The first stage of the Werribee masterplan has opened. I’m not particularly impressed by new bison exhibits, but I get why they had to do it the way that they have. Hopefully the elephant complex isn’t too far away. I pondered our own future developments, once I had finished my work for the morning and the zoo was open. Before I could head back out, the phone rang – Claire.
“Hello, how’s Djembe?”
“Oh, she’s on the mend, which is good. It was a close one, that’s for sure.” I heard a hint of breath. “Losing her would have been dreadful.”
“Yeah,” I responded, my voice faint.
My heart raced like the galloping of horses’ hooves. I found myself viewing the animals through two lenses – as individuals, and for their roles within the breeding program.
“Do you think this will come up at the meeting tomorrow?"
“Oh, I already know what they’re going to ask. They’ll ask if she was housed with the bull. I’ll have to tell them she was.”
“Which is standard practice. You shouldn’t be getting heat for this. They’re not called wild animals for no reason.”
“True,” Claire affirmed. “Sooner rather than later, we’ll hopefully have a beautiful calf on the ground. I’d love a female, but I can’t be choosy, especially not now.”
“A male could be used for AI with the wild females.”
“Yeah, possibly. Do you have any inside word on how Violet’s going with the program?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I mean, possibly. Mostly I think he tries to keep himself out of that situation. I’m not sure if that’s the most helpful approach, but I’m not one to judge.”
“Well, I’m sure that we’ll all have plenty to say to each other tomorrow, and I’ll see you before that in the primate TAG this afternoon.”
Claire and I finished on the phone. I sat down for lunch, fetching vegetables out of the fridge to form a makeshift salad. The primate TAG meeting would be commencing shortly after and, based on Claire’s concerns, I suspected that the bongos at Dubbo would rate a mention, even though technically that discussion should have waited another day until the ungulate group gathered. Dad entered through the back door.
“That’s nothing for the animals, is it?”
“No.” I glanced down. “We bought this last week. It needs eating, really, and I’m hungry.”
He accepted that. I took my food into the other room, where I joined the Zoom, tense faces forming an array on my screen. Counting them out, I saw, Claire, Jimmy and Sam, Peter from Sydney Zoo, as well as Hunter and Raffa, Christine and Mal. This wasn’t meant to be an inquisition, and had nothing to do with the bongos, I needed to remind myself.
“Unfortunately, I can’t stick around the whole meeting, so I’ll say my piece first,” Claire asserted. “Taronga Western Plains Zoo has concluded that our gorilla habitat will house a breeding group, in the short-term. That means, if it is not possible to source females from within Australia, we will be seeking to import.”
“How would you quarantine them?”
“We do have ample quarantine facilities here. I know that they’re usually not used for apes, but there would be no reason why gorillas couldn’t be imported, or couldn’t go through Taronga for quarantine if absolutely needed.”
“Is that the best idea?”
“Look, this isn’t Claire’s fault. I would be willing to back her up.”
My heart thumped. There was little standing behind my claim, other than flushed-knuckle solidarity.
“Thank you, Jumilah,” Claire replied, calmly.
“I’ve got to agree,” Jimmy affirmed. “I know I have skin in this game, but if Dubbo wants to import, and there are animals available, then that’s what’s most significant.”
This seemed to calm down the tensions, allowing the group to approve the concept. Even once we moved into the member reports, my heartrate still didn’t calm down.
“I’m pleased to announce some very good news. Nyani gave birth in the very early hours of this morning.”
“That’s great news.”
“Of course, it’s still very early days. Anything could still go wrong.”
Reuben sighed. Usually I found his pessimism charming.
“Kwabema has been a very protective first-time father. We’re very pleased to have his genes represented and for Nyani to have become a mother.”
“A new baby for your gorillas as well as your keepers.”
“I feel like that happens pretty often,” Reuben remarked. “What’s happening with the keepers and what’s happening with the animals imitates each other.”
He grinned, no doubt contemplating the upcoming birth of Emmie and Vel’s first child.
“National Zoo and Aquarium?”
“Sadly, we’ve lost one of our capuchins, our oldest male.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Raffa replied. “How many are you down to now?”
“Just two.” George grimaced. “I hate to think of what will happen.”
“When you lose one and not the other?”
“Well, it’s a young male, isn’t it, and an elderly female?”
“The young male could be integrated into another group. That would be the best outcome for him, most likely, even if it means going to another collection.”
“We can cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to interject, but at least we’re finding out all together,” Jimmy spoke up. “Bill’s sentencing has just taken place.”
I sucked in a breath.
“Eleven years, with nine years eight months non-parole.”
We looked at each other, in stunned silence. In eleven years, Joel barely would have been entering his forties. Were he and Isobel to have children, they couldn’t have been older than primary school age. Eventually we needed to get on with the meeting. A sensation of nausea pooled within my gut and I didn’t think that I would be able to shake it.
“Just before I get to my update, I have a quick question, for Jumilah, in fact.”
I sat forward in my chair. Presumably, this would be about the siamang program, so I always needed to make sure that I was listening.
“We have the capacity to continue to hold siamang. Therefore, I would like to know if it would be possible to take our female off contraception.”
Thankfully, Mal understood my previous reservations.
“Well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to receive a breeding recommendation, especially seeing as Auckland won’t be breeding for the foreseeable future.”
While I knew Gerard wasn’t overly pleased with that situation, he understood my judgment call. Keeping together the bonded pair was the right thing to do.
“At the same time--.”
My stomach grumbled. Hopefully this meeting would be over sooner rather than later. I glimpsed the clock in the bottom corner of my screen. As if she could read my mind, Mum wordlessly placed a plate of food in front of me. I offered her a smile to say thanks. For the meantime, though, I wasn’t able to cut into the toasted sandwich while I was still fielding questions about the siamang program, including how frequently I was intending to give breeding recommendations to Medan and Georgia.
“Hopefully with natural breeding intervals, that was my plan.”
“At the end of the day, they’re still wild-born animals. We need to make sure that we’re incredibly mindful with their genetics, while still not oversaturating the population with little Tasmanian siamangs.”
“That’s more than fair,” Reuben acknowledged. “We trust your judgment, Jumilah.”
I swallowed. Steam was rising off the toasted sandwich in front of me.
“Potentially if Medan and Georgia produced a male offspring in the future, that baby could eventually be paired with an offspring of the Orana pair.”
“Look, I see what you mean,” I acknowledged. “Mal, what would you think about that? Do you think that would be a good solution?”
“Would we receive a breeding recommendation in return?”
“Yes,” I promised, even though I hoped nobody would challenge my judgment.
We were ultimately dealing in hypotheticals.
“Well, we’ve had a little bit of a surprise,” Jimmy divulged. “We’ve had a ring-tailed lemur infant born into our group with a vasectomised adult male.”
He then revealed that the oldest son of the mother lemur was close to sexual maturity.
“Do you reckon that he could be the sire of the infant?”
“Oh, of course, it’s more than possible. We will find out for sure when we conduct testing once the infant has his first health check. Before then, we’re just guessing.”
I put myself on mute and finally got the chance to tuck into my sandwich. I found myself wondering what name Melbourne Zoo might choose for Nyani’s infant. Per tradition, it would be an N name – and there were plenty to choose from with Swahili origins. There was a slim possibility they would want to rename her line, to separate it from Naomi’s, but that seemed unlikely.
“Our silverback gorilla, Kibali, has had an intestinal blockage,” Sam revealed. “We had to perform surgery until midnight. It’s still pretty touch and go.”
“Oh, Sam, we’re so sorry. We had no idea. That’s really difficult.”
“What’s his prognosis?”
“It will really depend on whether he develops an infection post-op.” Sam’s forehead was puckered. “In better news, though, Lisa’s baby has been named. The good doctor chose the name Lemba.”
“That’s a beautiful name.”
I held Kakek’s cross.
“Can I ask, how close is Ceres to giving birth?” Blessing wanted to know.
“She’s due any day now,” Sam confirmed. “Hopefully I’ll have some news to share next week.”
“Taronga Western Plains Zoo?”
“Nothing more from me.”
I was a little surprised that Claire was still in the meeting. She’d already mentioned about needing to leave early. This was the tendency of mine, to feel like I needed to run other people’s lives. Really what I needed to do was just listen.
“Is there anything for you to add about your chimpanzee troop, Christine?” Sam wanted to know.
“Nothing in particular for this week,” she answered, “although I suspect we’ll be scheduling in a review of the regional population sometime sooner rather than later.”
“There will definitely be some moves around the region. We’ll be in need of new genetics, and new females, specifically.”
“New females would be easier to integrate than males.”
“Oh, for sure.”
I found myself thinking about my grandfather and the faith he’d cultivated from a young age. Swallowing hard, I tried not to cry, because this wasn’t an appropriate setting for that, in the middle of a TAG meeting.
“Werribee Open Range Zoo?”
“It’s been a year since we brought in the gorillas.”
“Wow, time flies.”
“They’re getting along quite well. Perhaps that won’t be the case forever, but if anything changes, then we can potentially put the younger males into breeding placements.”
Just as the primate TAG meeting ended, I was startled by an almighty bang. I raced out the front, clutching my phone. One car had mounted the other, on the road outside the zoo. I brought up the keypad and dialled triple zero.
“Hello, I’m outside Acarda Zoo, yes, there’s been an accident.”
My heart thumped as I raced across the road. In the driver’s seat of the car underneath, a young man shivered. He can’t have been much older than me.
“It’s alright,” I promised him. “Help is on the way.”
I heard the siren before I could see the ambulance, turning the corner off the main road. Once the paramedics arrived, they were followed soon after by the rescue unit.
“What’s your name?”
“I have a friend called Sam,” I assured him with a smile.
The rescue unit needed to move in, to pull the pieces of the car apart so that they would be able to retrieve my new friend from peril. It was a confronting scene. The window must have been down during the accident, because there wasn’t as much smashed glass around the car as I would have otherwise expected. Once Sam was freed from the car, I knew the paramedics would need to move fast. The panicked looks on their faces said it all. I didn’t want to leave him. Yet, I moved back as requested. Sam’s body convulsed on the stretcher. The paramedics injected him with medication to calm him down, then loaded him into the back of the ambulance to drive him away to the hospital in the city.
“It’s going to be OK.”
I crossed myself, then played with Kakek’s cross around my neck. The tow trucks, finally, moved the vehicles off the road. This hadn’t been the sort of drama I would have hoped for. My zoo uniform seemed to cling to my body. I wiped my nose with my finger. Dad placed his arm around my shoulders and walked with me back into the house.
“You’re a good woman, Jumilah, you did the right thing.”
“I’m meant to be having dinner out with Ron Hackett tonight,” Dad told me. “Can’t keep that man away from fried rice and Mongolian lamb.”
“That’s alright, you can still go,” I assured him. “Mum and I will be fine.”
He kissed me on the cheek, then departed. I slipped into my bedroom to fetch another jacket. By this point of the evening it would start to get properly cold, which wasn’t particularly enjoyable when we were going around the evening rounds at the zoo. With Dad out, it would just be two of us to care for all of the animals. Mum and I entered the nocturnal house.
“We don’t put animals in cages anymore. That’s part of who we are, it’s part of who we say we are.”
“What’s a cage, though, Jumilah?” she enquired. “My parents’ cages in the jungle, are they cages?”
She gestured towards the glass windows.
“We’d have to move the benches, but there are plenty of places within the zoo where they could go.”
That was true. I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident. Hopefully Sam would find his way home. It wasn’t my style to lack belief. Mum and I exited the nocturnal house on the top side. I listened to the gentle chatter of the birds in their nearby aviaries. In warmer weather we would permit the finches outdoor access overnight. Since the onset of winter, however, we locked them into their indoor quarters during the evening rounds – a little more work for us, but ultimately a decision made for the birds’ welfare. The walk-through aviary, however, was another story. We made sure to check the aviary, but on our way out we were able to just ensure that the heating was a suitable temperature and lock the doors. By this time of the evening, the sun had well and truly started to dip. Coming down the eastern side of the zoo, Mum and I lured the gibbons into their night dens. With Mawar pregnant, we made sure to provide her with a little bit of extra food. Walking over the wet grass on the island, I slipped. I popped back to my feet, a little damp, then we exited the exhibit. Mum and I strolled home under dusty yellow skies. Continuing on our discussions about the aquarium idea, I started researching on my laptop.
“You can buy Siamese algae eaters here, just in pet shops. We could get ten of them for a hundred dollars. They’re pretty little fish--.”
“Silver with black stripes on them, yeah?”
On one hand, it would be a relatively straightforward way of diversifying the collection. At the same time, the investment in infrastructure would be larger than perhaps we were bargaining for, given that water would be involved.
“We shouldn’t need permits for any of those species, you wouldn’t think.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so. If we wanted to go into reptiles or something like that, then that would be a different story.”
“How many tanks would you be thinking? More than one?”
“Well, yeah, if we can, if we can afford the glass and the pumps. We can build up the collection over time.”
“And you don’t think it would disturb the other animals too much?”
“Well, we can take things steadily. If there’s any concern, we can stop the work.”
“That would negate--.”
“And find a new approach, to compensate for the things which aren’t working.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Oh, did you reach out about red pandas?”
“Yes, I looked,” I promised. “Hopefully it’ll be on the cards. They aren’t a particularly long-lived species, but they breed pretty regularly, so there are usually a few surplus to go around if there happen to be larger litters.”
“Oh, did I mention that your dad’s out for tea tonight?” Mum noted. “He’s catching up with Ron Hackett.”
“You hadn’t told me, but Dad mentioned it earlier on.”
“Would you mind just having cereal for dinner?”
“No, that would be fine,” I accepted.
Mum continued to stare into space.
“Would you like me to get it for us?”
“That would be lovely.”
I pulled myself to my feet and trudged into the kitchen, where I poured out two bowls of corn flakes with milk. We’d need to go shopping at some stage, but this would do for the meantime.
“Tell me about this new baby girl gorilla,” Mum invited.
“She’s going to have a name starting with N, we know that.”
“Melbourne Zoo’s pretty good with that tradition, aren’t they?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
I took a breath, my chest feeling tighter than I would have liked it to.
Trying to distract myself, I found myself scrolling through social media. Melbourne Zoo wouldn’t have announced the birth just yet, although I anticipated a post within the next couple of days. They would want to keep the public engaged, but it was still such early days. I hoped the news would stay positive; it was all that I could do. The home phone rang, startling me, not just because of the late hour.
“Hello, Catherine Fioray speaking,” Mum answered, while my heart thumped.
I waited, only listening to half the conversation. It wasn’t the late-night phone call which triggered my trauma, but the possibility of everything being turned upside down again. Finally, Mum finished on the phone.
“That was your grandmother. She’s met someone and they want to move in together.”
“Didn’t see that coming.”
I wasn’t brave enough to ask Mum what she thought. I couldn’t tell what I’d do in the same situation. Nobody had ever asked me to leave my home, and my memories of the drought were hazy. To reassure me, Mum kissed my hair. I finally carried myself off to bed. Despite the heaviness of my body, or maybe because of it, I fell asleep.
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.