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Speak

I first awoke just after midnight, fearing it might have been morning already. Instead, I readjusted my body underneath the blankets. I fell back asleep until my alarm sounded just before dawn. After a sigh, I pulled myself out of bed and changed from my pyjamas into my zoo clothes, ready for another cold day of work.

By the time I made it out to the kitchen, I could already hear someone pattering around, which turned out to be both Mum and Dad.


“Good morning.”


They’d prepared the animals’ food for the morning. I was assigned the nocturnal house. On cold winter mornings, being greeted by the beady eyes of the tarsiers warmed my heart. I fed them, then moved onto the next assignment with the lorises. We were keen to breed, as were Perth, but if we were to do so, we needed to make sure that the offspring would be accommodated. I would need to talk to Jimmy about his intentions. We needed to work together. Loris babies would also be an attraction for the public; I couldn’t deny that. We had the bloodlines to be sustained into a second and even third generation. Perhaps I didn’t want to start the conversation because I didn’t want to hear the answer. Certainly Kakek wouldn’t want a viable animal prevented from breeding. Sure, I couldn’t trust that he knew everything. I started returning home. At least it was up to us whether or not we bred the tarsiers. Turning the corner, I crossed paths with our neighbour. I glimpsed my watch, realising that it was after nine o’clock.

 

“Oh, hi, Pat, how are you?”


I gathered they had used their season pass to get into the zoo grounds.


“Good, thanks, yourself?”


“Yeah, I’m going alright.” I smiled. “That’s good.”

 

“There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”


“Yeah.”


“I would like to have a pride festival at the zoo,” Pat proposed. “It’d be great. I mean, I know that you don’t have any gay penguins, but--.”

 

I must have hesitated. It wasn’t my intention. We hadn’t hosted big events at the zoo before, even though they were commonplace on the mainland.


“It’s just an idea.”


“Thanks.”

 

“I don’t want you get you into hot water. You’re Catholic, I get it that it’s a sensitive issue.”


“Look, I’ll talk to Mum and Dad,” I promised. “We haven’t really had any big events like that yet at the zoo, we’re still finding our feet a bit. Hopefully we’ll be able to work something out.”


“That would be great, thanks.”

 

I hadn’t seen them for a while. Pat let themselves out of the zoo, to get back home. I checked my watch. Was 8am Perth time too early to call Jimmy? I supposed that he would have been at work already, so I decided to take the plunge. All he could do was say that he wasn’t planning to breed the lorises at Perth Zoo anymore. I sat down and instinctively reached for my phone, opening Instagram. The first post in my feed was a beaming selfie of Stevie and her girlfriend. Stevie’s finger was adorned with a dainty ring, a solitaire with a pale green stone, as both of them beamed at the camera. I double-tapped the post to like it – their engagement announcement.

Weirdly, I found myself missing Woolworths – not the work, so much, but that feeling of camaraderie in the staffroom, before and after a shift. I put my phone down, so that I could open up my laptop and join the carnivore TAG meeting. As the Zoom was loaded, Mum walked in from out the back.


“Everything alright?”

 

“Yeah.”


“What are you going to say in the meeting?”


I leaned back in my chair, contemplating. Like I’d mentioned the other day, the ball was in our court, I hoped, rather than theirs.

 

“I would be interested in red panda,” I affirmed. “It’s a species which is plentiful in the region, it fits the Tasmania climate, we would be able to easily build an exhibit and house one or two here with the species we already have. I think it’s really attainable.”


Mum agreed, so I joined the carnivore TAG meeting. My heartrate was higher than I would have liked.


“First things first, we have an announcement about the annual conference, so Reuben Hendricks is joining us briefly. I’ll hand over to you, Reuben.”


Rather than being held in New Zealand, the week-long gathering was being held in the nation’s capital. Canberra seemed like it would be similar enough in climate to Tasmania. A part of me was surprised that we wouldn’t be heading across the ditch, but at least I wouldn’t have to get out my passport – even though I would probably have to travel in two legs, either a connecting flight, or travelling up to Sydney then down in a car with Sam.

 

“Let’s move onto the member reports,” Jimmy decided. “Beerwah?”


“We’re looking to see if we might be able to get another breeding recommendation for our Sumatran tigers.”


I sat forward in my seat, a little perturbed that we’d been bypassed. Hopefully I would get the chance to speak later. I understood why Hunter would want to make the most of the valuable genetics of his tigers. However, I could also see the argument that breeding recommendations had come swiftly.


“Look, it’s a difficult one,” Sam mentioned.

 

I spotted Reuben’s square. Melbourne Zoo had been bypassed for breeding recommendations in the past. It wasn’t something Reuben was particularly impressed with. I didn’t feel that phasing out Sumatran tigers was an option, but it could have been considered. Last thing I wanted was for Reuben to throw his toys out of the cot. It wouldn’t have been uncharacteristic. Melbourne Zoo’s previous breeding female had been named Binjai, like the town where my mother grew up.

“How about you attempt to breed one more litter and then go on hiatus for a bit?” Sam proposed.

Hunter accepted this, which I appreciated.

 

“Mogo Wildlife Park?”


“We’re thinking about holding concerts at the zoo over next summer,” Julie outlined. “It’s not expressly to do with the carnivore TAG, but if you have any tips in limiting stress for the animals, let me know.”


I couldn’t help but think about the pride event. I knew the risks we would be taking, but I figured it would be worth it if I could get Mum and Dad to agree. He loved a glass of red wine, although Mum drank much more sparingly. We would need to achieve a liquor license for the zoo. I didn’t know whether that was an appropriate use of time and money.

 

“Taronga Zoo?”


“Look, we’ve been approached by the US Asiatic Lion program,” Sam explained. “All we need to decide right now is whether or not we want to be involved.”


Unsurprisingly, opinions were divided. Looking back over the records, it turned out that Taronga Western Plains had held Asian lions in the past.


“Look, there would be the opportunity to import,” Claire outlined, “but it’s just a suggestion. San Antonio Zoo is breeding them in the US.”

 

“Is there any general business?”


This was my chance.


“We would be interested in acquiring red panda,” I pointed out. “They’re a species which fits with the Tasmanian climate well, I think.”

 

I didn’t want to suggest that we would import from overseas, given the expense and the fact that there was already plenty to go around in the region. What would Kakek do?


“Look, we had a litter born last year,” Julie said. “We could transfer the male.”


“That would be awesome,” I accepted.

 

The meeting ended. I breathed out, feeling a little deflated, even though I didn’t have a concrete reason for my emotions to be all over the place like that. Stretching, I knew that there would be work to do. I looked through my messages, my old group chats. The rest of the day quickly got away from me. Before long, it was time for me to head out into the zoo. I would be on the primate run. This gave me a bit of free air to think more deeply about what had been discussed in the meeting. Acquiring the male red panda, Shifu, from Mogo Wildlife Park was a good idea and it wouldn’t be that difficult to construct him an exhibit, probably to the north of the gibbon island. Hopefully it wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. We didn’t have that much money to go around. I knew that we needed to develop the aquarium. That would be expensive, too. After feeding the gibbons, I went back-of-house at the siamangs. I could hear the birds warbling and had grown to recognise their individual songs. The family must have still been outside. I confirmed this on the cameras. Locking the door to the outdoor area, I entered their night dens and scattered most of the food. Once I’d safely retreated, I was able to let the siamang family in for the night. I felt a little like I had all the power in my hands. Georgia swung over to the shelf adjoining the mesh. This proved a perfect opportunity for me to hand-feed her. I knew this was something which Kakek did regularly. Therefore, Georgia was happy to oblige. It was a chance for me to get up close with both mother and daughter, Jelita. Eventually, the spinach was all gone, so I raised both palms to indicate this to her. A smile came onto my lips. Georgia had food in her teeth.


“Darling,” I commented, “I wish that I could help you floss.”


I supposed that the siamang was unashamed – the piece of spinach would be ejected eventually, and she didn’t have to look at herself in the mirror. It wouldn’t have done Georgia any harm. On the way out, I noticed the sign which warned not to feed the animals. To me, it seemed pretty obvious – but then again, perhaps that was my training colouring my expectations of the average person. We’d still had to spend money on a sign, just to make sure the general public were warned. After feeding the gibbons, I traipsed back to the house. I knew that Josie wasn’t getting any younger, but thankfully she was still healthy.


“We need to talk about the red pandas,” I mentioned.


I explained the situation to Mum and Dad and they asked for my opinions.

 

“Well, if Julie’s happy and the TAG’s happy, then I’m happy,” I insisted.


“It’s better than spending the money and importing, that’s for sure,” Dad remarked.


Everything proved itself to be a complicated situation. I felt a little guilty to not be thinking about money. The decision ought not to have been made lightly. It wasn’t like we were desperate to receive a pair and a breeding recommendation.


“Well, we need to design the exhibit and make sure that’s worked out. I’ll tell Julie that’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’ve decided, so that the TAG is happy with that happening down the track.”

 

I wondered whether I’d spoken a little too soon, not that it would have been the end of the world if I’d gotten the wrong end of the stick. At least with our zoo being a family business, we forgave each other easily. Mum allowed me to take a breath, so I lay on the lounge with my feet up and listened to soft music rather than watching the news. Still, I couldn’t rest my mind. I planned how we could train Georgia for a conscious blood-draw in preparation for her next pregnancy. Sure, urinalysis was an easier method of confirmation – even if not a particularly clean one – but each husbandry procedure built upon the next in terms of caring for the siamangs’ welfare. Eventually, I got up and dawdled into the kitchen. Mum was working through food prep for the animals. I helped out for a little while, but I kept getting distracted by notifications in the group chat of siamang holders, which from time to time, I was concerned was leaving some people out. Trying to get it out of my mind, I found myself humming a tune. I ran my hand across Mum’s back.


“What’s the matter?” she wanted to know.


“Oh, I’ve just heard a few things about Adelaide Zoo perhaps importing a female sun bear from the United States.”

 

“I see.”


I wasn’t sure if that was the case, but I didn’t want to contribute further to a rumour mill. If I really wanted to know what was going on, I could contact Isobel. She would most likely tell me the truth, especially if the import was being funded with Joel’s money. We ate a simple dinner. There hadn’t been a great deal of energy to cook since we’d started the zoo, our energy instead going into feeding the animals rather than ourselves. Once we’d rinsed off the plates, I returned to the lounge with my phone in hand. While I was in the kitchen, I should have grabbed a headache tablet, but I couldn’t have been bothered to get up again. I sent Pat a quick text to thank them for coming over, telling them that he could come in anytime.


Thanks Jumilah xx; they swiftly replied. It’s fun being with the animals. No matter what my olds say, I’m glad you built the zoo


I couldn’t help but beam. I thought about Stevie and the upcoming wedding, finally adding a comment to the post to offer my congratulations. To remember her now fiancee’s name, I needed to check the other person’s handle tagged in the post – Chelsea. Surely I’d met her before, but maybe I hadn’t, because they hadn’t been together particularly long. The fact that they were already getting married was something I decided to reserve judgment over. I recalled a day working at the supermarket. It would have been not long after I returned from Sumatra, when Kakek died. Patrick mentioned that he would love to work at the zoo. Maybe I could track him down in Launceston and offer him a job, but he’d already made his choice. I finally flicked onto my emails, considering that a more productive use of my time than social media, but the content of the correspondence only seemed to frustrate me.


“Darling, would you like to get up and go to bed?” Mum suggested.


“I really couldn’t be bothered.”


 

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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