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Pronatalism

Tallulah and I sat down at table number five, while a waitress poured glasses of water for both of us. Still half asleep I found myself flicking through my phone. I spotted a photo of a tiny pygmy hippo calf. Apparently, she’d just been born at Taronga. I showed Tallulah the picture, although I knew we wouldn’t be able to go and visit. She smiled, although I noticed the absence of light in her eyes. The waitress arrived at our table with our burgers.


“Thank you,” I said, even though I didn’t look up from my phone.


Finally placing it down, I opted to tuck into my sweet potato fries first. I could see steam rising off the veggie patty and haloumi. Whilst the fries were sizzling, at least the lashings of mayo cooled them down a little. Owing to my exhaustion, I found myself scrolling through Instagram while eating. Sloane had posted a new carousel of images of baby Joey, looking cuter than ever in clothes knitted by Patrick’s mum, Grace.

 

“I can’t believe she’s almost six months old.” Trying to reduce the pressure in my chest, I breathed out. “Alright, we should probably get on the plane now.”


We rose from the table, offering a smile of thanks towards the waitress. I led Tallulah to the gate where we would be catching the plane. At least this part of the journey was relatively simple. As we walked from one side of the airport to the other, I clocked our advertisement. Hopefully the visitors would come in once the zoo was opened on Boxing Day, but I couldn’t be sure. At least this one hadn’t been vandalised by animal liberationists. The same couldn’t be said some of those in the city. I didn’t want to think about that.


“Hopefully when the zoo opens, we’ll get lots of visitors,” I mused. “We have some really interesting and rare animals. The tarsiers and the lorises, especially, are very rare in captivity and in the wild and hopefully people will fall in love with them.”

 

“I’d never heard of the species before, to be honest.”


“I think that’s the case for most people,” I admitted. “Hopefully if we breed we’ll be able to put them on the map a bit. I still don’t think that many people know that much even about siamangs, some people would look at them and think that they’re chimpanzees.”

 

Sometimes we would never know what was just around the corner.


“We would hope to breed at natural intervals,” I told Tallulah.


I felt like I’d made this comment over and over again. It would be beneficial for Jelita to witness the maternal care of her mother raising another infant. Hopefully she would have a bright future herself in the breeding program. I couldn’t bear thinking about the alternative. Finally it came time for Tallulah and I to board the plane to Sydney.


“It’s really sweet that you named Jelita after your grandmother.”


“We try to be sentimental like that.”

 

“Your mum calls you sayang sometimes.”


I flicked my phone onto flight mode and dropped it into my bag, which I stashed underneath my seat.


“Yeah, that would be a cute name for a little orangutan, but it’s a little bit basic, I think. It’s not something we’re going to have to worry about right now.”

 

Our conversation paused while we paid attention to the in-flight safety demonstration. There was no telling what I would do in the event of a plane crash. I thought about the two orangutan babies recently born at Perth Zoo. Soon enough, though, the plane took off and Tallulah requested an update on what we would be doing once we landed, and the finches we were collecting.

 

“The birds were all bred at Taronga. This will only be the second home they’ve known. Hopefully they will settle in well.”


I could empathise with them. So much had changed in my life within the last twelve months – a reality which repeated over and over again in my mind. I glanced out into the clouds. While the plane cabin could feel a little stuffy, I appreciated the majesty of being in the middle of the air, soaring through the sky. It had the capacity to take my breath away, in the best way possible.


“What do you dream of, for the future?”

 

“I’d love to go to Paris,” Tallulah mused, “and eat crossiants.”


She giggled.


“I’m sure that’s not all they do in Paris.”


I was a little bit surprised.

 

“I’ve been to Indonesia, obviously, and we went to Malaysia once with my grandparents. Plus Singapore, for stopovers, but I haven’t really spent heaps of time there. I would love to go to Singapore Zoo, and the night safari there, I’ve heard that’s really good.”


“The tapirs, they have them there, don’t they?”

 

“Indeed.”


I was keen about tapirs, even though we’d likely have to house them inside to ensure that we didn’t blind them. Perhaps the sunlight issue wouldn’t be quite so bad in Tasmania? It was very hard to test it out without data from the mainland from the 1990s and early 2000s. I understood why the species might have been considered a no-go zone.


“Is there anywhere else you would like to go?”


The plane dipped suddenly, Tallulah squeezing my hand.


“Um,” I responded, finally getting the chance to answer her question, “I’m not really sure.”

 

Of course I spent lots of time thinking about the future. Travel would likely be only part of that plan if it linked to the zoo or conservation. This didn’t bother me. I’d chosen a certain life, or perhaps that kind of life had chosen me. The plane took a sudden dip, but thankfully resumed flying smoothly. My heartrate took longer to return to normal. At least if the flight was bumpy on the way into Sydney, I had some sort of hope that it would be just fine on the way back. Turbulence wouldn’t have helped the birds.


“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” the voice came over the PA. “I’ve just switched on the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign.”

 

I wasn’t bothered by staying in my seat. With Tallulah beside me, I was more than happy to chat, and if I desperately needed to go to the toilet, I could do that once we landed. During our conversation, I found myself fiddling with Kakek’s cross. It was a nervous tic which followed me around to meetings and, evidently, onto the plane.

 

“When I was in Melbourne, I remember there was a little kid wearing a Blue’s Clues shirt who was walking around the zoo at one point.”


Tallulah nodded.


“I think we’re old enough that the 2000s are back in fashion again.”

 

When I laughed, my chest didn’t feel so tight anymore. I’d grown relatively familiar with aeroplane travel. It wasn’t the fact that I was thousands of metres in the air that concerned me, but what came once we landed on solid ground.


“What’s that like in the zoo world?” Tallulah wanted to know. “Is it the same?”

 

“Oh, no, not really, not at all. A lot has changed and is continuing to change.”


She bobbed her head.


“I mean, development, that’s been a consistency, I suppose. Perth Zoo has a masterplan, so does Adelaide, and I think Taronga as well.”

 

“Does Acarda Zoo have a masterplan?”


“No, we don’t have the money for that,” I joked, but Tallulah didn’t laugh.


Of course my friend could see right through my attempt at humour. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable talking about money. At the same time, I didn’t want to be keeping secrets.


“I mean, money is a big deal,” I mentioned, pressing back some hair from my forehead, “but it’s OK. We’re OK. We’ll be more OK once we start getting the income in.”


I could tell that Tallulah felt for me. I surveyed the clouds. While I could have felt claustrophobic to not be able to use my phone, it turned out to be freeing. I didn’t have to worry about what could have been happening back home. Instead, I glanced around the plane at the other passengers, trying to work out which ones were heading on holidays or business, and who was going home.

It was a fun enough game to play. There were costs involved with importing from overseas which could have proved prohibitive. Therefore, I was willing to consolidate the zoo’s collection through breeding. I still had a lot to learn about running a zoo and I wanted to keep that in mind.


“Do you reckon they would put the gibbons in with the orangutans?”

 

“As far as I know, there are a few biosecurity concerns, but I don’t think that’s the whole deal. Hopefully Perth’s pair will be able to breed again sooner rather than later. A Perth-born gibbon has already been released back into the wild in Java.”


Tallulah appeared surprised.

 

“Do you think they would do that again?”


“Yeah, quite possibly,” I answered. “Sometimes zoos have to stop breeding their animals because there isn’t enough space, but with the possibility of releasing some of those animals, it makes it easier to keep breeding.”

 

That was what happened with Perth Zoo’s orangutans. I hoped there would be more releases back into the wild. To me, it seemed like a good news story, although I understood why others disagreed, thinking that zoo-based animals were jumping the queue and preventing animals from rescue centres from going back into the wild. I explained this argument.


“I mean, it also doesn’t really make any sense,” Tallulah surveyed. “Well, at least to me, I feel like those different animals are in different circumstances. You can’t immediately compare them.”


I nodded to affirm her point of view, which brought to mind Auckland Zoo’s orangutans. With Mawar due in the new year and the new females imported, a part of me hoped that the baby would be a boy, who would be able to go on to be the next breeding male at Auckland Zoo once his father, Bayu, passed away. He would be able to breed with Melati and Sarita into the future, but a female would also be valuable. This sort of musing helped to keep me distracted. I was anticipating that I might have felt a little bit ill on the plane. My eyelids fell closed for a moment, so I decided to resume the conversation with Tallulah in order to keep myself awake. While it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I fell asleep, I wanted to keep alert.

 

“I mean, there’s always still a lot more to learn. There’s the possibility for me to do further study online.”


At least in that instance, I wouldn’t have to travel to the mainland for pracs. I wanted to be a good zookeeper. Caring for animals was an immense responsibility. It was a privilege, too.


“What do you think is going to happen next with the zoo?” Tallulah wanted to know, curling some hair around her finger. “I know that you’re taking things day by day, especially before you open, but, you know, I’m proud of you that you’ve taken on these extra birds and stuff.”

 

I took a deep breath while I considered my answer.


“Well, I’m not going to lie, I think mammals are our main deal at the moment, but birds are certainly a close second. Fish would be great for the other side of the nocturnal house, but that’s something to organise for another day.”

 

“Kind of like an aquarium.”


“Yeah.”


“Why did you decide that you would call the zoo a zoo?” Tallulah asked. “I mean, we call it the zoo all the time, I think.”

 

“If I recall correctly, we wanted to match up with Tasmania Zoo. There would be Tasmania Zoo in the north and Acarda Zoo in the south, although I did consider ‘wildlife sanctuary’. I do like the sound of that, Acarda Wildlife Sanctuary.”


“Have people been asking you what the name means?”

 

“Oh, all the time. I think some people think it’s an Aboriginal word. Maybe that’s what we need a sign for, to explain the thing.”


Tallulah suppressed a laugh. I smiled towards her.


“Yeah, I know. Zoos always think they can fix anything with a sign.”

 

“I wasn’t going to say that. People want very different things from zoos depending on their opinions.”


“From a visitor’s perspective, I would say it’s very subjective. Some people want animals purely as entertainment, or a playground for their kids. I don’t have kids and I know when I was a kid, I would have wanted to see animals, first and foremost.”

 

“Me too. Some people just want their kids to be able to play and play and play.”


“Ah, yeah, I don’t really understand that,” I admitted, “but I’m not a parent.”


“You have been a child.”


“That is true. It feels like a long time ago now.”

 

Had being eighteen aged me more than any other? Potentially. On the plane in I spotted a strange tube-like structure, next to a construction site. After a while of pondering, it occurred to me that it was an abandoned monorail station. A smile came onto my lips at the magnificent sight of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. When we arrived at the airport, the plane hit the ground with the customary thud which caused my heart to flip. I was unsure whether we would be put-together enough. Once we were back in Tasmania, I knew that I would be very keen for a shower, but I would need to make do for the rest of the day. As soon as we got the chance, we disembarked from the plane. I reported for duty with the airport staff. While I was keen to get the show on the road, I hadn’t seen Sam or any other Taronga Zoo employees. The airport workers were keen to meet and speak with me, but they didn’t seem to be directing me towards where I could collect the cargo and continue onto our flight back to Hobart.

 

“Is everything alright?”


“Yes,” the airport worker confirmed, “although they’re not here yet from the zoo.”


“Right. That’s alright. I’m sure they’re on their way.”


Tallulah gently touched her hand to my back. Finally, Sam arrived.


“I believe congratulations are in order.”


“Yeah,” he agreed with a dreamy smile, my chest filling with relief at the sight of his face. “We’re all a bit sleep-deprived, but really happy.”

 

Hopefully the pygmy hippos would be able to make a comeback.


“How are you both going?”


“Yeah, everything going really well, so far,” I assured. “It’s strange to think that we plan to be open to the public in only a few short weeks, but the time will fly.”

 

I watched the forklifts. The finches in their crates were much tinier than I expected them to be and they could have been lifted by hand.


“Did you visit them when you were in Sydney?” Tallulah wanted to know.


“Oh, yes, I remember them. We did plenty of laps around Taronga.”

 

So much had changed since the conference, even though it was only just over a week ago.


“I remember you mentioning in an email that one of the birds wasn’t eating?”


Sam nodded.


“The vets have given them all a thorough work-over,” he outlined. “I’m sure that he’ll be fine.”

 

“That’s good.”


“What else is happening at Taronga?”


“Oh, not much, we’re mostly just hoping for a smooth end to the year.”


“So not trying to construct an O-line for orangs any time soon?”

 

“It’s not something we’re considering,” Sam confirmed, “but I wish the other places all the best, I think what they’re doing is good.”


“To me, that sounds perfectly reasonable.”


Sam nodded in agreement. We loaded the birds in their temperature-controlled crates onto the plane. Sam gave me a hug goodbye, which I welcomed.


“I’ll see you later.”


We farewelled each other. Eventually, I would need to leave the birds behind.


“I just need to let you know,” Tallulah admitted, “this is the part where the very little I know comes in handy.”


I nodded my head, giving her permission to explain what she thought she’d heard. Thankfully, Tallulah was not worried. She attuned me to the beautiful sounds of the male finches’ song, which gave us the confidence to withdraw from the cargo and head over to board the plane like normal people. I needed to have faith that I would get to know these animals like I knew Nanek and Kakek’s animals already. Finally, we showed our boarding passes to the flight attendants. Tallulah and I found our seats. It was a common grounding technique of mine to run through lists of animals, sometimes even pondering what next decisions the species coordinator might make, like moves in a chess game. I felt a little uncomfortable about the situation. These weren’t my decisions to make. It had been a big year for so many Australian zoos. Perth Zoo, and Isobel, had suffered through more than most, but there had been joys as well, like the births of the elephant calves at Melbourne Zoo. While I was lost in these memories, I realised that I’d neglected my friend.

 

“I just can’t handle it, sometimes,” Tallulah admitted, starting to choke up. “It’s the telling people that I hate, because the shame sticks to me. I still haven’t told Jamie. Honestly, I don’t want him to know. I don’t really want anyone to know, but at the same time, I want to shout so, so loud.”


Other passengers were filing into their seats.

 

“You can.”


“I don’t know if I can, honestly.”


Tallulah breathed out sharply. The intensity of the circles I rubbed in her back intensified.


“It’s alright, breathe through it,” I spoke, even though I knew my advice was hollow.

 

There was nothing more horrific, and nothing holier, than holding a dear one when you couldn’t fix their pain. Finally, we took off and Tallulah managed to get some sleep. During the turbulence of the flight I watched her, as if she could explode, despite the sweetness of her gentle breaths. This was the maddening part of air travel, the bit where you want to fall from the sky. By the time that Tallulah stirred, my pulse had reduced to a more sedate level.


“We’re nearly there, I think.”


“What do you think about having an aquarium in Hobart?”


I giggled, the shaking of my diaphragm bringing catharsis.

 

“Were you having a good dream?”


Tallulah nodded her head, still sleepy. She shifted so that she could look out the window.


“How close are we to Hobart?”


I glimpsed my watch.

 

“We’re nearly there.”


Once the plane engaged its landing gear, my mind was already spinning, thinking about how we would reunite with my parents and drive the birds back to Acarda Zoo. It wasn’t guaranteed they would survive, but I hoped it would be fine. As soon as we landed, Tallulah and I were keen to get off the plane. Thankfully, all of the birds were safe and sound, something I could tell pretty quickly by the sound. Once I took my phone off flight mode, I went to call Mum, but she and Dad were already there and ready to go. All I needed to do was finish off the paperwork as the crates were loaded into the van. At Hobart Airport we walked past an advertisement for the Big Bash. Jye was bowling the house down, with Kyle, thankfully, omitted from the promotional material. I wondered how the general public considered him. We returned back to the zoo. It had been a long day. I was grateful that Tallulah had accompanied me. One of the Gouldian Finches flew out of the crate, tweeting all the way before landing outside the nest-box. My eyes widened in awe at her features, so small and so precise. It almost would have been impossible to draw a bird so tender, intricate and beautiful.


“Welcome to your new home,” I murmured with a smile.

 

The next female seemed more timid. She crept out, remaining on the aviary floor. The birds would be able to form their own pairs, but we were hopeful they would couple up and breed. Robin had given us a recommendation, so we didn’t have to worry about trying to separate males and females. Finally, I was satisfied that the finches were settling in well. I listened to the trickle of the waterway which runs through our property, now through the zoo. As if they were greeting the sunset, Medan and Georgia called for the night. When I got into bed, I flicked through the photos on my phone from throughout the construction process, including those which had been sent by Mum and Dad.


 

Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.


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.


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