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Hamish escorted me to the hippo exhibit. I kept my thoughts to myself that I was more than capable, especially seeing as Whitlam was there to meet me, having let the girls out for the day. Zola walked around the corner, fiddling with her engagement ring. I would like to meet her husband at some stage, but perhaps I wouldn’t get the chance before needing to return home.


“I have decided on a name,” Zola announced.


Whitlam beamed.


“I’ve chosen Kamaria, it means ‘moonlight’.”


“That’s beautiful.”


“I’ll make a note for the studbook.”


I accompanied Whitlam back to the office, given that I was supposed to be shadowing him for the day, and I’m not technically allowed to do anything alone. It’s frustrating, but it’s for good reason considering what’s happened.


“See if the builders on the ele site need a hand,” Whitlam urged, deadpan, not looking up from his work.


“Roger that.”


I stepped back.


“I’m just kidding, Jumilah.”


I paused. Whitlam looked over his shoulder. I visited the construction site for something to do, although I knew that actually lending a hand wasn’t necessary or helpful. Therefore, I found myself with free reign of Werribee Open Range Zoo – at least from a visitor’s perspective. I decided to head towards the Australian precinct. The September sun biting, I donned a hat. For working with some species, it wasn’t the best idea. The kangaroos were bounding, before finding a place to stop and ponder. I settled in the walk-through, resting against a wooden post which formed part of the barrier separating the visitor paths from the grassy spaces in which the macropods could retreat. A family walked in shortly after me. Some zoos provided feed so that the visitors could feed the kangaroos, but there didn’t seem to be cups or ice cream cones available at Werribee for that purpose, which didn’t bother me. I’d learned that not having guests feed them made it easier to manage each animal’s food intake.


“It’s a bit cruel, isn’t it?” a man mentioned as he turned to me.


“Sorry.”


“You know, we’re better to form relationships with them if we’re not right on top of them, we’re not dominating them.”


“That, honestly, doesn’t make sense.”


What didn’t make sense to me was why someone who disagreed with the concept of zoos would willingly come to one. I wouldn’t, however, have pointed that out to a guest – it seemed to go against customer service 101. He eyed me up and down. The man must have clocked by Zoos Victoria uniform at some stage. Maybe it caused him to change his tune.


“You know, it’s still good to be able to see them, show them to the kids. Otherwise, we’d just have to watch the TV, but I still wish that they didn’t have to be kept in captivity.”


“Oh, of course,” I accepted, deciding to make tracks for the next exhibit.


At least in the nocturnal house, I had a bit of freedom. It would have been nice to sit there for hours with a cup of coffee, watching the dunnarts running around in their dimly-lit exhibit. Instead, I had work to do, which I was allowed to complete independently. I completed some animal observations. I beamed as the squirrel glider flew across his exhibit, to another perch.


“They’re gorgeous little animals, aren’t they?”


I startled, but tried not to show it.


“I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Byron Young, in Aus mammals.”


“Jumilah Fioray,” I introduced myself in return.


We shook hands.


“Look, I’d really appreciate a hand, if you can. I understand you’re on work experience here.”


“Sure.”


A part of me didn’t really want to, for no other reason than that I’d not planned to. Yet, I found myself saying yes, because it would be a good opportunity and I believed that it was the right thing to do. I needed to focus on my work, rather than potential troubles back home. Byron provided me with a series of tasks. We needed to wash the fruit and vegetables before we chopped them up for the animals. Many of the regular tasks of a zookeeper amounted to little more than household chores, but that didn’t bother me. I appreciated the intimacy of caring for animals. I’d worked out pretty quickly that Byron was keen to make conversation.


“Tell me a little bit more about yourself.”


“Well, I’m from Tasmania.” It was usually how I started my introductory spiel. “I’ve been on the mainland since the beginning of July.”


“So, not long at all.”


“Yeah. I’ve got a few more weeks at Werribee before I’ll head back.”


Following food prep, it was time to head into one of the enclosures. Surely nothing too dramatic would be about to happen, but something I’d learned all too well about working in this industry was that I always needed to remain alert. The gliders were keen to greet Byron, but they were a little bit wary of me. I wasn’t really that surprised. While he was their familiar keeper, I was a ring-in. Thankfully, though, food quickly bridged the divide.


“You know, once they bring the elephants in, the zoo’s going to start a new business,” Byron pointed out. “They’re going to make notebooks from the elephant poo and sell them.”


“That’s spicy.”


“You can’t say I never tell you anything.”


“Too right.”


I breathed out. That wasn’t really information I’d bargained for. I listened to bird chatter, most likely natives down near the Werribee River.


“Well, thanks for your help, Jumilah. I think we can leave it there.”


“It was a pleasure, anytime.”


Byron and I headed off in separate directions. I strolled down to the billabong, where the brolga are kept. Beyond that, kangaroos and emus free-roamed, technically captive, but in a large enough area which made them seem wild. Even though I’m used to open spaces, perhaps because of that, the expansiveness of Werribee is liberating. Eventually, though, I stood and wandered away. Some parts of the built environment on that side of the property would have predated the zoo itself. I considered Perth Zoo and the farmyard section, near the new Indian rhino exhibit, which I’d ventured into during our visit for Joel’s funeral over the weekend. That comparison, though, made me feel a bit sick. The woolshed reminded me of home, even though our woolshed would have been no longer. It felt strange that it had been months – almost three – since I’d last been home. While I’ve been learning so much, I have also been losing a part of myself and my heritage which will not return, even though I am surrendering that for greener pastures. Eventually, I checked my watch, even though the lowering sun gave me an indication of the time. The keepers would have been completing their rounds. I caught up with Jamila. By shadowing her to the lion exhibit, then she wouldn’t have to track down another keeper in order to work with the dangerous carnivores.


“We will breed again,” Jamila noted, “but that might be the end of this breeding pride.”


I couldn’t really see the point of breeding the litter purely for display, considering that there were more genetically valuable options. However, such concerns were only relevant if spaces were tight, which weren’t necessarily the case with lions.


“Or, perhaps you could do a bit of a switch around.” I gestured to explain my point. “The males from Melbourne could come back to Werribee and then other males could go back to Melbourne Zoo in their place.”


Jamila narrowed her gaze for a moment.


“You know, that would be extraordinarily unlikely.”


I, however, felt like it wouldn’t have been that surprising for there to be a switcheroo, to allow Melbourne’s male lions the opportunity to breed and continue their maternal bloodline, which otherwise threatened to be a dead end. Glancing down, I stepped over a crack in the pavement. We were heading back to the car. Once Jamila unlocked it, I got into the back and fastened my seatbelt across my chest. Nobody said anything for the journey home. We moved through the front door, closing it behind us, then down the hallway into the kitchen.


“What would you like to do tonight?” I asked. “We could watch a movie.”


“I think that I would just like to go to bed, try and get some sleep, I’m sorry,” Jamila answered, “not that I think that I’ll actually be able to get much.”


Agreeing, I let out a heavy sigh.


“How about I make you a cup of tea?”


“That would be lovely, thank you.”


While I made the tea, Jamila scampered upstairs so that she could have a shower. After the jug boiled, I poured the water into two mugs and dipped teabags into them both. I came into Jamila’s room with cuppas for us both.


“Thank you, you’re a gem,” she said with a smile as I handed hers over to her. “If you didn’t have a place to go back to, I’d say we could get pretty used to having you around here.”


I grinned modestly, sitting down cross-legged on the end of the bed.


“Can I ask you something, please?” I spoke up.


“Yeah, of course,” Jamila assured.


She tucked some stray strands of hair behind her ear.


“Have you ever heard of Bill Nevill doing anything improper?”


“I have heard rumours, you know,” Jamila mentioned, “but of consensual things.”


“Like what?” I wanted to know.


“Young female keepers staying back at the zoo to monitor animals and the like,” Jamila explained. “Always them alone with Bill.”


“Something happened at Joel’s wake.”


“Like what?”


“I was making coffee and Bill came up behind me.” Closing my eyes, the memory returned with stark ease. “He put his hands on me and kissed my shoulder and he, and he--.”


“Oh, Jumilah.”


When I opened my eyes, Jamila’s hand was over her mouth.


“He kissed my shoulder and he said, ‘I bet you’ve never been kissed by an old man before’,” I recounted. “It wasn’t terrible, but it was really creepy.”


“So, what would you like to do? Would you like to report him?”


“What for?” I enquired. “For being a creep? Bill Nevill was overly friendly with his hands at a funeral. He wouldn’t be the first person.”


“That had nothing to do with Joel’s death.”


I took a sip from my tea, but Jamila looked me in the eye.


“But it speaks to the workplace culture.”


 

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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