“Morning,” Reuben replied, as we made our way through the airport, wheels of our suitcases rolling behind us.
I titled my head to the side, lips pursed as I tried to find the right words.
“It’s never a good morning for you, is it?”
“No point saying it if you don’t mean it,” Reuben insisted.
I didn’t bother responding. We passed through the airport, to where a bus waited for us. Its side was painted black and white, like the stripes of a zebra.
“Morning,” Reuben greeted the bus driver.
We climbed onboard and found our seats. This bus would take us to Taronga Zoo, where we’ll spend the week. When we arrived, we were dropped off outside the Function Centre, and shown through into the wildlife retreat. I would have preferred to go through the grand front entrance. One of the employees from Taronga Zoo handed out our room keys, so that we could dump our bags before the conference got underway. I recognised the faces around me in the hallway, while we moved into the function centre. As the rest of us sat down, Sam stepped into place behind the lectern.
“Thank you so much for coming here, to Cammeraygal country, from across Australia and New Zealand,” he welcomed, “for this conference and gathering of representatives of the Zoos and Aquaria Association. Our first speaker this morning requires little introduction. He is the founder and director of Darling Downs Zoo.”
My eyes panned to the right to reveal the speaker’s identity.
“Please welcome Kevin Rafferty.”
A round of applause went around the room as Sam stepped aside, so that Raffa could take his place behind the lectern.
“Thank you very much for having me.”
While Raffa brought up his slides on the screen, I glanced around the room at the others in attendance at ZAA’s annual conference. Sighting Isobel, sitting alongside Blessing and Don, I offered her a polite smile in greeting, which thankfully she returned. Reuben, Des Perry, and Margie attended on behalf of Zoos Victoria.
“Our research could potentially provide a cure for Irukandji poisoning.”
I happen to glance at Reuben, who didn’t appear convinced. If it works, it sounds great, even though Darling Downs isn’t that close to the ocean. Raffa clicked to change the slides. He displayed in his presentation photographs taken during research expeditions, which included Hunter in a wetsuit. I’ve never been to Queensland. I suppose that I’d like to go, one day.
“At present, Irukandji syndrome is often fatal, especially in remote areas.”
Raffa changed slides. I recognised the same young man in many of the pictures. Perhaps he was one of the researchers, even though I didn’t pick up on him being from one of the zoos. I tried to settle into my seat, the plastic a little hard underneath me. Readjusting my posture, I reached for one of the provided lollies, unwrapping it and popping it into my mouth.
“Extensive scientific research is being undertaken on the Great Barrier Reef. I learned more about this research when my sons, Lachlan and Oliver, were at university on the Sunshine Coast. The three of us were able to link up with some good people in this room. My thanks go out to Hunter and Allira for your contributions.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Hunter. The last time I saw him in person was at Joel’s funeral. Hunter offered me a smile in greeting.
“From there, we needed to test our hypothesis. Of course, this would be challenging, especially because we were reluctant to conduct research on animals.”
I shifted in my chair, starting to feel a little bit restless, although that didn’t have anything to do with Raffa. Closing my eyes momentarily, I zoned out. I could have taken a break, I knew that. My trauma provided me with both the curse and the outlet, even though it had nothing to do with Irukandji jellyfish or poisoning.
“Have you got any questions?”
An awkward pause followed, as often happens in those situations. I pondered asking my question about why they didn’t do animal research.
“I was wondering what the impact of climate change will be on the jellyfish,” Christine asked.
“Good question,” Raffa praised. “Rising ocean temperatures are resulting in an expansion of the range of the Irukandji.”
A grimace went around the room at the thought.
“For most species, that would be a good thing, but obviously that does mean more jellyfish stings.”
“Yeah, a mate of mine was stung on the Hawkesbury,” Peter supplied. “He recovered, thankfully, he was able to get into a hospital quickly.”
I knew little of Peter’s personal life. Perhaps those barriers could be broken down over the course of the conference. The session broke up for morning tea, and I was keen for fresh air. Reuben took his coffee and his muffin out onto the balcony, so I found myself following him, savouring the view of the zoo.
“It really is pretty spectacular, isn’t it?"
“Yeah,” Reuben agreed, without feeling.
“How’s the gang?” I wanted to know.
“We’re all getting there.”
I waited for Reuben to elaborate on that statement, but, perhaps predictably, he didn’t say anything, until he finally sighed loudly.
“Why did we agree to have a Queenslander member representative on the board?”
“Well, I believe it’s because Queensland doesn’t have a government-run zoo.”
“And, yes, that means that all the creepy crawlies there at the moment get to run the joint instead.”
“Come on, Raffa’s not that bad.”
Julie popped her head in.
“We’re getting cracking again.”
Reuben and I followed her to take our seats for the next session. Sam announced that we would be completing personality tests.
“I’ve done this before,” I noted, when the website popped up. “I’m a Type Eight, my friend did this when she started uni.”
Still, I completed the test. Perhaps my results would be different this time. Reuben wore an unimpressed smirk, but he was still filling it out diligently.
“Well, I’m a Type Eight too.”
“You know, that doesn’t surprise me.”
“What’s your type, Sam?” Reuben wanted to know.
He glanced around the room before answering.
“I’m a Type One, the perfectionist,” Sam supplied.
“Oh, the same as my friend, Tallulah.” I smiled. “That doesn’t surprise me, actually.”
“Well, what about you, Raffa?”
It felt like something of an olive branch from Reuben, considering the animosity between them earlier in the day. I mean, as an Eight-wing-Seven, it doesn’t surprise me that he rubs people up the wrong way.
“According to this, I’m a Type Eight,” Raffa responded, “like a lot of you, I suppose.”
Reuben looked at Sam.
“Do you have any wisdom about that?”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me that they would be a lot of Eights in this group. We’re people who want to make things better for wildlife, and sometimes bulldoze people in the process.”
That assessment was ringing a bell. I turned to Tessa.
“I’m a Type Seven, the enthusiast,” she supplied.
“Yeah, I can definitely see that about you,” I affirmed.
Tessa, after all, is ever the life of the party.
“Does anyone else want to share their type?”
“I’m a Type One, like Sam,” Christine supplied, with a modest laugh. “It doesn’t surprise me to hear that I’m a perfectionist, I’ve known that my whole life.”
I smiled towards her – glad that she’d admitted it first, rather than me.
“I’m a Type Nine, a peacemaker, apparently,” Gerard supplied. “It’s nice to think that I’m fairly easygoing.”
“Did you just say everything was wrong?”
“Come on, I’m not that gloomy,” Gerard insisted.
The session came to an end when the staff from the function centre served afternoon tea. Despite the cynicism at the beginning, the conversation about Enneagram types continued.
“You know, it’s interesting with so many Type Eights,” Raffa pointed out. “For a bunch of people apparently so similar, we rub each other up the wrong way a fair bit.”
I like Raffa; we’ve got quite a lot in common after all. Following afternoon tea, it was time to stretch our legs. We stepped out from the wildlife retreat. Sam led us past a red kangaroo exhibit, including four males. Once we exited the walk-through, we moved into the Tasmanian Devil building. The exhibit for a pair of devils on the left was open-air, with fiberglass roadkill on a strip of concrete marked with double white lines in the centre.
“This used to be our big cats building, back in the day, then our jungle cats facility until 2008.”
The group seemed to gather closer together.
“The long-beaked echidna is coming up,” Gerard murmured, overexcited.
I followed him into the next section of the building. Gerard pointed towards a window, which looked into the long-beaked echidna exhibit. We took turns, peering into the darkness. I could have seen the echidna, but I really would have had no idea whether I did or not. Eventually, we gave up and moved on. We needed to backtrack back out of the Tasmanian Devil building, and past the red kangaroos. Sam held the wire gate open, so that all of us could pass through.
“Thank you,” I murmured.
Down to the left was a house, labelled the ‘Sharehouse’. I gave a knowing smile, having learned a thing or two about those myself. We entered the building, with rooms resembling a typical house. I headed off to the right, peering into a tank. Tarantulas crawled over the leaf litter within.
“I take it you’re not afraid of spiders.”
Once we’d seen everything there was to see, we made our way through the house.
“I’m not, to answer your question,” I mentioned to Raffa.
I thought about probing his statement. On the other side of the house, we moved through a garden, to a kids’ water playground. There seemed to be a barnyard scene, although we didn’t go into the building on the left, with a corrugated iron roof. The alpacas approached the fence, poking their heads over, eager to say hello. I felt at home amidst the farm animals, the goats reminding me of the Roberts’ place. My memories of having the farm were getting dimmer and dimmer, replaced by the images of the zoo. I blinked, trying to become reacquainted with them, as I walked past a pig pen. As a group, we moved through into a walk-through kangaroo exhibit. A couple of joeys were hopping around, playing with each other. From my experience at Healesville, they would have been too big to fit in the pouch anymore. Apparently on the right was an exhibit for quokka, but I didn’t spot any, so perhaps they were snuggled under their shelter. Up ahead as we rounded the walkabout was a cave-like structure, which appeared to be constructed from natural rock. It reminded me a little bit of home, and the nocturnal house. Windows peeked in on a southern hairy-nosed wombat and her joey, sleeping in the straw. Opposite I noticed a sign indicating filming was taking place in the area. Dusty and laminated, with the corners peeling up, I suspected that it had been there for quite some time. On the other side of the wombat burrow, an emu roamed, safely behind a barrier. Just before the bush, I noticed these cannon-like things. I approached them.
“When we were demolishing the bird aviaries, we found these under the foundations,” Sam explained. “Apparently they’re some sort of heritage armaments from the colonial days.”
Completing the loop, we returned to the house. This time our group passed down the hallway, not probing into the rooms. With the zoo still open, we had to stand around for a bit, while some of the paying guests moved through. I made a mental note to call Mum later. She’d want to know everything I’d gotten up to, and all the animals I’d seen at Taronga. As we stepped out of the building, I smoothed back my wispy bits of hair. Thankfully I’d worn sensible shoes. I noticed the Elephant Temple, painted in heritage colours. Surrounding it is a paddock for camels. I wandered along at the back of the group, breathing in the sea air and soaking in every scent of my surroundings.
“And this is where we will build a state-of-the-art reptile and amphibian centre.”
Now it was just a fenced off-area. I couldn’t help but think of home. Building at Taronga Zoo would be a whole different world – government tenders and multi-million-dollar developments, instead of us building everything ourselves and needing to work and toil for every last brick of each building. Not that I blame Sam for the discrepancy, not at all. We moved on along the path to the gorilla habitat, which is also slated for an upgrade. Sam led us past a smaller exhibit, viewed from something of a cave.
“This enclosure is usually empty. In the past it’s held De Brazza Guenons for a few years, and then Ring-Tailed Lemurs when they first arrived.”
We quickly moved on. I was eager to compare Taronga’s gorilla exhibit, with Melbourne’s.
“We have our silverback, three females, and their offspring. One of our females is currently pregnant and due next month.”
I nodded my head, across that information already due to my involvement with the primate TAG. Some of the animals were in the day rooms, with the younger ones outside. I spotted Kibale, the silverback, along with Zella, the heavily pregnant female. This exhibit would be short-lived, I’d heard, soon to be replaced. They would build something bigger and newer and better, further up the hill. I walked out from underneath the shelter. In the outdoor exhibit, the gorillas are viewed from across a water moat.
“Our male, Zaire, he’s Zella’s full brother,” Mal noted. “I suppose that he’ll never receive a breeding recommendation.”
As we walked down the hill, I mused on this idea, then shook myself out of it. I was a little transfixed by the view of Sydney Harbour, in the opposite direction to the exhibit. Eventually, I reapplied my attention to the male fur seal in his pool.
“This is Charlie, our male.”
He reminded me of Warney. Based on what Reuben’s told me, I know that Taronga breeds their seals and sea lions. It would have been reasonable to assume that a glorious male like Charlie is a breeding male. I pivoted, noticing a shady pathway.
“Have we got to go down there next?”
“Oh, there’s nothing down there at the moment.”
I nodded my head.
“There’s an old saltwater croc exhibit, but he’s been rehomed. That exhibit didn’t meet the standards anymore.”
Therefore, we continued though the marine precinct. I’d never seen a Californian Sea Lion in real life before, I didn’t think. While walking through Great Southern Oceans, I found myself in step with Don. Entering an indoor area, we paused before a floor-to-ceiling glass window, simply majestic.
“This is where the leopard seals used to be housed.”
Eventually, we moved on, past an underwater viewing window for the penguin exhibit. The path snaked around, with a sunlight overhead for the penguins to glide above. To the right was a series of status, ordering the world’s penguin species from largest to smallest – the fairy penguins. Exiting the indoor area, I caught another glimpse of the magnificent harbour. My basic knowledge of the map, from previous visits, indicated that we were approaching the rainforest area. We skipped the wetlands aviary and headed straight for the mammal exhibits. Past the fishing cats, our group veered to the right. The female pygmy hippo was in the pool, her eyes protruding above the water. I did notice that Amara seemed a little rounded, although maybe it was just an optical illusion due to the contortion of the thick glass. We departed the viewing area labelled the ‘fishing hut’. A long exhibit to the left of the path housed white-cheeked gibbons. I noted the references to a hope for ‘baby gibbons’ in the future, on the signage outside the exhibit. From my knowledge of the pair, I figured that was wishful thinking. Still, I want to believe in miracles. Suddenly, I flashed back to Perth Zoo. I recalled the gibbons and binturongs which I’d seen there. That didn’t seem like that long ago. The boardwalk headed up a slight slope. I was startled a little at the whirr of the cable car, and how low it seemed to pass overhead.
“You know, I’ve never gone on that before,” Hunter mentioned.
“Afraid of heights?”
The others passed us by.
“Well, not really.”
We moved on, so that we didn’t have the chance to ponder that too much. This part of the zoo seemed to be filled with animals. I glanced over my shoulder, at the window into the Francois Langur exhibit. Swivelling around, I observed that the netted enclosure seemed to be relatively empty – I recalled how two of the males had been the animals sent off to Hamilton Zoo earlier in the year. Emerging from the Rainforest Trail, the group split in a few different directions, some wandering down towards the bird show theatres, others doubling back to the sun bear exhibit. I noticed an exhibit off to the left, containing at least two Aldabran Tortoises, so I approached the railing for a better look. This exhibit would likely be short-lived, given the plans for a new precinct. Further down the nearby bird was the bird show area. I hoped that I would be able to catch a bird show at some stage before heading home, because I never had before, but I’d heard it’s spectacular. The presence of the free-flight birds would likely influence what could be built within that area, with an orangutan exhibit most likely out of the question. We moved into the Sumatran Tiger Adventure. I stepped into a structure which looked like a shipping container and was darkened inside. At the sound of footsteps, I startled, but I tried not to show it.
“Sorry,” Sam apologised. “Do you mind if I come in?”
“Yeah, of course not.”
Sam moved into the fake plane.
“You know, I was thinking that we might be able to construct an exhibit for tarsiers or loris, in here,” he noted.
I thought this was a good idea, and we exited the indoor area with hope.
We came across Ivy Mikhael, whom I recognised as the Head of Carnivores. Tessa seemed to know her well, and they struck up a cordial conversation.
“How have things been, Ivy?”
“It’s been really great. The only species we used to have which I miss are the snow leopards.”
By that point, everybody seemed to have regathered at the base of a steep slope. The gondola passed overhead, making me think of the similar plans for Werribee. Maybe just because I haven’t known it any other way, it seems to fit. I glanced to the left, at a building with a thatched roof, apparently the Taronga Food Market. Sam walked backwards up the hill, demonstrating a peak level of physical fitness.
“And in there is where construction of our Congo Forest precinct will be commencing next year,” he explained. “It will include two gorilla habitats, as well as an exhibit for Australia’s first breeding pair of okapi.”
I instinctively looked at Reuben, half expecting him to scoff. Yet, he retained a sincere expression, pivoting around to soak in everything which we could see from our vantage point. We arrived at the African Savannah area, one of the newest developments which has been built at Taronga Zoo, to house giraffes, zebras, lions, meerkats and a Fennec Fox. I breathed out, savouring the iconic view. Once I drew my gaze away from the Opera House, I counted Taronga’s four giraffes and two zebras. I did try and see if there were any ostriches in the exhibit, but that must have been a figment of my imagination, that I thought that they were housed there at all. Listening to Sam’s commentary, we looped along the path, past Taronga’s iconic Chimpanzee Park. At the end of the path, we happened upon the lions, and a glass viewing area. Looking out over the vista of the lion exhibit and Sydney Harbour, I was standing next to Julie.
“It’s pretty spectacular, isn’t it?” she gushed.
“Yes,” I confirmed with a smile. “It sure is.”
I noticed the tahr mountain down, the slope. Retained as a heritage feature, it no longer fit. The African savannah was up from it, the Sumatran Tiger exhibit finishing before it began. While its use as an animal enclosure seemed to have expired, I knew that it served as a relic of Taronga’s history. It was strange to think of Acarda Zoo, as ever developing a legacy like that. Hoicking back up the large concrete stairs, the path revealed multiple vantage points into the lion exhibit. We wandered along somewhat briskly. On the left was another view into the African savannah, over the relatively large meerkat exhibit. The immersion perspective reminded me of the giraffe exhibit at Adelaide Zoo. On the right was an exhibit for fennec fox, relatively large considering how small they are, but I still didn’t see Taronga’s solitary animal. I spun around, marvelling at the giraffe and zebra groups from across the waterhole. From the African precinct, we trekked up to the top of the zoo, almost to the visitor entry gates. Past the koala exhibits was a small set of stairs. I took myself up there and stood before the Taronga Training Institute building, where I would have studied if I completed my course in person. An alternative course of history ran through my mind. Still, that would have been another person. That would not have been Jumilah Fioray. Eventually, I pulled myself out of my fantasy. I found myself trailing the others as a strong breeze picked up. The entry gates were on the left. I wondered how many visitors Taronga would receive each day, each year. Getting closer to Sam to ask him, we approached the Rainforest Aviary. I found myself transfixed by the birds, including Rose-Crowned Fruit Doves. At the other end of the Rainforest Aviary, the exit was blocked due to the construction work on the Australian precinct. Therefore, we needed to backtrack down the damp path through the aviary. Underneath the shade of the foliage and surrounded by birds, I didn’t mind one bit. I exited through the lock at the entrance to the aviary. We walked back down the path, with the cassowary exhibit on the left. The area up the hill seemed large and forested, to accommodate to gorilla habitats.
Our very last stop was a walk-through aviary, the Blue Mountains Bushwalk containing Wollemi pines, which can be viewed from some of our balconies. As we passed through the lock, I listened to the running water. My eyes took in my surroundings, as birds whooshed past my head. A smile came onto my lips. The scent of the trees reminded me of home, even though it was so many kilometres away. A Scaly-Breasted Lorikeet landed on a rock nearby. I didn’t really want to leave. Perhaps this bird would be one of the pair coming home to Sorell. We departed the Wollemi aviary, into another netted structure. I didn’t think there were any birds in there. Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough for them, or they’d been put away for the night. From there, we looped around the male red kangaroo exhibit again. As we returned to the wildlife retreat, Reuben and I ended up strolling side by side. By the end of the day, the formalities were over, and the beers came out. We’re being accommodated onsite in the wildlife retreat, which is awfully generous of the zoo. I accepted a beer from Gerard.
I tried to take the cap off, but it wouldn’t budge. So that nobody would see, I shifted it out of view. Where’s a bottle opener when you need one?
“Here, do you need some help with that?” Reuben offered.
“No, I’m right,” I protested, but he’d already taken the beer from me.
Reuben removed the cap, then handed it back. I glanced across the room, noticing Jimmy sitting on his own. His head was buried in a book. I’d had little to do with Jimmy professionally in the past, at least not until he’d taken over Bill’s role following the coronial inquest into Joel’s death. The man seemed like everything that Bill Nevill wasn’t – thoughtful and quiet, always eager to learn and listen. Last thing I wanted was for Jimmy to feel like a pariah. Therefore, I wandered over to sit down next to him.
“Do you know what’s on the schedule for tomorrow?”
“No, I’m not sure, I’m sorry, but it would be in the folders that they gave out.”
“Yeah, right, I’m sure it would be.”
Jimmy buried his head in his book again.
“How long have you been at Perth Zoo for?” was my next attempt at small talk.
He shrugged his shoulders, barely glancing up.
“Oh, a few years.”
The cavalry arrived. Reuben and Gerard arrived.
“Don’t worry about this sourpuss, Jumilah. Do you want another beer?”
“Leave her alone,” Jimmy grumbled, and they did just that.
I turned to him, a little lost for words.
“Thank you, Jimmy, for sticking up for me.”
“Trust me, it’s the least that I could do.”
I could hear a squawk of animals from beyond the wildlife retreat.
Tessa bounced onto a stool beside me.
“How are you?”
“Good, thank you,” I replied.
I breathed in through my nose, then took a sip of my beer to calm myself.
“I’m just taking it all in.”
Tessa received a notification on her phone. Before we were due to have dessert, I wandered out onto the balcony, the sky dark grey. Despite being a clear night, there’s still an element of city pollution in Sydney, which isn’t replicated on the outskirts of Hobart. I breathed in the fresh air, grateful for this opportunity. The zoo below was darkened. I allowed it to take my breath away, then ducked back inside to tuck into sticky date pudding with ice cream. When I returned to my room, I saw that I’d missed a call from Mum. I rang her back, although I thought that she might have already been in bed.
“Hi, sayang, how are you?”
Mum wished me sweet dreams, then we ended the call and I ensured my phone was on the charger for overnight. As I went to bed tonight, I tried to listen out, to see if I could hear lions roaring, or gibbons calling. There seemed to be some sort of dull noise from the animals. I murmured a prayer, then eventually fell asleep.
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.