It didn’t surprise me that I woke up early. I donned my dressing gown, then slid the door open. Stepping out onto the balcony, I padded across the wooden boards and rested my palms on the railing, looking out over the kangaroo yard below. Glancing out towards the harbour, I savoured in the majesty of Cammeraygal Country. When I headed back inside, I got dressed. Despite being November I didn’t anticipate it would be sweltering hot. My heart was beating a little fast. Collecting my things was somewhat of a blur. I found myself developing a splitting headache as I ensured that my hotel door was secured locked behind me. Thankfully I reached breakfast and found smiling faces. I found myself sitting up straight. The clatter of cooking and cutlery offered little room to listen out for the chatter of birds. I would have thought that I was in any old hotel, save for the outlook and the clientele.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No, go ahead, sit down.”
Sam took the seat next to me.
“How have you been finding Taronga Zoo so far?”
“It’s a beautiful place. I’m learning a lot, my head is spinning.”
“Well, get a coffee into you, that’ll do the trick.”
Reuben placed down a Taronga Zoo-branded keep cup in front of me. I thanked him, smiling gratefully.
“It’s right, isn’t it?”
I glanced into the surface of the coffee.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Thanks.”
I took a careful sip.
“My goodness, I bet you don’t know my coffee order, even after all these years, Reuben.”
Reuben folded his arms in front of his chest, like this had been a challenge.
“You have it black, two sugars, Gerard.” Reuben laughed, like the question was too easy. “You madman.”
“Well, well, well.”
“Boys and their games, hey,” Tessa remarked across the table. “It’s good to have another woman in the zoo fold.”
“Too right,” I agreed, taking the opportunity to enjoy the coffee Reuben had prepared for me.
He finally took a seat next to Tessa. I still think that Reuben’s treating me like the daughter he never had, even though he does in fact now have a daughter.
“What’s on the agenda for today?” Des asked from down the table.
“Well,” I began, retrieving my conference folder.
“Claire from Taronga Western Plains is giving a presentation.” Sam carefully tore apart his croissant. “We run a breed-to-release bilby program out there.”
Angelique approached the chair on the other side of Tessa.
“We?” she challenged. “I don’t suppose that you do much from the big smoke.”
“Fair point, but it’s all part of the Taronga Conversation Society. We’re all one big happy family.”
Angelique looked at Claire to confirm Sam’s point.
“We are, it’s true,” he promised. “I’m very excited to hear Claire’s presentation about the bilby release. It’s important work.”
We moved from the wildlife retreat across to the function centre, to get the day underway. Tessa coughed as she sat down.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised as she retrieved her drink bottle from her bag.
Tessa gulped down some water. Claire was up the front.
“Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Cammeraygal people, upon whose lands we are meeting today. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.”
We left a moment of silence.
“I thought that I would share some treats with you to get you in the mood for what we’re going to discuss today.”
Taronga Zoo staff handed around chocolates in foil, bilbies I usually would have only seen at Easter time.
“Tuck in, folks, and the foil’s recyclable.”
I conveyed my thanks as I received mine, then peeled back the foil and carefully took a bite.
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo has long recognised that the bilby is endangered. We’ve been breeding the species, but we wanted to do something more than that. We came up with the ambitious goal of releasing the bilby back into the wild.”
Faintly, I could hear the white-cheeked gibbons calling. Claire changed the slides.
“And this is our reserve, which the bilbies are released into. This is a predator-proof area and we intend on using this area for more releases in the future. Indeed, the next species we have highlighted as a potential will be numbats.”
I glanced across the room, surprised. Accidentally, I caught Hunter’s gaze.
“The bilbies receive a full health check, including a reproductive health check, before release. We will be hoping to roll out this model across all species for release.”
I smiled at the exciting development. As we broke following the session, I noticed that Julie was paying attention to her phone. While I had planned to go and chat with her, the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt. I rocked back onto my heels. Don approached me and I greeted him with a smile as we both joined the queue to grab a bite to eat.
“Oh, listen, Jumilah, I wanted to show you these videos of baby Jelita, for your grandmother,” he told me, as my phone tolled with the message sent through.
I opened up the first clip and pressed play. The siamangs were by the wall in their orangutan exhibit. I giggled at the sight of Medan rolling over the grass.
“We’ve moved them, as you’d know.”
“Thank you,” I said, with a nod of my head, eyes bulging. “My goodness, Jelita’s grown so much.”
All of a sudden, a baby jumped out of the black fur.
“Oh, there she is,” I remarked with a grin. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
I appreciated seeing Don in person again. Following lunch, we resumed our seats. I pulled out a notebook from my bag and folded it back over the spine, pressing on the page to flatten it. Clicking the end of my pen, the nib popped out. Tessa was on her phone, then smiled.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“They’ve just sexed our meerkat pups.” The others started paying attention, so Tessa rose her voice. “We’ve got one male and three females.”
“What do you reckon, do you want to help me name them?” Tessa enquired.
“Do you have a particular naming theme?” I asked, thinking of the baby primates at Melbourne Zoo, and the hippos at Werribee.
“No, not in particular.”
I got out my phone, researching Swahili names. It would have been a bit basic to name them the words for one, two, three and four, even though it would have kind of fit. Nonetheless, the others seemed to be keen on that idea, so Moja, Mbili, Tatu and Nne would be it.
“Thank you for the help with that,” Tessa mentioned with a grin.
She sent a message to the keepers back in Hamilton. With that settled, we were able to move onto the planned activity for the session – a primate TAG workshop. I stretched my arms, keen to get involved. Gilham commenced the session with an acknowledgement of the Cammeraygal people and their Country. I listened out for the sounds of the zoo, while the calling of the gibbons or a scuffle amongst the chimpanzees. Later on in the session, I would need to provide a report as the species coordinator for siamang. The other conversations had already commenced, discussing species such as capuchins and lemurs. It seemed surreal, to finally be in person. The content of the meeting was not dissimilar to those we’d held on Zoom. I felt a little breathless, but tried to centre myself. Concentrating would prevent any questions being thrown my way, which I didn’t hold the answer to. I noticed Reuben placing his hand on the table. Angelique was speaking, that I could discern.
“Our new ring-tailed lemur family will be arriving shortly. They’ll be coming from Florida.”
I recalled hearing about it in the usual Monday meetings. Hopefully the group’s new genetics would be a benefit to the region.
“You would no doubt be aware of the critiques on our industry in relation to the keeping of primates,” he mentioned.
Reuben kicked back in his chair.
“Attacks, more like it.”
“Well, you can put it that way,” Sam conceded. “I only bring it up to remind you of the significance of our discussions here today. As with all of our animals, we need to be following best practice.”
He spun his pen around in his fingers. I wondered if he regularly did that, but it was normally hidden by the line of the camera.
“I appreciate what you’re saying, Sam,” Stefan responded.
He flipped open the folder on the table in front of him, uncrossing his legs. I tried to read the small print on the pages, but the glare of the lights overhead on the plastic sleeve blurred the text.
“The problem is defining what we mean by best practice.”
“I see your point,” Sam agreed. “To me, it’s about the quality of the programs we provide.”
“That sounds fair enough,” Gerard responded. “Perhaps to get back to the discussion of the lemur programs, what does best practice look like in that context?”
“For us, best practice means not continuing with our lemurs, actually,” Stefan noted.
“We need to make the commitment to native species and our frog reintroduction programs.”
“Again, I think that’s quite reasonable,” Reuben affirmed. “Will you phase them out by attrition?”
“Yes, that’s the plan.”
“I’m happy with that,” Christine agreed.
She went to speak, but Stefan launched into what he believed was a comedy routine, about the frog reintroduction programs which Gorge is prioritising over breeding lemurs.
“It’s marvellous, it’s amazing.”
He made something of a croaking noise.
“When we’re out in the field, we need to call as if we are a male frog.”
“Listen to me, please,” Christine requested, with grace and poise I admired.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Stefan apologised with sincerity. “That was flippant of me.”
He pulled himself in under the table. There was an uncomfortable pause, nobody wanting to look each other in the eye. I felt the need to speak up in favour of Christine, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Stefan, your decision is admirable. I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to follow up individually in regard to your lemurs.”
“I’m not saying we’re available to the highest bidder--.”
“Look, I don’t want to foreshadow tomorrow--.”
“That’s why it’s important to be having these conversations now,” Jimmy reasoned. “If we’re not prepared, then we’re just going to talk over the top of each other and not decide anything.”
Everyone glanced at Allira, but she was right.
“Alright, let’s run through gibbons,” Reuben agreed. “We’ll start with the Javan Gibbons.”
“Javan Gibbons are held at three facilities – Perth Zoo, Mogo Wildlife Park and Tasmania Zoo. The international studbook, also, is run out of Perth Zoo.”
One of the retreat staff walked into the room, to switch on the air conditioning.
“Perth and Mogo have breeding pairs, but we only hold a single female, born at Mogo,” David mentioned. “Ultimately, there’s a relatively high degree of representation of Perth Zoo’s animals, not just within our own region, but in Europe and the United States as well.”
“So, an unrelated male for Tasmania Zoo would be a priority.”
“Absolutely,” David agreed, “I would reckon.”
“I’ll review the international studbook,” Jimmy proposed. “I apologise, I’m still in the process of getting across what needs to be done.”
“That’s fair enough,” David allowed. “I think that settles the Javans, what about white-cheeks?”
“There are a number of pairings which are either unlikely to breed again or breed at all,” Christine reminded. “Now, I’m from the perspective that they shouldn’t be separated. We’re speaking about a monogamous species. Of course, I know there are genetic considerations at play.”
“Although primates are a taxon when we can import.”
“That doesn’t impact our international obligations,” Angelique pointed out.
“I feel like you just completely ignored what I just said, but anyhow.”
Reuben sat back in his chair and folded his arms in front of his chest.
“This is a conversation we’ve had a number of times,” Christine reminded. “Considering we have the in-person environment, perhaps we should work through this animal by animal.”
She got up and plucked a whiteboard marker from the tray underneath the board, writing out the names, sexes, ages and locations of each gibbon in beautiful handwriting.
“There are opportunities to import from overseas, although we do need to make sure that we don’t oversaturate the population with particular bloodlines, particularly from France where a number of recent imports have been sourced from.”
“That’s fair enough, Christine,” Gershon agreed. “Are there many in the US?”
“Yes, there are,” David confirmed. “Our male was imported from the States.”
“Presently, in case you can’t tell, the regional population is very stable,” Christine outlined. “I would have one recommendation.”
She drew a line between a male at Perth, to Tasmania Zoo.
“That would be fair enough, from my perspective,” Jimmy agreed.
“Yeah, me too,” David assented.
“And now, we’ll hear from Jumilah about the siamang program,” she introduced.
I sat forward in my chair. The information was on my laptop for reference if I needed it, but the others seemed to speak freely without having to read from notes. I suppose that I’m usually used to these people on Zoom, when they could very well be looking at the records, but still with their attention on the camera.
“Thanks, Christine. Currently, there are siamang at twelve institutions in Australia and New Zealand, and soon to be thirteen.”
I noticed a proud smile on Reuben’s lips, as he sat there, arms folded loosely and listening.
“One of the breeding females without a current infant is at the National Zoo and Aquarium.”
“Actually,” George divulged, “she is pregnant again. I only found out this morning.”
There had been no breeding recommendation. I tried to hide the surprise on my face, because I wasn’t alarmed by this development.
“Hopefully, it will be a successful pregnancy and birth.”
“Now that our breeding male has passed away, we wouldn’t think we would repair our older female,” Mal mentioned. “Although, Jumilah, that would be your decision.”
“I would back your assessment.”
The session broke up for afternoon tea. Chopped-up fruit was offered alongside a selection of muffins, and I opted for a blueberry one – if it’s got fruit in it, it’s healthy, right? I removed the wrapper, discarding it into a compost bin for that purpose, then joined a circle of chatters. The previous sessions spilled over into our conversation.
“It would have been lovely to actually take you out there and show you, but not to be this time.”
Sam walked up behind Claire.
“But, but, but,” he reminded.
“I thought that we weren’t telling them about that yet,” Claire responded.
“Well, we weren’t, but we are now.”
Sam reached the door.
“Could I have your attention, please?” he requested.
The room fell silent.
“We’d like to take you up to the Taronga Wildlife Hospital.”
The group of us departed the function centre. I was starting to know my way around Taronga, although while led by Sam, I didn’t really have to. Finding a spot in the pack next to Reuben, I greeted him with a smile.
“What’s been happening at Melbourne Zoo?”
“Oh, we’ve just introduced a pair of lovebirds into the old Golden-Lion Tamarin exhibit.”
“That’s nice,” I commented. “That’s at the end of the Treetop Monkeys trail, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I know they’re not monkeys or apes, but it fits with the African theme.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
We followed the others.
“How are you going with the new white-cheeked gibbon exhibit?”
“We’re supposed to be breaking ground this week?”
“Supposed to be?”
“Oh, it’s on track, I’m told.”
“But you won’t believe it until you see it?”
“No, it’s not like that. We’ve just had a lot of rain in Melbourne. I’m only being realistic about progress.”
I nodded. On the left down the hill was the excavated site for the reptile and amphibian centre, which we’d surveyed yesterday. Glancing towards the right, I identified a playground, and the old seal pools which Sam had mentioned previously during class. I knew what would be coming next, based on his descriptions. I hadn’t seen the capybara exhibit on our previous tour. I lingered for a moment, surprised at just how fast those giant guinea pigs can move. Filming a video, I posted it to Instagram. From there, we strode further up the hill and eventually arrived at the Taronga wildlife hospital – a much smaller building than I’d anticipated it would be.
“On the table in there is Cathy,” Sam explained. “She’s one of the bilbies who will be hitching a ride out to Dubbo to be released.”
The vet slipped out of the room.
“Clean bill of health,” she confirmed.
On the way out, we passed a tank. Sam brought us closer to we could peer inside.
“Green sea turtles can’t breed in captivity. That’s why we’ve either got to rescue them or euthanise them, or try to find a non-breeding home for them somewhere.”
“Do you think this turtle will be able to be released?”
“I hope so.”
We exited the wildlife hospital area. As we reentered the zoo, I could smell the keeper approaching, before I could see her.
“Claire, it’s so good to see you,” she gushed. “I won’t give you a hug, I’m carrying faecal enrichment.”
I didn’t need to know what that was. We walked back through the zoo. Claire continued to catch up with the keeper from Sydney, so she wasn’t amongst the group. It was nice to be ambling downhill for once. I wondered just how many people worked at Taronga Zoo. It wouldn’t just be keepers, it would be vets, too. When we returned to the function centre, Sam wasn’t with us. I glanced around, unsure of what was coming next, especially as the visit to the wildlife hospital had been impromptu.
“Alright, who wants a drink?”
We moved from the function centre, back to the wildlife retreat. Allira poured me a lemonade. I looked at Hunter.
“Is it not too early for a beer?”
“I’m sure you can get yourself a beer,” Allira responded.
Hunter and I both rose to our feet at the same time.
“I’ll get it,” he offered.
I sat back down, and Hunter strolled off to fetch the beer.
“How have you been?” I asked Allira.
“Yeah, good, thanks,” she answered. “Yourself?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I confirmed. “This is my first conference, so there’s been lots to learn, for sure.”
Allira eventually left, to fetch herself some food. She returned with a full plate.
“The buffet’s open now,” Allira reported.
“Oh, awesome,” Hunter responded, standing up to head off for food.
Feeling a little hungry, I did the same, joining the queue behind him. We shuffled along slowly, collecting plates, then bread rolls, then fried rice and vegetable spring rolls. Once we’d loaded up with dinner, we returned to the tables to eat. Hunter showed us some photos on his phone of the most beautiful bird with her chicks in a nest.
“Which species is that, may I ask?”
“They’re Olive-Backed Orioles.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen them before. They’re really gorgeous.”
Hunter put his phone away.
“I think so too.”
When dessert was served, I tucked into the rocky road ice cream. It might not have been strictly vegetarian, but the steamy Sydney weather called me to the cool.
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” Hunter queried.
“Ah, I think we’ve got carnies in the morning,” I mentioned.
“And then I’m not sure what’s on later in the day.”
I glanced across the table at Hunter, who opened a bag of salt and vinegar chips which had been provided at the wildlife retreat. It ended up being just the two of us, again. I thought that I could hear a bit of a fracas from within the zoo. It wasn’t people, but possibility the chimpanzees. I took a handful of chips out of the packet.
“Have you thought about joining the comms SAG, Jumilah?” Hunter suggested.
I finished my mouthful of salt and vinegar chips.
“But, if there’s a spot, it sounds interesting.”
“We’d love to have you, for sure.”
By the time I laid eyes on Sam, I was already one beer down – or maybe two? I wanted to go over and talk to him, but he seemed downcast, briefly speaking to Cathy. I’d been chatting with Hunter for a while. At the end of the night and with a bit of a headache developing, I returned to bed, scrolling through social media for a bit. My cousin, Dewi, had just turned sixteen. I left a comment on her post to wish her a happy birthday. Then, I put down my phone and fell 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.