This morning when we arrived at the zoo, Whitlam and I drove out onto the savannah to feed the animals their breakfast.
“Where else would you rather be?” he asked.
I grinned as I climbed onto the back of the ute and started distributing the feed. All of a sudden, the vehicle seemed to lurch from side to side.
“Whitlam,” I grunted, “that’s not funny.”
I heard a low growl of the lions in the distance. The ground beneath us continued to quiver.
“Uh, that’s not me,” Whitlam stammered.
I gripped the safari truck. It was only a few more seconds before there was peace, and I dropped into the cabin.
“What was that?”
“I think that it was an earthquake.”
Whitlam started the ignition again. I glanced down at my stinging forearm.
“What did you do to yourself?”
“I cut my arm on the side of the truck, I think.”
“Well, are you alright? Do we need to head back straight away?”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
I wanted to call home, to tell Mum and Dad that I was alright, but they most likely didn’t even know. Whitlam and I cruised around, surveying the savannah and the animals, but thankfully there was no damage. Letaba came over. A chill went over me.
“It’s alright, Taba,” Whitlam reassured her. “You’re safe now.”
She wasn’t aggressive, she was seeking comfort, which she was provided with by her keeper. Eventually, we ended up by the off-exhibit rhino area.
“What will you do if the mating of the pair isn’t successful?”
“I’m not sure.” Whitlam shook his head. “IVF has never resulted in a successful rhino pregnancy.”
I hopped off the ute and opened the gate. Whitlam drove through, allowing me to lock the gate again behind him. I jumped back into the ute. Whitlam made haste for the vehicle shed. There, we encountered Jamila, and hopped out of the ute.
“Hi,” Jamila replied, a little dazed. “I take it you felt the earthquake.”
“Yeah, we did,” I confirmed. “Do you know if there’s any damage?”
“I don’t think so. Whitlam and I went around the savannah.”
Jamila appeared a little flustered. The earthquake would have done that to everyone. I parted my lips, to ask how she was.
“Look, Jumilah, here are my keys.” Jamila handed them over. “I need you to go to the cold room and get some lion meat.”
“Alright,” I agreed. “Do I take it to the exhibit?”
“Yes, please,” Jamila confirmed. “Find another keeper to go with you and feed them. Anyone’s fine.”
I nodded my head, then left. Reaching the cold room, I unlocked the door and entered, fetching the slab of meat marked for consumption by the lions. Once I departed, Zola was approaching from the other direction.
“Oh, Zola, hey,” I greeted her.
“Hey, are you alright after the quake this morning?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, I’m fine,” I answered. “Whitlam and I were out on the savannah.”
Zola nodded her head sympathetically.
“Ah, would you be able to come with me to the lions?” I glanced down at the meat in my hands. “Jamila told me to feed them, and I need a buddy.”
“Of course, I’ll come.”
Zola flicked a fly away from her face, then followed me.
“You know, as an ungulate keeper, I’m not used to this smell.”
We reached the lion exhibit.
“You’re a vego, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I try to be, but I’m not 100%.”
Zola and I entered the back-of-house area. Using the pulley system, I hauled the feed into the lion exhibit. Maroon flesh hit lush grass. The cubs were the first over to the meat, followed by the rest of the pride. I thought that I could smell rain in the air, which would just top off the day. Instinctively, I fiddled with Kakek’s cross.
“Well, I think that’s everything. Are you going alright?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Thanks for your help, Zola.”
“It’s my pleasure,” she assured me. “Jamila would be at the vet hospital, I’d hazard a guess. One of the wild dogs has gone in for a root canal, I think Bailey’s performing it.”
“Right, that explains why she was in such a rush this morning.”
While Zola returned to her ungulates, I made haste for the animal hospital. Outside the doors, I resecured my ponytail. I entered and encountered one of the other vets, Kerry.
I approached one of the windows, peering into an operating room.
“Um, Jamila’s in here,” she told me. “Bailey’s assisting with the root canal now. You can go in if you like, if you scrub.”
I turned the corner of the vet hospital. When I entered, I made sure to keep my distance.
“How’s it going?” I asked in a low voice.
“Hey, could you be quiet, just for a moment, please?” Bailey requested.
For a moment, I thought he was snapping.
Jamila and I clutched one another.
“Not again, not again,” she muttered.
Finally, Bailey located the heartbeat. We breathed out audibly with relief. I noticed a slight tear in Jamila’s eye, which she wiped away quickly.
“It’s alright,” I reassured. “He’s alright.”
Bailey extubated Duara, allowing him to be transported back to his dens. Jamila and I jumped into the back of the van. My own heart thumped, for the entire journey around the building. At the other end, we offloaded the dog. Using our strength, we shifted him back into quarantine. Jamila and I withdrew, while Bailey provided the reversal drugs. Fortunately, Duara came to before too long, and was able to be reunited safely with the rest of his pack – a happy ending. We dispersed, and I turned the corner to encounter Reuben.
“Sorry, did I startle you?”
“No, I just didn’t expect to see you, that’s all.”
He must have been on official zoo business.
“I called your mother on the way out here,” Reuben told me. “She’d heard on the news but she hadn’t heard from you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I found myself apologising instinctively. “I should give her a call.”
While I fetched my phone from my pocket, I didn’t excuse myself. Mum would have been at work, and it had been a little while since I’d last seen Reuben – not since we’d returned from Joel’s funeral in Perth. Yet, a question lingered in my mind, even as we chatted politely and strode through the public areas of the zoo.
“I’m presuming that you didn’t just come to see me.”
“No, no,” Reuben confirmed. “But, I have a little bit of time. I’d love a Werribee tour from a local.”
I instinctively glanced over my shoulder.
“Jumilah, I meant you,” he pointed out.
“Oh, OK. Well, we’ve pretty much seen all you can on foot.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Reuben pulled a face. We had more in common than I often gave either of us credit for. Ultimately, I took Reuben in the direction of the Werribee River.
“Do you know what’s going to be housed out here?”
Reuben gestured towards the empty marshland in front of us.
“Yes, I do, but I wanted to know how far down the chain it has gone.”
“Are you saying I’m far down the chain?”
“No, no,” Reuben insisted with a grin. “I’m just testing.”
I finally found a ute for which I could access the keys. This time, Reuben was the assistant in the passenger seat. We found a place with a beautiful view, then I parked, turning off the ignition.
“This is pretty good here,” Reuben remarked.
We enjoyed the savannah, the relative silence of it. The bus motored through behind us.
“You know, we’re having the Premier come to Melbourne next week.”
I started the ignition again. Checking my watch, I knew we’d need to return to the walking trails soon enough. Reuben started telling me the millions of dollars planned to be spent at Melbourne Zoo.
“Alright, the maths don’t add up on that one.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t seem to have that many long-term projects on the go from what I know, that’s all,” I admitted, “but I don’t know as much as you.”
Reuben pointed out Treetop Monkeys and Apes.
“I mean, it’s mostly stood the test of time, but it’s still nearly a forty-year-old facility. It will need improvements from time to time. We’re wanting to become one of the main colobus breeding facilities.”
It was nice to see Reuben kick into gear. He uncrossed his legs.
“Currently, we are using two exhibits, but I suppose if we connect them up, get in a few more females--.”
“Yeah, well hopefully they’ll be breeding at Monarto from next year, but they’re coming from a standing start. We have been breeding colobus for over a decade.”
I must have pulled a face, because the number didn’t make sense to me. While I quickly hid my expression, remembering, Reuben noticed.
“Doesn’t mean they won’t breed soon.”
“Yeah, it is possible, but you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“It does make sense.”
“Look, I don’t want George to be shut out, and I hope that he doesn’t feel like that’s happened. He has the retired pair. They even have our old breeding male.”
I’d heard that he’d been removed from Melbourne Zoo because he became too aggressive, so he was retired from the breeding program and sent to Canberra alone as a display animal. While I trusted Ella’s account, I didn’t bring this up with Reuben. Despite his strength of character, I knew that he had a soft side, deep down, which could be easily bruised.
“You know, you could always transfer one of the colobus breeding pairs to the National Zoo and Aquarium down the track.”
I folded my arms in front of my chest, then I swallowed.
“Honestly, I think that’s the best way forward,” I admitted.
This allowed us to put that element of the conversation to rest. The next topic which Reuben brought up was the annual national conference.
“Look, to be honest, I would like you to come. It would be a great experience and a chance for you to be even more accepted within the zoo community.”
I nodded. Of course I’d love to meet in person many of the people I’d seen on Zoom over the past months. I breathed out.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
Reuben glanced down. For a moment, I thought that he wasn’t going to take my word for it. I would need to speak with Mum and Dad again, especially about money. We needed to make sure that we were financially secure enough to open the zoo. I heard a whistle of wind through the trees. For a moment afterwards, the savannah seemed quiet. With the space three times the size of Melbourne Zoo, often the animals could choose where they were spending their time. I hopped down from the ute. Wanting to stretch my legs, I went for a stroll.
“It’s so peaceful out here,” I remarked, but then I heard the footsteps, before we saw the rhino.
Reuben followed me. We scampered across the savannah, even though I should have known it was the wrong thing to do.
“Jumilah, get back, please,” Reuben hissed.
Thankfully, the two of us ended up back at the vehicle and safely inside, even though I could still feel my heart pounding.
“I’d appreciate the comfort of a meeting room right about now,” he quipped.
I allowed myself a laugh.
“I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have just gone for a stroll.”
“Do you know where he went?”
I shook my head, swallowing.
“It would be good to know for sure,” Reuben commented, although I doubted we would find the answer.
I wasn’t sure what had happened.
“Look, it’s a good point.”
“Times have changed.”
The blackbucks were a flighty species, I’d learned that already from Whitlam, but I didn’t think that the nyalas were the same. I gathered that I was still learning. Therefore, I needed to be humble and Reuben, for once, wasn’t sticking his nose into it when someone had made a mistake. Looking out, I noticed the herd of blackbucks in the marshy areas around the edge of the savannah and the riverbanks. I had learned my lesson, so I decided that I wouldn’t do that again. I knew that patience was a key part of working with wild animals. One of the blackbuck calves made a break for it, but his mother didn’t allow him to wander for long. Finally, my pulse returned to a regular rate. I wondered about Reuben, whether he had ever been in a relationship. He projected himself as a person with plenty of bravado, so it would have been surprising if he never had.
“You know, it would be nice to host a conference at some stage,” Reuben remarked.
“It’s not like they would be able to host everyone at Melbourne Zoo, realistically.” I let out a laugh, remembering when the animals from Papua New Guinea had been imported. “You could have everyone sleeping on your lounge again.”
“There is accommodation at Melbourne Zoo,” Reuben reminded.
I didn’t think that tents – scout-like, not glamping-style – would have been quite the right tone for an international conference. If they were going to have Zoos Victoria host the conference in the future, it would make more sense to hold it at Werribee, even if it was a little bit further out of the city.
“Yeah, I know, but--.”
“Well, that’s the thing. Currently, our on-site accommodation uses the old elephant yard. If we want to use that space for animals again, then we need to work out how we can relocate. Luxury accommodation learns more money, just ask Taronga.”
Reuben wasn’t a man who liked being kept in the dark. Quickly, though, the conversation moved onto Wild Sea and the future of that precinct. I tried to relax my shoulders.
“Well, we have the opportunity to breed now that we have Warney, but really, it would be better if he was transferred to Taronga and we didn’t have to worry about using or not using his genes.”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“It’s a bit of a different situation. The pinnipeds seem like they’re almost part of Taronga’s identity. Being right on the harbour, it’s much easier to connect to the conservation messaging.”
I nodded. Reuben checked his watch.
“I do have a meeting with the Werribee executive to get to.”
Therefore, I fastened my seatbelt and started the ignition.
“That is really interesting.”
When we returned, Reuben needed to join his meeting. I could feel my stomach rumbling, so decided that I would track down something to eat. In the staffroom, there was a packet of biscuits half eaten, so I grabbed myself a couple of Monte Carlos. I prepared a coffee for myself. It wasn’t bad at all, the staff kitchen at Werribee Open Range Zoo. Of course, it lacked the familiarity of home. While I sipped my coffee, I went for a stroll through the administration buildings. The occasional office worker was tapping away at their computer, but mostly the spaces were empty. I gathered some of the staff members whose work didn’t intersect with the animals worked from home. Others might have left early due to the dramatic events of the morning. Once I finished my coffee, I headed out into the zoo grounds. I crossed paths with Alex, who confirmed that the earth tremour in the morning hadn’t caused any damage to the primate enclosures, thankfully. Soon after, though, he needed to get back to work. I happened upon Reuben again.
“Are we going to join the carnies meeting?” he wanted to know.
“Well, I’d like to,” I accepted. “Have you seen Des or Jamila lately?”
“No, I haven’t,” Reuben answered.
We located a meeting room off the main staff quarters. Reuben and I joined the meeting on my laptop.
“There are forty-four species falling within our taxon which are currently on the Live Import List. Of course, there are only eleven program species.”
Reuben leaned forward.
“Is there a thought that we would add additional species to the list, or are some being taken away?”
“No, nothing’s being taken away,” Sam assured, “at least as far as I’m aware.”
That was the consensus reached, and further consideration was to be taken offline. The discussion about the otter program, which had been deferred, could now take place.
“We’re without otters for the moment,” Don mentioned. “We’re not anticipating we’ll be in the position to build a new exhibit for another five years.”
That timeframe was much longer than I expected it would have been, given that the species seems to be a staple of most zoos in the region.
“Also, I wanted to mention that a number of us will be involved with the International Sun Bear Conference next week,” Sam reported. “Allira, Raffa, Peter, Reuben, Jimmy, Christine, George, Gerard and myself will all be participating, with others from all around the world, to discuss in-situ and ex-situ sun bear conservation.”
“Raffa, you’ve got an update about Sri Lankan Leopards?”
“Yes, I do,” he confirmed. “I’ve been in touch with the EEP. Once the exhibit at Adelaide Zoo is ready, one of the male leopard cubs from Canberra will be sent there. Hopefully he’ll be paired with a female from overseas, but I personally wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“Yeah, right, thank you,” Mal replied. “Are there any other studbook reports?”
“Alright, let’s move onto our reports.”
Mal cleared his throat, coughing into his fist.
“We have sent two young porcupines to Queensland.”
“And we’ve received them,” Allira chimed in, confirming their destination. “They seem to love their new neighbours, our meerkats, which is really, really lovely.”
On that happy note, the carnivore TAG meeting finally came to an end, so I closed the lid of my laptop, then stretched. I walked out of the staff quarters after dark. With our work complete for the day, Jamila and I returned home from the zoo, later than the guys. We walked through into the kitchen, and I could already smell pasta.
“I’ve made lasagne,” Hamish announced.
“From scratch?” Jamila checked, wearing a skeptical expression.
She placed down the keys on the bench.
“Of course,” Hamish assured.
“A fire and an earthquake,” Jamila remarked. “You could run your zoo for a decade and things will never be as eventful as they’ve been for you while you’ve been in Victoria.”
“I hope so,” I replied, as she poured me a glass of red wine. “Thank you.”
“Has there ever been a tsunami on the Derwent?” Whitlam quipped.
“Well, as a matter of fact, we have had tsunami warnings.”
Hamish served up the lasagne to all of us.
“Well, nothing would surprise me these days,” he admitted. “I’m just glad no animals or people were hurt at the zoo.”
“So, I take it that you knew Reuben before you stayed with him at Melbourne?” Hamish mentioned.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “My parents first met Reuben when they were at university, that’s the connection.”
I took a sip from my glass of wine.
“Right,” Hamish replied. “I did not know that. You learn something new every day.”
That wasn’t even the whole story, but he didn’t need to be privy to the rest.
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.