on the agenda to discuss reintroduction programs,” Reuben mentioned. “That’s part of the criteria to be considered a Category 1 program.”
“Are we talking about that as well as the tamarin and marmoset programs?”
Reuben furrowed his brow, then relaxed his expression.
“You’re right. I got that mixed up. We are discussing tamarins.”
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.