On the way into Healesville, we passed a burnt-out car. My eyes lingered on the sight, pulling my attention from Nikki running through what we were anticipating for the day at the sanctuary. Finally, when we arrived, I could have asked her to repeat everything. I didn’t, though, because that would have blown my cover. Inside, I followed Nikki into the wildlife hospital. I couldn’t stop thinking about the car, no matter how much I tried to distract myself. It wasn’t like I’d never seen one before. Inside, Pearl had brought in one of the quolls, for a vet check in preparation for being moved to another facility.
“Well, I would say that’s a clean bill of health.”
“Great news,” I replied with a smile.
Pearl accompanied the quoll into the enclosure near the wildlife hospital, where some of the cuscuses used to be housed. There, he could wait for transfer. Nikki consulted the clock.
“Alright, time for Birds.”
I followed Nikki into the next room and I sat down with a soft sign. As I waited for Nikki’s computer to log in, I checked my phone, observing a missed message from Tallulah. She’d snapped a selfie with a very cute kitten at Dodges Ferry, which had been brought in, abandoned. My heart ached for the cat, and I didn’t know what to say. Nikki tracked down the link and we joined the bird TAG meeting. Cathy commenced with an acknowledgment of country, then handed over to Robin.
“Thank you for joining us today.”
She cleared her throat.
“Does anyone have any news?”
“Ah, yes,” Sam raised. “We’re looking to transfer out some Nicobar Pigeons.”
“Are you thinning out your collection, Sam?”
“Well, I won’t lie to you. A level of thinning out is inevitable, particularly with exotic species.”
I noticed Claire was in the meeting, which surprised me a little. My heart started to beat faster.
“I, uh, I would be interested for Acarda Zoo,” I spoke up, “although maybe down the track, I know we still have a few hoops to jump through.”
“Thanks, Jumilah. That sounds great. We can be back in touch, there’s no rush.”
“Claire, do you have anything to add from Taronga Western Plains?”
A few of the others smirked, perhaps having the same thoughts as me, just communicating them.
“Well, it’s not like I don’t have other things to do, but it’s not like we have no bird species.”
Claire pulled a glass of water into shot.
“Unfortunately, one of our male ostriches is unwell. We’re not exactly sure what’s caused it.”
Nikki sat forward.
“That’s not good. Can I ask, what tests have your vets done?”
Claire answered in terminology I didn’t fully understand. By the sounds of things, the ostrich was quite unwell. Nikki provided some recommendations of further tests which could be run, and medications tried. From there, the meeting was able to move on, to a question from Sam, to Isaac on behalf of Melbourne Zoo, about future species plans.
“Across Zoos Victoria, there are species criteria, as you would be aware,” Isaac outlined, and Nikki nodded. “For native species, it’s much easier for species to meet these criteria, due to research and reintroduction programs, but for exotic species, there are a few more hoops to jump through. It’s even more complicated for exotic birds, due to the import bans.”
My head spun. I continued to look at our reflections on the screen. I couldn’t help but wonder why we were even having this conversation. After two months in Victoria, I felt like I had skin in the game, despite technically being detached.
“Anyway, plenty to consider,” Isaac mentioned, which meant the conversation would be postponed.
The bird TAG meeting ended. Nikki shut her laptop. I took a deep, measured breath. Even though it wasn’t yet ten o’clock, I already felt like I needed a pick-me-up. I figured if I did have a coffee break and took a moment to myself, I could call Tallulah back, and ask her whether she and Bridie were going to keep the kitten.
“I think it’s time for a little bit of a morning tea break,” Nikki suggested. “What do you reckon about that, Jumilah?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
I answered without feeling. After she’d prepared drinks for us both, Nikki handed me a cup of coffee, the steam rising into my face.
“Do you remember seeing a burnt-out car on our way in this morning?” I asked.
“No, I don’t, to be honest,” she answered. “Why, do you think you saw one?”
“Could we please get Nikki to come to Wombats as soon as possible?” came the request over the radio.
“On my way.”
Nikki sculled the rest of her coffee, then set down the mug and got up. I followed her out of the wildlife hospital, as we headed in the direction of the wombat exhibit. When we arrived, Pearl met us.
“I’m sorry to call you, but you should see this.”
We looked over the wall into the Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat exhibit, three faces peering up at us, two of them tinier than the first.
“There’s a second joey.”
These surprise births set off electricity in my chest, in a good, soothing way, like a kaleidoscope.
“I promise you, I’m a good vet,” Nikki remarked.
Like I was surrendering, I raised both hands.
“I never said you weren’t.”
A muffled call came over Pearl’s radio.
“What was that?” Nikki enquired.
“Alinta,” she reported, so we made haste, only one name required.
I breathed out shakily upon our arrival at the dingo exhibit. Nikki and I followed Pearl back-of-house. One of the females was lying in her den. I focused on her abdomen, taking longer than I wanted to, to detect breath.
“She didn’t come out into the exhibit this morning,” another keeper, Annie, mentioned.
Nikki approached the dingo with apprehension.
“I’ll take some bloods.”
She glanced around, like she was searching for invisible equipment.
“Derek can come out from the hospital.”
Nikki made the request. He arrived shortly after with a suite of medical supplies, allowing Nikki to draw back. Derek whisked the vials back for testing.
“Have you observed any faeces or urine?”
Pearl shook her head.
“I haven’t, either,” Annie confirmed.
We waited what seemed like an awful while, as Nikki continued her examinations. Derek finally returned, bearing a solemn look. He handed the results over to Nikki, who surveyed them, then turned to the rest of us.
“The blood infection is pretty extensive,” she outlined. “It would be my professional opinion that the kindest option would be to euthanise. We don’t have to do that today, if you would like to bring other keepers in, to say goodbye.”
I swallowed hard, thinking of Twiga, remembering Kakek’s blood on the leaves. Nikki continued to speak until Annie interjected.
“But, Nikki, surely there’s something--.”
Pearl placed a hand on her colleague’s back. Annie nodded solemnly.
“I wish that I could, but this is the end of the road. Alinta’s time has come.”
Her body suddenly seized up, frothing at the month.
“Alright, she’s having a seizure.”
Derek drew up a syringe of medication, which he applied to a blood vessel in Alinta’s leg. Thankfully, this stopped the convulsions.
“You’ve put in a shunt before. Could that work again?”
Nikki shook her head.
“It would only be temporary. We’ve done the best we can.” She licked her lips, like she was searching for words. “Look, her condition is critical. It’s possible that she’ll pass away regardless.”
Feeling my sinuses fill with mucus, I glanced away. I’d not expected this day to progress this way. Maybe I should have seen it coming, the deterioration of Alinta’s condition. Faintly I heard a child laughing. The public would have been none the wiser. Just metres away, all they might have noticed was an empty enclosure.
“I can give her a sedative for the meantime, to make her more comfortable.”
“That would be good, thank you.”
“I remember the day she was born,” Pearl mentioned, while Nikki drew up the drugs. “The pups were so tiny, but so beautiful. Bindi was an excellent mother.”
I resolved to look for photos when I was next in the office. Nikki placed another needle through Alinta’s skin, then swabbed the site to ensure there was no contamination. I’d learned more than I bargained for about these sorts of drugs, during my time in Victoria. Annie nodded solemnly, then crossed herself, so I did the same. We started walking back to the wildlife hospital. Once Nikki and I arrived, we moved into the small break room. I sat down, breathing out slowly. Heaviness was within both of us, at the decision just made and its outcome, even if it was ultimately the right one, underpinned by Nikki’s veterinary experience. This is the cycle of life, I suppose.
“Will you be right by yourself?”
“Yeah, sure, of course.” I glanced towards my watch. “I’ve got the primate TAG meeting pretty soon, anyway.”
Nikki nodded her head. She started reversing towards the door.
“See you later.”
As Nikki departed, I logged into Zoom. Another review of the chimpanzee program was being conducted. Personally, orangutans are my favourite ape, followed by gorillas, then chimps. The first one is kind of obvious, but maybe my experiences at Melbourne Zoo have left me with a fondness for gorillas. I hoped that learning more about the regional chimpanzee population over the course of the meeting, might open my mind.
“We have four females off contraception currently,” Sam reported, “although Lisa is very unlikely to breed again, as we believe that she’s post-reproductive. Ruthie has had problems with breeding in the past, although we don’t anticipate she’ll have issues with future pregnancies.”
“Thanks, Sam. Claire, do you have an update?” Blessing wanted to know.
“We’ve made a decision about a site for our chimpanzee exhibit. Opposite the bongos, we currently have a zebra paddock. These zebras will be relocated. We’ll then build the chimp exhibit in that site. That will allow us to hold a bachelor group.”
“Would you want to relocate the zebras within the zoo, or to another facility?”
“We were thinking within the zoo, but personally I’m not 100% sure, sorry.”
“We’ll discuss this more tomorrow.”
A chorus of nods agreed that was a good idea. Hopefully Dubbo’s bachelor facility would be of benefit to the region, as well as the zoo itself.
“To review the decisions we’ve made, Bungarribee will receive two breeding recommendations. The females Sara and Zoe will be taken off contraception immediately.”
“Let’s move onto the member reports,” Christine urged. “Adelaide Zoo?”
I figured that I would fit in first, in due course.
“We’ve arranged when the two female ruffed lemurs will arrive from Perth. They’ll be transferred in two weeks’ time.”
“That’s good,” Reuben agreed. “That will be a genetically valuable pairing.”
I leaned back and started to think of home. The conversation rolled on, a moment lost to my lack of concentration.
“Naming animals is always a tricky business,” Gerard conceded with a laugh. “We announced on social media that we’d named our new giraffe calf and then we realised that we’d actually spelled it wrong, so we had to fix that up as quickly as we possibly could.”
“Our female Sumatran Orangutans arrived early this morning.” Reuben sounded a little breathless. “They’ve been moved into quarantine, and, in thirty days, they will be moved into our orangutan complex for pairing with our male, Menyaru.”
“Mogo Wildlife Park?”
“One of our young silvery gibbons died during the week. He had an intestinal blockage. When the vets performed surgery, he didn’t survive.”
“Oh, Julie, I’m sorry to hear that,” Christine responded. “Which individual was it which passed?”
“Ah, Ketut, our second-born male.”
The news brought a sombre tone over the meeting, before a somewhat muted discussion began in regard to the Javan Gibbon program more broadly. Claire expressed interest on behalf of Taronga Western Plains, for after the white-handed gibbons have been moved on – down to us in Tassie.
“National Zoo and Aquarium?”
“I wanted to bring up the topic of the colobus program,” George mentioned. “We have five animals currently, as you’d know. I understand we received Chad from Melbourne Zoo last year as a display animal.”
“That’s a mutually beneficial situation,” Reuben butted in.
“Well, yes, it is,” George confirmed, “but I can’t help but think that the breeding program has stagnated.”
“I can’t disagree with you there, mate.”
“Don, I know that you exported your previous colobus,” Christine pointed out.
“Yes, they were of a different subspecies to the animals held in Melbourne and Canberra. Hopefully they will be able to breed overseas.”
“Would you like to acquire colobus again?”
“At the moment, we’re dedicating that space to De Brazza’s Guenon.”
“Alright, thank you.”
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo?”
“I feel like I’ve shared a fair bit so far,” Claire admitted with a laugh.
She sat back in her chair.
“We are maintaining a strong focus on primates.”
“Werribee Open Range Zoo?”
“Yeah, I’m having a think,” Des began.
“You still only have two primate species,” Bill pointed out. “It wouldn’t kill you to accommodate more.”
“No, it wouldn’t, mate, I realise that.”
“We would like to become part of the Red-Handed Tamarin program.”
The formalities of the TAG meeting came to an end.
“I’ve heard that they’re naming the new Head of Carnivores position at Adelaide shortly.”
Don had already logged off, not that he struck me as a man to provide inside goss. I tried to read Bill’s face, to see if it might have indicated whether Joel had been successful. Unfortunately, though, there was nothing I could decipher.
“Oh, I forgot to bring up patas monkeys,” Reuben raised.
“They’re not endangered, though.”
“Not to worry,” he responded, and the meeting ended.
I closed the lid of my laptop and put it away.
“All done,” I told Nikki, when I ambled through. “What can I help you with?”
“I was just about to head out.”
She handed me some supplies for the rounds she would undertake for the rest of the afternoon. We headed across to the tree kangaroo exhibits. I noticed that Taro was on the ground, appreciating some shade.
I smiled and carefully rested on the railing. My expression faltered when I noticed a lump on Taro’s tail. I didn’t know whether or not to say anything.
“Hey, Nikki,” I raised. “What’s that on his tail?”
I watched as her face changed, eyes focusing on what I’d just observed.
“I’m not sure. Good spot, Jumilah. I would like to take a closer look at that.”
She glanced over her shoulder towards the wildlife hospital. A shiver slithered down my spine when I noticed a rustle amongst the grass.
“Nikki.” I swallowed. “Nikki, I think there’s a snake.”
A head poked up from the leaf litter. Next came a blue tongue. Four legs emerged, inciting the curiosity of Taro and Salsa.
“False alarm. I’m sorry.”
Nikki assured me that all was fine, while I glanced up at the tall trees. Birds squawked, and I couldn’t tell if they were wild, or residents of the sanctuary. Healesville’s bird collection is more extensive than Melbourne Zoo’s, which I’m sure inspires at least a little jealousy in Isaac.
“Have you ever had a cassowary here before?”
“Our last cassowary passed away about three years ago,” Nikki told me. “You would have seen the girl at Melbourne Zoo, of course.”
“Melbourne Zoo has had one-hundred-and-sixty years to develop a rainforest.”
“It is pretty cool. I’ve been in actual rainforest in Sumatra and--.”
I paused, at a brain zap, then breathed out.
“Melbourne Zoo’s pretty good, that’s just what I’m saying. I’ve heard from Reuben that Melbourne Zoo will primarily house rainforest species going forward.”
I felt a chill across my face. Nikki smiled.
“Well, I think that’s the plan. The exotic mammal species often influence decisions a fair bit.”
“Yes, I got that impression as well. I have to admit, I get myself quite swept up in things too, especially when I hear Reuben talking about IRAs and managed conservation programs.”
She nodded with understanding.
“I don’t begrudge them, really. If Healesville wasn’t able to house its collection without imports, then I would want to advocate for change.” Nikki shook her head. “Still, sometimes I think there’s far too much complaining. It’s not like they’re without options.”
She had a point. I thought about raising these things with Sam. The other students might be interested.
“Well, what would you do, if you could choose?”
“Choose the species for Melbourne Zoo?” I chuckled. “It’s not like I have to. I’ve been choosing the species for Acarda Zoo, that’s been interesting enough.”
“It’s just a bit of fun.”
I hummed in thought.
“Well, I’d restore the rainforest around the gorillas to be all African species. The gorillas will be a big attraction. The new silverback, Kwabema, hopefully he’ll get to work making babies.”
“Yes, well, unfortunately you can’t control that.”
“Even in fantasyland?”
“It would be great if all of the females could have a baby. I think I’d pick Naomi to go first, or Esther, they’re the two Reuben would like to breed first, then Nyani can have maternal behaviour modelled.”
“You seem to be an expert on breeding gorillas.”
“I’m not, really.”
“I went to Africa once. I saw gorillas and bongos in the wild. It was such a beautiful time. Bongos are incredible. I remember the two little calves in the city, when they were born. They were so, so beautiful, but I don’t even know where they are now. I hope they’re well and, you know, alive. It’s a shame that we can’t import them anymore.”
“Oh, as far as I know, the bovid IRA for Australia has been passed, now. There just hasn’t been any movement at the station.
“Right. My mistake. Apologies.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I’d been rather enjoying this hypothetical exercise.
“And, I think I would like Melbourne Zoo to breed their seals and sea lions. There’s a bull now, Warney.”
“That would be wonderful. It would ensure the species at the zoo for years to come.”
“Which would contribute to education about protecting the marine environment.”
“Of course, educating kids – educating everyone, really – is a big part of what we do. Some people could argue it’s our main priority.”
Ideas formed in my mind, probably impractical ones. I listened to the magnificent song of Healesville’s many bird species, compiling an unbeatable tune. Finally, it came time for Nikki and me to make tracks, and we made our way out to her car. I wanted to call Mum and Dad when I got the chance, just to check in and hear their voices. Nikki paused just as we reached the car, checking something on her phone.
“You can get in, it’s fine.”
She unlocked the car.
“You know, what are your plans for Acarda Zoo?”
We dropped onto our seats.
“Well, Mum and Dad are continuing with the construction.”
I fastened my seatbelt across my chest. We departed Healesville Sanctuary.
“Then, once it’s done, the structures will be inspected and, hopefully, we’ll get a licence to exhibit. Reuben’s been really good to me. Everyone has been, of course, but the fact that we’ve got animals lined up, animals my grandparents cared for--.”
“It must make you feel--.”
“Oh, it’s a good thing, I assure you.”
“But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t terrify you.”
Nikki was right, but I requested she change the subject, and we chatted about tree kangaroos.
“I wonder whether there are animals which come up for relocation,” I mused. “That’s the sort of work my grandparents have done with tigers, from time to time.”
“That happens here with crocodiles.” Nikki pulled out onto the highway. “You should talk more with Hunter Clinton if you’re interested in that.”
She checked in her rear-vision mirror.
“He would be about your age, wouldn’t he?”
“Yes, he is,” I confirmed. “He’s just a few months older, I’m pretty sure.”
“Makes me feel old.”
I giggled, somewhat awkwardly. Nikki drove back the same way, in the opposite direction, as she’d brought me in the morning.
“There’s that burnt-out car again.”
I sighed heavily.
“Do you mind if we stop, if we check?”
Nikki pulled over to the side of the road. If she was feeling skeptical, she didn’t show it. She stayed in the car while I got out and anxiously approached the car, its insides practically gutted. I felt the throb of my heart like slamming on the brakes twice a second. Only the bones of the vehicle remained. I startled, at Nikki’s footsteps behind me. She swatted a fly away from her face.
“It looks like it’s been here for a while,” Nikki supposed, “but I don’t think that I’ve seen it before. Maybe it’s just blended into the background, potentially.”
“Well, do you think we should call the police?”
“Do you think there’s a body in there?”
I shook my head. Nonetheless, Nikki called the local station. We waited for what seemed like an eternity, before a blue and white vehicle pulled down the road and parked behind us. As an officer emerged and approached, I was seeped in Bellerive, the white-grey day Tallulah reported Kyle. He gave us his name and rank, even removed the cap from his head to be polite. I repeated the events as they occurred, the officer writing down what I was saying, then he turned to Nikki to confirm my story.
“Well, Jumilah saw it this morning, on our way in. We stopped to check it out on the way back.”
The officer, jaw puckered into a scowl, nodded.
“Look, I’ve taken your statements. We’ll be aware of it, but at the moment, there’s no evidence of a crime.”
That was good news, really. We all made tracks, Nikki and I heading to the farm. During the drive, I pondered what she had mentioned about Hunter Clinton, whom I’d seen from time to time online. Perhaps we could be allies, or maybe I was just engaging in unhelpful fantasies. Finally, we arrived back at the Roberts’ farm.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” she offered.
“No, I’m fine,” I assured, grasping my bag. “We’re running late, anyway.”
I approached the house, a familiar old farmhouse with solar panels on the roof. Letting myself in through the front door, I found Mrs Roberts in the kitchen. I listened to footsteps, around the house and the creak of the back verandah, which indicated the rest of the family were home.
“Hello, love, how are you?”
“Yeah, good,” I answered, a little breathless.
“We were going to go down to the dam for a splash around, do you want to come?”
“That would be lovely,” I agreed with a smile, so I fetched some clothes from my bag, which could serve as swimmers.
I followed the family down to the dam. Wading into the water, I quickly adjusted to the cold. I knew that I couldn’t talk to Tallulah about Patrick. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t understand. Rather, Tallulah shouldn’t have had to deal with my petty, lingering feelings. I broke up with Patrick, for a reason. Tallulah didn’t have a choice, with Kyle. She’d never been able to choose. I flipped onto my back and splayed out my limbs like a snow angel. As I peered up into the vast sky, a memory returned to mind, of when I was a little girl, probably about seven years old or so, and Mum took Tallulah and I to the pool in town, when the other, bigger kids splashed about. She’d taken my hands and pulled me through the water, into a corner where we could swim, just the two of us. Once we returned, Mrs Roberts put dinner on, and they allowed me the first shower. It felt lovely to warm back up again, then change into dry clothes. I then walked out to the kitchen. Mrs Roberts had started to put dinner on.
“There are drinks in the fridge, help yourself.”
I opened the door. From the chill inside, I retrieved a drink. The first sip soothed my stomach, just in time to pile potatoes and chickpea rissoles into it. I appreciated the effort Mrs Roberts was going to, in order to prepare vegetarian meals for all of us to share, on my behalf. Following dinner, I opened my laptop and I settled into my class, where Sam invited me to present as the first item on the agenda.
“Thank you very much, Sam.”
I started sharing my screen, bringing up the presentation I’d prepared to accompany my task.
“The precinct I have planned is a representation of the North American domestic environment.”
I beamed, heart thumping, so proud of myself. A great deal of research had gone into not only planning the exhibits, but choosing the right species to inhabit them. The words spilled out of my mouth in a professional voice I almost felt I couldn’t track credit for, lips moving faster than my mind.
I breathed out.
“American Bison are housed within a number of institutions across Australia and New Zealand. The precinct would conclude with a paddock for bison. Visitors and animals would be separated through a sunken barrier.”
I changed slides onto an image I found online, which had been taken at Taronga Western Plains Zoo. Sam, most likely, would recognise it.
“The plant life in the exhibits and gardens would reflect the region.”
I provided examples via my slides.
“Whilst there is a relative absence of North American fauna in the region, many species are able to be imported relatively easily, such as carnivores. Puma is one example and would be relevant to the domestic environment.”
“Thank you very much, Jumilah. That was a well-researched presentation.”
I smiled and stopped sharing my screen.
“Are there any news stories you would like to share or have questions about?”
“I heard about this wallaby being hand-reared, up in Queensland.”
Kenneth posted the link in the Zoom chat, so that we were all able to read. Surprise, surprise, Hunter had a hand.
“That’s incredible,” Lucia remarked.
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Sam left the space, so that Zach could elaborate.
“Well, it’s not bad, it’s just not unusual.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I’ve just had a bad day. Ignore me.”
Zach placed himself on mute. I studied his expression, as if I could read his distress. Sam offered words as a balm, but I had nothing. I noticed Mrs Roberts hovering in the doorway to the nook, where I was set up with my laptop. Ensuring first that I was on mute, I turned to her.
“Are you comfortable?” Mrs Roberts checked.
“Yes, I am, thank you,” I confirmed.
She nodded her head.
“Good. If you get cold, you can always grab another blanket.”
Mrs Roberts scampered away. I appreciated her care, then realised, bittersweet, that this wouldn’t be an experience I would necessarily share at home. The course could very well be over by the time that I return to Tasmania.
“There is a history of African Elephants at Taronga Western Plains,” Sam outlined. “Currently, I believe they can’t be imported into Australia, but they can be imported into New Zealand.”
“Why’s that?” Zach wanted to know.
Sam shrugged his shoulders.
“Strangely, New Zealand’s always been a little more liberal. On a number of occasions, they’ve allowed imports of certain species before Australia did, or, in this case, when Australia hasn’t at all. I would say that often, it’s a hypothetical exercise. Nobody’s planning on importing African Elephants into New Zealand.”
I gathered it would be for financial reasons. Zoos in New Zealand have to deal all the more with their country being smaller and further away, plus the need for conservation for the plethora of native New Zealand birds and reptiles.
“There wouldn’t be that much of a difference, you’d think.”
“It would be a similar situation as to with Asian Elephants,” Sam answered, “but I’m no expert on their husbandry.”
“There aren’t African Elephants currently in Australia, are there?”
“No, not at the moment,” he confirmed.
Sam cleared his throat.
“In the interests of honestly, though, there are plans afoot. A herd has been earmarked for importation to Monarto in South Australia. Elephant culling takes place in South Africa, so bringing some to Australia, well, it deals with that problem.”