Joel and I strode down the Main Drive. I tasted coffee and could feel the cold morning air in my nostrils. We walked past an A-frame sign, just off the path.
“You know, is there some sort of zoo train?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Mate, I don’t know. I’ve only been here since July.”
I’d not seen it around the place. When I paused, Joel did too. We breathed out and surveyed the juncture at which we stood.
“This is our whole Carnivores Trail.”
“I am so glad that you’ve snuck me in with some real carnivores.”
“What, the wallabies aren’t enough for you?”
“Well.” Joel stretched his neck around in a circle. “They’re cute, I’ll give ‘em that.”
The hyenas raced up to the glass.
“Hey, buddies.” Joel crouched by the window. “I’ve missed you.”
The hyena rubbed their bodies close, saying hello to their former keeper. Joel ran his stubbed fingernails over the surface, like he was giving them a scratch.
“Isobel’s not coming this time, is she?”
Joel shook his head, then stood so we could continue.
“You know, it’s hard being so far apart from each other. Sometimes, it’s really hard. It would have been great if she could have come on this trip, but it wasn’t to be.”
We passed the lion exhibit, as the boys weren’t out.
“I know that Taronga used to have singing dogs. Personally, I’m not sure why they weren’t included in the import.”
“Aren’t they pretty much a domestic species now?”
“You know what, that’s probably why.”
We reached the snow leopard exhibit and I peered down the back-of-house race, noticing that they hadn’t been let out for the morning.
“Come with me.”
“We’re not going to be breeding tigers for a while. At least not until the new exhibit.”
I could hear a gentle chime of birdsong, as I unlocked the gates, Joel following me.
“Oh, this is beaut, mate. I don’t think we’d get snowies at Perth. They’re beautiful.”
I unlocked the gates to provide access to the exhibit. The female sauntered over.
“A species like Fennec Fox, I think that would be good. The thing is, we don’t have a great focus on desert species.”
“They’re beautiful, beautiful animals, they really are.”
We fed the remainder of the snow leopards.
“I’ve seen one at Taronga,” I explained. “Do you think that you’d breed hyaenas again at Perth Zoo?”
Joel shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure, hopefully we would.”
I listened to the siamangs calling from across the zoo. For a moment, I closed my eyes, providing myself with exposure therapy. I could view Kakek’s face, vibrant and alive.
“Sorry, are you OK?”
I opened my eyes again.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
The rate of my pulse increased, but I smiled.
“Good,” Joel responded. “We don’t need either of us in the emergency department.”
I bobbed my head.
“So, tell me, what’s been happening? Are your uncle and your grandmother still trying to get the sanctuary back up and running?”
“My uncle has moved to Tasmania, actually, or at least I think that’s the plan, if he’s able to immigrate.”
“What’s been happening for you?”
Joel parted his lips to answer, but the sounds of squabbling snapped both of our gazes behind us.
“Oh, that’s just the baboons,” I surmised. “They don’t sound very happy.”
“Yes, well, I know we won’t be breeding them again. They’re a phase-out for Perth.”
“That’s a bit of a pity.”
“It’s the sort of thing, you know, where in our state, we’re pretty much the only exotic animal zoo. We don’t have the luxury of a Werribee or a Dubbo or a Monarto. What we can’t ethically accommodate in the city needs to go east.”
“I thought you had enough billionaires in your state to deal with that problem.”
“That’s simply not true.”
“It all seems a bit much, to me.”
“What, the concept of billionaires?”
I couldn’t help but agree. We fell silent for a little while, soaking in the inescapable smells and sounds of the zoo.
“It’s a bit hard to be a good boyfriend from hundreds of kilometres away,” Joel sighed, rolling his lips, “and it would be even harder to be a good husband.”
I raised an eyebrow. Rather than divulging more, Joel glanced over his shoulder.
“The females are going overseas, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, but just to New Zealand.”
Another matter lingered on my mind – was Joel planning to propose to Isobel? While I could have asked, it would have been rude – I would find out soon enough, if I needed to know.
“You know, hyaenas are much larger than I thought.”
This time, it was my turn to change the subject.
“Honestly, you wouldn’t be the first person to say that.”
“You must really miss having them around.”
“Oh, it’s always sad. I feel for the keepers here, they had a greater loss than we did.”
When we emerged from the snow leopard back-of-house, Joel checked his phone.
“Sorry, I’ve missed a call from Perth, I’ve got to call them back.”
I milled about while Joel called back.
“I am so sorry, Jumilah,” he apologised when he returned, now off the phone. “There’s been an accident back home, one of the orang climbing structures has collapsed.”
“Oh dear,” I gulped. “Have any of the orangutans been hurt?”
“No, thank God,” Joel answered, “but one of our keepers had her hand pinned.”
“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
We didn’t have time to dwell. Charlotte and Joel had the furthest distance to travel with the animals heading for Perth, so they packed up for the airport. Another pair of dorcopsis wallabies had been selected in the place of the originals, the male Laolao and the female Moale. They moved into their crates without concern. On the way to the airport, there was space and silence which I didn’t anticipate. The openness on the road to Tullamarine made me feel claustrophobic, not light.
“It’s been great to have you here,” I eventually spoke up, sounding a little bit breathless.
“Yeah, it’s been good to be here.”
The wallabies in their crates were offloaded by forklifts and transported to the planes. Charlotte and Joel escorted those heading for Perth. Each studbook number was double-checked, to ensure that the animals had been correctly chosen. People and animals packed onto the plane, we bid farewell, then drove back to Melbourne Zoo and reentered the grounds through the rail gate. I veered right, passing the water recycling plant, then Melita’s exhibit, where she was lounging in the shade. Beyond her yard was the New Guinea habitat. I snuck down the back of the Great Flight Aviary. I walked through the African rainforest, concrete path damp underneath my feet. Outside the pygmy hippo exhibits, I paused. Both animals, Washington the original and Emeka the new female from Darling Downs, were in the water, on opposite sides of the wall. I knew they’d been introduced for mating. Hopefully they would successfully breed. As I continued on, heading towards the Main Drive, I encountered Ella, and we fell into step with one another.
“How are you going?”
“Yeah, I’m OK,” she answered, although I was unconvinced. “I’m not sure where things are at with Alex.”
I nodded, to urge her to go on if she wanted.
“I have a job, I have a house,” Ella mused. “This is Alex’s country dream. It’s not mine. I have a good job here. I’ll be fine here.”
“Werribee isn’t that far, is it?”
“It’s not. Commuting is an option. Alex going to Werribee was always part of the picture as soon as we were planning for the gorilla move. Our relationship has always been in the shadow of that.”
Ella sighed heavily.
“Really, I’d like him to ask me to marry him, to prove that he thinks this is something real.”
I found myself distracted by my phone.
“Yeah, that would be great,” I responded, absent-mindedly.
“What’s the matter?”
“Patrick, my ex, he’s just had surgery to donate a kidney to his father.”
“Oh, that’s awful, I’m so sorry--.”
“It’s fine, you didn’t know.”
“Jumilah to the wildlife hospital, at the rush,” Reuben called over the radio.
“Right, that’s me. I’ll see you later.”
I scampered off, pulse accelerating.
“What’s the matter?” I echoed, once I burst through the doors.
“I thought I’d take this opportunity to sign off your hours for your course.”
Reuben, then Meredith, signed the form. I ran my hand over my hair.
“At the rush sounded a little more urgent to me than that, personally.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Reuben apologised.
“We have a seal we’re rehabilitating, if you would like to come and see her,” Meredith offered.
I finally caught my breath as she led me through. A seal was on the table in the examination room, intubated, which caught me off-guard, another vet performing a procedure.
“I am sorry if I worried you before, Jumilah,” Reuben apologised again.
“Look, it’s alright.”
The unspoken question pounded within me. Would the seal survive? Could she be released back into the wild?
“We’re hopeful she’ll survive.”
I chose to believe. Reuben and I departed the wildlife hospital. I heard the roar of a lion. Maybe we would be heading in the direction of the carnivore trail, but we seemed to just be strolling.
“What’s been happening?” I enquired, then glanced towards my watch. “Do you need to get to the ungulate TAG meeting soon?”
“Oh, no, I don’t, actually. It’s been delayed until later in the day.”
“You’re welcome to come if you want. I know you’re not so much into ungulates--.”
“I’ve never said that,” I protested, albeit with a laugh.
“Thank you. I would like to attend the meeting, if I’m still here when it’s on.”
Reuben nodded. I heard a faint sound of squabbling from elsewhere in the zoo. Scratching my lip, I tried to discern which species, but Reuben provided the answer like he read my mind.
“The ruffed lemur boys. They’re getting friskier with each other by the day.”
“Do you know if they have a future as a group?”
“From a social perspective, I don’t think so. There’s too much testosterone raging.”
“Would they be put into breeding placements instead?”
Especially some of the gentler males, like Clover, I thought would make ideal fathers.
“I honestly think that would be preferred, but I know it’s not my decision. That’s one for the species coordinator to make.”
“Are their genetics in demand?”
“Oh, yes and no,” Reuben answered. “There hasn’t been a lot of breeding in recent years, that’s true. By my reckoning, that’ll mean the species coordinator would be looking to make pairings sooner rather than later. Case in point, two of the females from Perth are going to be moved to Adelaide soon. They’ll receive a breeding recommendation.”
I nodded, taking it all in.
“Who is the species coordinator?”
“Ah, Perth Zoo,” Reuben responded. “That has been the case for a while. There had been plans to transfer to Western Sydney, for a little while, but that didn’t happen.”
I knew exactly why, nodding my head sombrely.
“The walk-through lemur exhibit is pretty massive, but, yeah, I suppose that it would be hard to have a breeding group in there, although I don’t suppose that it would be impossible, to have baby lemurs in that setting.”
“Look, I do consider things differently now.” Reuben scratched his chin. “It was an improvement at the time, I still believe that, and the breeding program has been very successful for ring-tailed lemurs. Hence, the need for facilities for the surplus males born as part of the breeding program.”
That all made sense to me.
“Just because a line’s well-represented, it doesn’t mean that a pair won’t be bred from again. There are other considerations which the coordinator will take into account.”
Reuben ran a hand over his hair.
“It’s strange, though, how things have changed. Everything is a lot more planned these days.”
I didn’t begrudge that whatsoever.
“Take what Sam and I have been doing recently. We’ve been running through the okapi studbook with a fine-tooth comb--.”
“Oh, so there are plans for okapi at Melbourne Zoo?”
Reuben shot me a look.
“We’re planning on a full and vibrant African rainforest collection.”
“So, the mandrills would return to the mandrill exhibit?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan, and we might add some other new primate species to the zoo.”
“Oh dear, that debate’s been happening since before you were born.” Reuben let out a sigh, crossing then uncrossing his ankles. “Next, you’re going to be asking me about silvery gibbons.”
“Well.” I chuckled. “You were the one who brought it up. I just asked about the mandrill exhibit.”
“I still think that’s the best fit, as we’re not moving our baboons to Werribee, not at the moment. For now, if Werribee does end up with a troop, it’ll be a new one.”
I nodded. My mouth felt dry. I hadn’t come with an agenda, although I found one forming in my mind, about what we should discuss.
“This is Violet’s last week at Melbourne. She’s going to Africa.”
“Yes, I do know that,” he confirmed. “It’s not an insignificant program she’s working on. I can’t judge her for getting out of here.”
“And you’re just going to let her go?”
“Violet wanted to leave, that’s her prerogative. She gave notice. We’ll even give her a cake for her last day.”
I paused, forcing Reuben to do the same.
“I’m not saying it’s not a shame. It’s a shame for us, sure. Violet’s a good keeper.
Reuben swatted a fly away from his face.
“No wonder she’s been snapped up by an opportunity like this.”
I couldn’t help but agree with Reuben, despite my elevated pulse. We found somewhere to sit down, in front of the tapir exhibit.
“Did you know that she’s leaving her husband for this?”
“Look, I’m not going to comment on her marriage, either. I agree, that’s definitely not my place to judge, but surely it’s pretty to keep her involved, than to freeze her out?”
Faintly, I thought I could smell smoke.
“I honestly don’t think that’s the case.”
Eventually, I realised that the education centre was holding a barbecue.
“We’re not freezing Violet out. She has made a choice. You could say it’s reasonable, you could say it’s not. I think what she’s doing is quite exciting. I’ve said that before.”
“Would you consider housing bongo at Melbourne Zoo again?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Bongo would fit perfectly with our rainforest precinct, but there’s just not room,” Reuben pointed out. “Okapi might depend on Taronga’s plans. Colobus at Taronga might depend on our plans, but they’re much easier to import.”
I glanced around, while Melita rolled in the mud.
“Perhaps you could add more birds.”
“Nah, can’t import them.”
“I thought that there were some species still within private aviculture.”
“It would be the cost, that’s the main thing. The costs on the private market are more than what many zoos would be able or prepared to pay for purchasing new birds, especially seeming as most zoo animals aren’t purchased. Most are transferred, traded, depending on the circumstances, of course. It’s both a budget thing and an ethical, I suppose.”
I ran my fingertips down my forearm, the spring sun beginning to bite.
“How’s your mother?” Reuben asked.
My pulse accelerated like the mercury on a January day.
“How’s your father?”
“They’re both good. I miss them.”
“How have things been with the Roberts?”
“Great, they’re really lovely. I’m glad that we were able to work that out, that I can get to know some more people, have a place to stay.”
I could tell that I was rambling.
“And how are you?”
“I’m good, I’m good, I’m really good,” I assured Reuben, bobbing my head. “My time here has flown by.”
“And you’ve still got, what, another six weeks or so?”
“And your PTSD, it’s not giving you problems, is it?”
“I take medication. For my generation, I feel, it’s pretty normalised. I forget it’s something that I do half the time.”
This time it was Reuben’s turn to bob his head.
“I feel like I’m getting a pretty well-rounded education. Nikki’s been wonderful, for the veterinary side of things. It’s disease and things like that I’m still a little unsure about, but my knowledge is building, so it’ll be fine.”
“They have had chimps with TB at Taronga, were you around in the TAG meetings when we talked about that?”
“Yes.” I nodded my head firmly. “That seems like such a long time ago now.”
“Well, time flies.”
Reuben folded his arms loosely.
“From my perspective, we’d house chimps at Werribee, if at all. Then, Werribee would have chimps and gorillas, and we’d have gorillas and orangutans in the city. Two each.”
He gave a wry smile.
“You know, we’ve been saying for ten, twenty, thirty years that Werribee needs to build its primate collection. We even gave them Alex, so that they’d have an extra primate keeper when the gorillas were transferred and, I mean, he was happy to go, but they’ve got more keepers than they have species, currently.”
“Maybe they just need to take the hint.”
“Perhaps.” Reuben glanced towards his watch. “Well, I’d best make tracks. It’s time for the ungulate TAG meeting.”
We stood and walked through the zoo. Upon getting back to the office, Reuben held the door ajar for me. I thanked him, a little embarrassed, then he followed me through. We set ourselves up in front of his laptop. When we joined the meeting, most of the other participants were already logged into the Zoom call. Sam commenced a review of the regional bongo program. I flashed Reuben a knowing look.
“Our bongo, Ekundu, is the oldest in the region. We’re very lucky to have him with us, but we know it won’t be that much longer. The intention in the short-term would be to replace him were he to pass away.”
“And the long-term goal?”
“Would be to house an Asian species in that exhibit once again. I don’t want to be presumptuous about it.”
“Sam, I don’t want to be presumptuous either.”
“Can I ask, what are your long-term plans, Sam?”
“That’s a good question. It’s still to be decided, officially.”
“Bongos have a proud history at Taronga. The most prolific breeding male was--.”
“He’s no longer with us, though,” Reuben pointed out.
“He was alive at the time.”
I cleared my throat. The nature of their rivalry seemed to have been baked into their roles. If there wasn’t a hint of animosity between Sydney and Melbourne, then the earth would stop turning.
“Anyway, let’s talk about the future,” Sam declared. “Our bongo population is currently an offshoot of the SSP. That said, if we were to import from Europe, that would be a valuable mix genetically.”
“Yes, it would be,” Reuben agreed, “We could import a number of cows from Europe and breed with a local bull.”
“That would be good,” Sam affirmed.
“I didn’t think you’d have space in the city.”
“I was thinking at Werribee.” Des didn’t seem so keen. “Look, I apologise, Sam, that Des and I didn’t get our stories straight before joining this meeting. We might need to discuss further, internally.”
“Don’t worry. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
I glanced at Reuben, wondering if he was going to say anything about Violet and the AI program.
“Claire, Taronga Western Plains Zoo is the only holder of female bongo in the region. What’s your state of play?”
“With all due respect, Sam, it’s not working,” Claire reported. “Sure, Kulungu is an experienced breeding bull and he’s formed a great pair with Djembe. I’m hopeful, with a recommendation, they could produce another calf, hopefully a female. With Maisha, though, it’s not working. They’re not compatible. She refuses to mate.”
“Right, fair enough. How about pairing her with Kamau?”
Claire was agreeable to that. Sam checked his watch.
“So, the status quo will stay the same at Taronga.”
A chorus of nods went around the Zoom room. Without time for the reports, the meeting ended, and Reuben checked how much time I had left.
“Oh, I’ve still got another hour or so.”
I farewelled him, who stayed at the office to speak working, while I departed the building, back out into the spring day. I headed through the African Rainforest, to check in on Kwabema. Glancing up at the canopy, I thought back to Nanek and Kakek’s sanctuary, with fondness rather than trauma. Perhaps my pieces were being placed back together. I walked around the corner, then pulled myself up abruptly, spotting Ella. She was facing away from me, as Alex dropped down onto one knee.
“You can say whatever you want to say,” Alex murmured, breathlessly.
Ella cupped his cheeks in her hands. Alex stood, so that she could kiss him. His fingers slipped through her curls. They stood there, holding each other, frozen in time. Finally, Ella and Alex opened their eyes again, beaming.
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.