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Tragedies

A heavy layer of cloud hung over Werribee. Western Australia is three hours behind, so we all knew that it would be some time before the findings would come through. In the meantime, there was work that needed to be done. Whatever the coroner would say, and whatever would come from that, remained outside of our control. I knew that Jamila, Whitlam and Hamish knew Joel, and Isobel, better than I did or would. They are the ones working with dangerous animals every day. Despite my aspirations, this is an outcome which impacts them, more than me, so I felt a duty to continue to work. Owing to Joel’s death, however, I still wasn’t allowed to do anything on my own.

Therefore, when Jamila headed back for morning tea, I followed her into the break room, where keepers were crowded around. Everything was silent, except for the printer ejecting pages. They started to fall onto the floor.


“Oh dear,” I exclaimed, rushing over to catch them.


The papers were the hippo exhibit plans. I pressed the power button to turn off the printer – clearly it had decided that it wanted to work again, and these must have been left in the queue. While Jamila fetched coffee, I scooped up the pages. I collected them together and placed them on the desk. Whitlam would want to see them, when he next came into the office. Jamila tapped me on the shoulder, attracting her attention.


“The coroner’s findings are through.”


Other zookeepers filed into the staffroom, gathering around for Des to address them.


“Thank you for coming in.”


He cleared his throat.


“As you might have heard, the coroner in Western Australia has delivered his findings in regard to the death of Joel Donovan at Perth Zoo. It has been found that Bill Nevill, the director, deliberately put his keeper in a dangerous situation.”


I let out an anguished breath.


“Bill went back-of-house at the tiger exhibit. He purposefully opened the gate, which allowed the tiger out into the exhibit with Joel, which led to the attack. The report will be made available for all of you to read if you wish.”


Des bowed his head, solemnly.


“Why would he do that?” Jamila spoke up, words dripping with outrage.


Most of the group, including Whitlam and Hamish, dispersed. Jamila touched her fingertips to my shoulder.


“Are you OK?”


“Yeah.”


I approached Des.


“Hello, Jumilah, how are you going?”


“Mr Perry, I’m most thankful that you’ve had me here and that you’ve let me get such good experience,” I began. “I’m very much looking forward to everything else which I hope to learn in the next week or so.”


I knew that I was rambling, even though he was listening to me, so I needed to get out with it.


“Well, you’re most welcome.”


The phone rang. Des grunted.


“I’m sorry, I probably should answer this.”


“That’s alright, that’s fine,” I assured.


Des moved away, so that he could answer the phone. I turned around, Jamila still standing there.


“I’m sorry,” she apologised, shaking her head. “I just need a minute.”


Giving Jamila the space she wanted, I lingered a couple of metres away. Glancing towards my watch, I knew the ungulate TAG meeting would likely be starting soon. I hoped that it would bring some sort of good news. The presentation would be given by Ara about exhibit design, a topic which often filled my mind. Even though we wouldn’t have any ungulates upon the opening of Acarda Zoo, it was still good to learn.


“Even for ungulates, enclosure furniture can play a significant role,” Ara outlined.


She shared her screen. I scanned around the Zoom meeting. Ara provided a polished presentation. My mind returned to those days last month, when Charlotte and Joel visited Melbourne Zoo. I tried not to tear up, given that I was in a professional context.


“An animal’s height will influence enclosure design. Giraffes, for example, provide new opportunities.”


Ara changed slides.


“Well, that’s sort of obvious.”


I wasn’t sure to begin with who’d spoken. Rude interruptions had ceased since Joel’s death and Bill’s removal from the meetings, so I was particularly caught off-guard. Thankfully, Stefan wore a broad smile. I didn’t feel threatened by him.


“Yes,” Ara confirmed, “it is indeed.”


She laughed. I hoped that she didn’t feel too uncomfortable.


“Giraffes provide some opportunities, as I said.”


I knew that the photo on the slide had been taken in the smaller exhibit at Melbourne Zoo, rather than out at Werribee. As I sat back in my chair and glanced out the window from time to time, I thought about how the animals on the outskirts were likely better off. It wasn’t a point of view which I would have expressed to Reuben.


“Keeper workplace health and safety, as well as the safety of guests, is paramount when considering enclosure design for horned ungulates.”


I suppressed a yawn, although it was nothing to do with Ara’s presentation, which was quite insightful. The heaviness of the day was starting to get to me.


“Let’s look at some examples from overseas. In Australia and New Zealand, we have the benefit of housing ungulates outdoors all year round, but at Chester Zoo in the UK, a barn has been constructed to keep their giraffes indoors on snow days.”


The thought was illustrated in the pictures on the screen.


“This space also allows pregnant cows to be separated for calving. Training is underway to teach the giraffes to be able to open and close the gate via sensor, depending on whether they would like to have a private space or include the rest of the herd.”


It sounded very high-tech, but also very clever. Ara explained how the technology had been developed to ensure that the gate wouldn’t close if there was an animal in the way, to prevent a giraffe from being crushed.


“Of course, there’s a first time for everything.”


Ara stopped sharing her screen.


“Any questions?”


I would have loved the opportunity to catch up with Ara, woman to woman. Of course, I didn’t think we knew each other that well for the answers I was seeking. Silence was followed by Gerard taking himself off mute.


“That’s great, thank you. A very insightful presentation.”


“What you brought up about Chester Zoo was interesting,” Tessa mentioned. “We have a barn connected to our outdoor habitat via a raceway.”


This feature had come up from time to time. I appreciated that Tessa waited her turn to speak.


“Yes, it looks like it’s a good system for your needs,” Ara praised. “I look forward to getting back to Hamilton Zoo.”


I scanned the faces around the Zoom meeting. While I knew I could have been receiving more practical training in my final week at Werribee, I valued this time to learn more about ungulate breeding programs.


“Well, you want your enclosure furniture to be safe for the animals, of course,” Ara pointed out in response to a question. “Updating husbandry manuals is part of that.”


I found myself fiddling with Kakek’s cross. Another question was fielded about how to enclose dangerous ungulates.


“It’s a matter of opinion. Some will feel that the grass moat is sufficient. Others don’t have the same opinion and I respect that, even though I don’t hold the position myself.”


“I, for one, think it’s a good idea,” Dirk affirmed.


A small smile came onto Ara’s lips and she took a moment while the discussion started to unfold, so that she could take a sip of water. In the chat, I sent her a private message to thank her for the presentation. Shortly after, Ara responded with thanks.


“Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re thrilled that Ara’s given up her time to be here,” Reuben affirmed.


He led a round of applause. Ara stayed in the meeting following her presentation. She placed herself on mute as the conversation moved on. I thought we would be due to move onto the member reports. However, the next item on the agenda would be discussing whether New Zealand zoos would be willing to house giraffes, and maybe even okapi, for twelve months of quarantine, considering that they couldn’t be directly imported into Australia.


“It’s not exactly a long turnaround.”


Others disagreed with that view. From the perspective of the New Zealand zoos, I understood why they might not have wanted to house animals temporarily to serve a quarantine period. At the same time, I recognised the need to work together. While it would have required more switching around than usual, from the public’s perspective, they would regularly be viewing a giraffe. The idea that those giraffes would change every twelve months or so really wouldn’t make that big a difference, although the giraffes being imported from overseas would likely be young bulls.


“Alright, thank you for that conversation.”


Reuben spun his pen in his fingers. I wasn’t sure whether or not a resolution had been reached, but nobody seemed to object to moving on.


“Auckland Zoo?”


I was eager to hear an update on the elephant pregnancy. However, that was a matter for another TAG. Therefore, I stayed quiet while Gerard was asked whether he would consider adding bongo to the zoo. My mind started to drift. It was my understanding that Auckland Zoo had a relatively fixed site, albeit bordered by parkland. Likely, if they wanted bongo, they would need to accommodate them in the existing zoo grounds.


“It’s a difficult situation to be in. We have to be mindful of the fact that bongo and nyala can hybridise, so it wouldn’t be feasible for these species to be held in the same exhibit as breeding groups.”


I doubted that they would have, anyway, but perhaps I was just ignorant of the situation.


“Anything else?”


There was a brief pause, to allow the chance for the others to offer questions.


“Ah, yes,” Gerard finally spoke up, “we’re thinking about breeding our rhinos again.”


At first, there were no objections.


“By breeding more experienced animals, we have a greater chance of rearing the offspring successfully.”


To me, that seemed reasonable, although I also was aware of the imperative to ensure a good genetic mix. This needed to be taken into account especially once the animals from the Australian Rhino Project were on the ground. They would be a gamechanger.


“Ah, sorry, there’s something you need to know.”


Gerard cleared his throat. The Southern white rhino program was coordinated from Werribee. Therefore, it was Des who had the final say.


“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t breed again, just to clarify. I’ve just received word from the US that there is a willingness to export bison if we are interested in them, but we need to make sure that we’re truly committed to the species.”


“That’s a surprise.”


“It’s not like they don’t have native animal parks in the US as well.”


That was a good point. I always felt glad that the most dangerous animals nearby were Tasmanian devils.


“Bungarribee?”


“Do you still have plans for hippos?”


“Well, of course we would love to add hippos to our collection,” Peter answered, “but I know that there aren’t many going around at present. We are also aware that standards are changing. Maybe down the line if other exhibits free up or the IRA gets through, but those plans are permanently on hold.”


As much as it was a bit of a shame, I understood. I knew that the import risk assessment was on the cards. How long would it take? The government officials would need to be satisfied. I had learned a lot about that process, but was still no expert. Perhaps it would be possible to import sperm in the interim, but I had no idea about that. The conversation drifted into a discussion of the nyala program.


“The males and females aren’t the same colouration,” Peter explained.


I appreciated his input, from Western Sydney. Jackson hadn’t seemed like a bad guy, but once his true colours had shown, I was glad to be rid of him.


“At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for the regional population.”


The meeting agreed with that, allowing us to move on.


“Orana Park?”


“How are you going with the rhino project? When are the animals getting here?”


“Next year, we’re hopeful that they will arrive next year.”


That seemed reasonable to me.


“All good, Mal,” Gerard responded. “Do you have an opinion on the nyala versus bongo issue?”


Mal reached for a glass of water and took a sip. Eventually, he answered.


“It makes sense. Even though there’s a risk of hybridisation, there are enough spaces for both programs.”


“Thanks, Mal.”


He placed himself back on mute. There were comings and goings in the Werribee offices. I stopped paying attention to the meeting for a moment. Breathing in sharply through my nose, I threaded my fingers and rested my head on my hands, even though I knew that I was on camera. Eventually, though, I looked back down at the screen.


“Perth Zoo?”


I was a little surprised that there was a representative. Would he face curly questions on what had taken place? I recognised Jimmy. A part of me was glad that it was him, rather than someone else like Charlotte.


“Sorry, nothing from us from an ungulate perspective. I just wanted to say--.”


Jimmy sighed heavily. I played with Kakek’s cross as a nervous tic.


“I’m so sorry about what happened. I know that doesn’t mean everything is fixed, it can’t be.”

It wasn’t everything, he was right, but it felt like enough for now.


“Werribee Open Range Zoo?”


“Yes, we’ve had a mixed week,” Des reported. “Our keepers checked in on Primrose, our hippo who recently had a calf, and she was bleeding and unresponsive. Thankfully, our vet team were on-site quickly and able to provide medical treatment.”


I noticed the worried faces over the Zoom call. Surely if Primrose had succumbed, they would have been informed.


“She’s making a good recovery. The bleeding has stopped and there haven’t been any further complications, which is a relief.”


I nodded.


“She’s a good mother and a good breeding female,” Blessing noted. “I’m pleased to hear that her health is back on track.”


“You and me both, mate,” Des affirmed.


“How are your rhino plans looking?”


“Currently, we’re not looking to accept a large number of South African-born rhinos, but considering that we’re building the Rhino Retreat, we’re looking to increase the number which we do hold, as well as potentially including black rhinos in our collection.”


“Are any of your white rhinos pregnant?”


“No, not at the moment, I don’t believe so. I would have to check in with my keepers and vets, but I don’t believe so. It’s a work in progress.”


I nodded to confirm. While, officially, I wasn’t one of those keepers, I knew enough to be able to provide insights from the team. Following the meeting, I strode back out into the zoo. Being midway through spring, the sun started to have a bit of a kick to it. I located Jamila, sitting in the public viewing area outside the front lion enclosure.


“Are you right to get to work?”


I agreed. I popped my collar to shield my tan skin from the heat, as we stepped back out into the sun. Working in a zoo often involved manual labour, although having worked in the supermarket and on the farm equipped me for some of those chores. Were these animals positioned any differently to the farm animals? At least there was a decent climate in Werribee, at least for the meantime. Would the animals at Melbourne Zoo be afforded the same opportunities? I pondered species like the snow leopard. They were not suited to all the zoos across Australia. I felt a little bit depressed by the idea, even though there was nothing that I could do to change things. Weirdly, that was a comforting feeling. I finally returned to Jamila.


“Is there anything else that you’d like me to do?”


She shook her head.


“It’s alright. You can go.”


“Thanks.”


I left Jamila, heading with Whitlam towards the hippo enclosure. Softly, I could hear the vervet monkeys vocalising. That would be Hamish’s responsibility. Primrose submerged in the water. I smiled. The hippo cow had proven herself to be a good mother for the second time around. I hoped that these traits would be passed on to her daughters. Brindabella and Kamaria would both have a future application to the breeding program. It shouldn’t have been surprising that there was a stench to the pond. Likely, only the open range zoos would be holding hippos going into the future, but it was possible that some other facilities, like Altina or even Acarda Zoo, could get involved too. It would require the opportunity to import, or a lot more breeding at Dubbo, where they still held a bull. We returned home, just after dark. Jamila dumped her keys on the kitchen bench, then fetched a lasagne from the freezer, to heat up for us to eat for dinner. While it cooked, we parked ourselves on the lounge, the remote just too far away to reach. We must have been frozen there for a while. Eventually, the oven timer startled us. Jamila retrieved our dinner and plated up, then she and I slunk up the stairs, finding her bed as a place that we could lounge. Jamila handed me a plate of lasagne, steam rising from the top layer of cheese.


“Thank you,” I said as I accepted it, tucking my thumb on top of the knife and fork so that it wouldn’t slide off. “I’m sorry for eating dinner in bed.”


“It’s alright.”


I cut off a corner from my lasagne, blowing on it slightly so that it could cool down, before taking a bite.


“You know, this is quite good.”


“That means a lot coming from you.”


Jamila tipped her plate towards me. As we continued eating, I noticed that she was peering towards a map on the bedroom wall. It had been here the whole time since I’d arrived. The map of Victoria had been intricately designed.


“So, could you tell me, where are the different places that I’ve heard of?”


“Well.”


Jamila leaned forward. She pointed out some of the other zoos, like Kyabram, Halls Gap and Mansfield. There seemed to be a vastness to the lands which I didn’t anticipate.


“I take it you haven’t been to any of these other places?”


As I shook my head, Jamila relaxed. I was grateful for this sisterhood. I listened out for the noises of the house. This was a two-story structure, larger than my place back home in that respect.


“I would like to go one day, though,” I mentioned, “and I wonder, do you think that any of these places could be as big as Mogo or something?”


“That’d be great, even though it would be hard going. I suspect that they don’t have the money at the present time for anything dramatic like that. Going forward into the future, though, it would be lovely to be able to all work together.”


“Oh, of course.”


Jamila wedged her knife through the middle of her dinner. I thought that it was a little bit harsh, even though I wouldn’t have voiced that view.


“Anything else exciting coming up?” I checked.


Jamila finished her mouthful.


“Well, as a matter of fact, on Thursday--.”


As Jamila gestured, I narrowed my gaze. She pulled her legs up in front of her chest.


“It’s Whitlam’s birthday.”


“Thanks for letting me know.”


“He’s probably not going to want to make a big deal of it.”


“Really?”


“Oh, he always does that, so don’t be surprised. Some people are birthday people and some people aren’t.”


I nodded. I knew that I would need to sort something out regardless. Jamila let out a soft sigh.


“Are you alright?”


“Yeah,” she confirmed, a little breathless. “I’m just thinking about work for tomorrow.”


“I’m with you tomorrow, aren’t I?”


Jamila bobbed her head.


“At least for the morning.”


That was fine with me, because I understood how zoo life could be unpredictable.


“Is there anything in particular happening?”


“Oh, not off the top of my head.”


I glanced over to my phone. It was very easy to get distracted. Thankfully, the vegetarian lasagne was delicious. It was even hot right into the middle. Being able to tuck into some comfort food at the end of the day was just what the doctor ordered. I could myself thinking about Indian rhinos yet again. Given the Indonesian rhinos were out of the question for captive breeding in Australia, I felt a certain affinity with them as ambassador animals.


“You know,” I mentioned, readjusting the pendant on my necklace, “when you do you Werribee’s going to get some one-horned rhinos?”


Jamila laughed nervously.


“Oh, I wish that it was that straightforward. Obviously, Perth were able to get a pair, but it’s still difficult.”


I nodded.


“At the same time, Werribee’s probably still going to be the first zoo in Victoria with Indian Rhinos. We’re lucky.”


“You reckon that Werribee will before Melbourne?”


Jamila nodded, crossing her legs.


“Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s tricky. I feel a little bit guilty about it sometimes. We complain that we don’t have enough resources at Werribee, but it’s not the same as other places. I mean, you’d know from what you’re going through back home, that money can be hard to come by for private zoos. That doesn’t stop plenty of them from doing great work, though.”


“Do you think some of the other places could join Zoos Victoria in the future?”


“That would be lovely.” Jamila breathed out. “I’m not sure whether or not it would actually happen though, if Mansfield and Kyabram would be keen.”


I let out a soft sight in thought.


“How about Halls Gap?”


“Oh, they’re a bit of a bigger zoo, like Mansfield.”


“Right.”


Jamila sighed.


“I mean, personally, I’m not that interested in Halls Gap. They have restrictions on the big cats they can hold there, some NIMBY neighbour worried about noise. They can’t have gibbons, too, because of the calls.”


I couldn’t imagine someone not wanting that beautiful song close by. Whitlam poked his head in the doorway of the bedroom.


“Is everything alright in here?”


“Yeah.”


“Melbourne Zoo is going to be receiving some nyala from Werribee,” Whitlam noted.


He scrolled down the screen of his phone. I wasn’t that surprised by the news.

“They’ll be a good addition to the zoo.”


“On the savannah?” Jamila checked.


“Yeah.”


It made sense to integrate the nyalas with the giraffes and zebras.


“Well, I’m going to go to bed,” Whitlam announced with a yawn. “Goodnight.”


“Sweet dreams.”


I listened to his footsteps, slowly padding off to his room. Jamila leaned forward.


“Look, I’m not in the comms team, I’m not on the comms SAG. I’m sure they’re always looking for new members if you’re keen.”


I knew I’d need to think about it, rather than just rushing in. At the same time, it might have been a relatively easy way of contributing. Once I finished my dinner, I set down my plate. Jamila and I both got distracted by our phones. My emails were filled with notifications. I tried not to get weighed down, even though filling my mind wasn’t particularly difficult. Sam informed us of an issue at Taronga. They had experienced some challenges with the artificial insemination. I felt a little frustrated. Surely it couldn’t have been that difficult to track down another professional. Either way, it would likely be a while before Johari could have a baby, if at all. I knew it was likely there were more factors at play – there often were within the zoo industry. I flicked through my camera roll. Landing upon the day of Emmie and Vel’s wedding, I spotted a somewhat grainy image. Isobel beamed, her engagement ring catching the light. I didn’t realise I’d taken a screenshot. It must have been a mistake. Jamila placed her plate on the floor.


“Alright, talk to me,” she requested.


I leaned back against Jamila’s pillows, phone in hand. My chest felt heavy.


“I just can’t stop thinking about Isobel,” I mentioned. “It was only yesterday that I was just talking to her about the clouded leopards, like nothing had changed.”


I sighed heavily, trying to convince myself that all would be well.


“She’s got her mum there with her,” I conveyed. “She’s being looked after as best as they can.”


I nodded my head, hoping like anything for that to be true. Jamila yawned, covering her mouth with her hand.


“I’d better get to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”


“Goodnight.”


Jamila exited my room. I lay down, reaching for my phone to ensure that it was charging. Just before I was about to put it down again, it rang, startling me. I answered the call from Reuben, trying not to sound like I had been about to fall asleep.


“I just wanted to see how you were getting on. It’s pretty shocking what happened.”


I wanted to confide in Reuben about Jamila, but the walls here are thin.


“It is,” I confirmed.


“You just wouldn’t have thought, but Bill was always a bit of an odd one.”


“What’s been happening for you at Melbourne?” I asked.


“Well, since the fire, we’ve been doing some upgrades. There’s a whole lot of fire safety stuff which needs to happen.”


“Is this at Treetop Monkeys? Have you had to move the animals somewhere else for that?”


“Yeah,” Reuben confirmed. “Well, we want to move most of the animals out, long-term.”


“To knock down the whole thing?”


“No, these upgrades should be enough, at least for the short-term,” Reuben clarified. “It’s still a very good complex.”


“It’s something really nowhere else has.”


“I thought that the Hobart zoo market was the only one you were worried about.”


“Yeah, yeah, it is,” I reassured. “That doesn’t mean that I haven’t become quite invested in Melbourne Zoo.”


“How are you getting on with the construction, anyway?”


“Well, it’s my parents at the moment.”


“Yeah, I would have figured that.”


“I’m pretty sure that it’s coming along. I feel a little bad not to be there.”


“You’re fine, Jumilah. You are learning. That’s just as important as building the buildings.”


I faintly heard Reuben cough over the phone.


“Thank you, I appreciate that.”


Reuben and I eventually ended the call. I placed down the phone, ready for sleep. I heard the front door open downstairs. For a second, I lurched forward, thinking that I might have gotten up. I couldn’t have been bothered, though. Hamish could find his own way into his own house. I heard their footsteps come down the hallway, then Whitlam’s frame moved into the doorway to my bedroom.


“I thought that you’d want to know that Emeka at Melbourne is pregnant. She’s due in early May.”


“That’s so exciting, thank you.”


 

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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