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Trust

I went for an early-morning jog around the zoo, although, without Gemma, I wasn’t going particularly quickly. All I wanted to do was take in my surroundings, rather than just getting some exercise. I didn’t really know where I was going yet, but it didn’t matter. Reaching Great Southern Oceans, the precinct had already been unlocked for the morning, so I ventured inside to catch my breath for a minute. I walked down the carpeted path. On the left were openings to interpretative displays, but they were closed off to the public so they could be renovated. Finally, I reached the viewing gallery. Glass seemed to stretch for metres, with clear blue water beyond me on the other side. The morning sunlight sliced through it, sparkles dazzling amongst the seals.


“It’s marvellous, isn’t it?”


I jumped, although I tried not to show it.


“Sorry,” Gemma apologised. “This is one of my favourite spots too.”


I was still exploring every part of Taronga Zoo. Gemma took the moment to take a sip from her water bottle, and I did the same.


“Do you know which species are housed here? I can’t tell some of them apart, to be honest.”


“I’m pretty sure that’s a New Zealand Fur Seal,” I mentioned, with a hint of a smile.


I recalled the preferred name is Long-Nosed Fur Seal, but I didn’t mention that.


“After Marineland closed, are they still seals in New Zealand?”


“Auckland still has their pinnipeds,” Gemma mentioned, “but they’re phasing them out.”


I wondered why this seemed to be a trend over in New Zealand, which certainly isn’t the case in Australia. Once we left Great Southern Oceans, we didn’t take the most direct route back to the wildlife retreat. We veered left, entering the Rainforest Trail. The walk-through wetland aviary was still closed, but the fishing cats had just been let out into their exhibit. We stayed there for a moment, then continued on to the next set of exhibits with underwater viewing. The otters braved the morning, swimming deep in their pool. Tessa and I watched them through the underwater viewing window, then panned to the other enclosure in the gallery. I recalled that the exhibit had previously held Malayan Tapir. Since it’s become home to Taronga’s pygmy hippos. Eventually, we emerged from the Rainforest Trail. Opposite the entrance was the sun bear exhibit. I walked over to the fence, resting against it. Taronga’s two male cubs hadn’t long made their public debut, and I was eager to see them. I took the moment to take a sip of water, as a good excuse for stopping and resting. A breeze shimmied through my hair, and the foliage in front of us. I thought it unlikely I’d actually see the cubs. At this time of the morning, there was every chance they hadn’t been let out for the morning. Soon enough, though, a little creature emerged from the foliage, followed by his brother and his mum.


“There’s still one sun bear in New Zealand isn’t there?”


“Yeah, this girl’s aunty,” Tessa eventually agreed, answering my question.


We thought about making a left turn, and walking around the tiger loop. I glanced towards my watch, though, and concluded we wouldn’t have enough time. Therefore, the big hill leading back towards the top of the zoo beckoned, and we dragged ourselves up the slope. Eventually, Tessa and I reached the African precinct.


“It’s funny, you know,” she remarked. “It’s a different world here, to think that Taronga has a big campus out at Dubbo as well to back them up.”


We did the loop backwards, searching for the fennec fox.


“Have you got any fennecs in New Zealand?” I asked.


“No, we don’t, at least I don’t think so.”


I nodded.


“I remember they had mongoose, first time I went to Adelaide Zoo.”


“And you don’t have any of them in New Zealand, either?”


“No, no, we don’t,” Tessa confirmed. “I don’t think we ever have.”


We headed back past the waterhole.


“I reckon fennec foxes and caracals would be a nice little display,” Tessa commented.


“There are South African and Asian Caracals, aren’t there?”


“Yeah.”


“And which ones do you have?”


“Neither. We’ve never had them.”


“Oh, I thought that you had caracals.”


“No, that’s Wellington,” Tessa corrected. “Well, that was Wellington. They died.”


“Oh, I’m sorry.”


After she’d mentioned it, that did come back to mind. I felt a little guilty for making the error. We walked across the top of the zoo, then back down to the wildlife retreat, where the resident group of pademelons greeted us. I followed Tessa over the low fence. My mind went back to Carol’s place, as the pademelons flocked to our feet. Exiting their exhibit, we returned for breakfast, then headed to the function centre with the others. To begin the session, Reuben had an announcement to make.


“We’re thrilled to announce that there will soon be a fourth member of the Zoos Victoria family.”


I titled my head to the side, unsure – this wasn’t an announcement I’d seen coming. A smattering of applause went around the room. I think most people were in shock.


“Part of this change will involve Kyabram taking on exotic species.”


Suddenly, Reuben’s interest in the lemur transfer made much more sense. Perhaps this had been in the works for a while, and was connected with Kyabram joining the primate TAG. I did wonder what Halls Gap thought about this whole situation. They weren’t the only zoo left in regional Victoria – there’s Ballarat and Mansfield as well. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Zoos Victoria was looking to snap up them as well. Maybe it could have been a whole empire, not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.


“Alright, that’s enough from us.”


Reuben got his slides up, for the session which he’d be preparing.


“The zoo map – it’s something some of you have probably considered a great deal. For others, that’s the domain of the PR department, or something to be outsourced, am I right?”


Nervous laughter rippled around the room.


“You know, I reckon we should get the people in who did the laser eye kiwi.”


Reuben cocked one eyebrow.


“Is this something I need to explain to you Aussies?” Gerard continued.


Our bemused expressions answered his question.


“Is this like the New Zealand version of the Great Emu War?”


“Sort of,” Gerard answered reluctantly.


He brought up what he was talking about and displayed the image on his phone. An option floated for a replacement flag of New Zealand, it turned out to be somewhat self-explanatory.


“We take these things very seriously in New Zealand,” Gerard assured.


I leaned towards Reuben’s shoulder. He must have been biting his tongue, suppressing some sort of sharp and insensitive comment.


“We’re going to be putting together a new map once the masterplan is complete. That’s what I’ve styled this off.”


Jimmy displayed his efforts to the group. We silently admired his beautiful drawing, completely freehand, and I softly gasped.


“That’s incredible,” Tessa finally praised. “They should just get you to produce the next map, I’m serious.”


Eventually, we broke for morning tea. After a coffee, it was time to stretch our legs. Our group set off from the wildlife retreat, for a tour to visit specific species and learn more about their husbandry. Our first step, on the top terrace was the African Savannah precinct. There, the zoo’s giraffes and zebras were housed along with helmeted guineafowl, which seemed to be free-ranging, but somehow mostly stayed within the exhibit they shared with their much-larger neighbours. Next we headed down, to encounter another kind of stripy animal – this time, a carnivore. I was next to Julie as we walked around the back of the tiger complex. Just before I could say something to her, I heard a squeak, which definitely wasn’t coming from a tiger. We peered into a cave-like area, where two little faces finally peered up at us.


“This was our old sun bear exhibit, we kept the structure when we did the redevelopment.”


I hadn’t realised there was an off-exhibit pair of otters.


“Is this where you’re going to build the new orang exhibit?” David wanted to know.


“Yes, if we do. That’s still in the pipeline.”


David nodded. As he glanced away, I wondered whether he was harbouring his own plans for great apes. Our needling based on their statue would imply that gorillas would be first, but with some of the hybrids still around, maybe orangutans would be easier to acquire. With an extensive primate collection already housed at Tasmania Zoo, it would not be out of the question, provided funds and space allowed.


“It’s really not that far from your predator exhibits.”


“Oh, of course, that’s a consideration.”


I wasn’t quite sure how the exhibits would be constructed. That would be something for other people to work out. We retreated from the Sumatran Tiger complex. On the way back to the conference centre there were still plenty of aviaries to check in with. The warbling of the native species made me think of bushland adventures, and Sam ran us through the species which Taronga was involved in captive breeding programs for. Feathered friends of many colours brought smiles to my lips. The brown cuckoo-dove was more beautiful than I expected the species to be. Maybe we’d like a pair for Acarda Zoo, although I didn’t know where we’d keep them. There was plenty of space for development. We just needed to be assured of a steady flow of income. Following the tour, we returned to the function centre. Sitting down in a circle around the room, my smartwatch vibrated. I thought for a moment I might have crossed another steps milestone, but apparently it was just making its presence known for no particular reason.


“Raffa, you’d like to say a few words?”


When Raffa wanted to speak, I wanted to listen.


“About twenty years ago, a private ungulate collection was abandoned in the Northern Territory. Well, that was the government’s view, the owner thought he’d sold up.”


“So, there was a legal dispute?”


“Yes, there was.”


Parts of this story I’d heard before. I scanned the others’ faces, trying to know if they’d expected Raffa to be making these recollections now. I thought about the Kalgoorlie Game Park, a non-ZAA facility which was raised from time to time. It felt a little harsh to be making comparisons.


“There were some quite rare species amongst the mix. Other animals would have brought new bloodlines into the local zoo populations.”


“But, that’s not what happened,” Blessing confirmed.


“It happened for a handful of the animals,” Raffa pointed out. “They’d imported, they’d bred. These animals were then being fed and cared for by the government on welfare grounds, and then there was no going back from there.”


Raffa pointed a finger, pressing it against his chest.


“What do you think you’d do in those circumstances?”


Nobody said a word. I listened out for the noises of Taronga, as if the voices of the animals themselves would guide me. Yet, even they did not permeate the silence. I trusted that the question was posed with genuine intent.


“There were a number of people within the zoo industry who were aware that there was a hippo unaccounted for. We knew about her birth and we knew she hadn’t died, at least not before the others were moved. Really, questions should have been asked when the others were going to be moved, rather than just taking his word for it.”


“I’m not sure if that’s strictly correct,” Hunter challenged.


Raffa tapped his fingertips together.


“I’m not trying to challenge you, young man, but you were still in nappies when this occurred. I was there and I would appreciate you respecting my version of events which I’m telling you.”


Hunter nodded his head. I breathed out, slowly and quietly. Hunter being willing to trust Raffa put me more at ease, although only just, at least with the assurance they would not come to blows. I played with Kakek’s cross hanging on the chain around my neck. It felt like a coping mechanism. Heaviness had descended over the room, at the unexpected sharing of this story. Raffa wiped tears off his cheeks.


“We knew that she was out there. If we went out there, though--.”


He breathed in through his nose.


“I was a coward. She’d still be alive if I wasn’t.”


“Oh, Raffa, please don’t--.”


“Things have changed now, of course. Well, I’d like to think they have.”


“They have, Raffa, honestly,” Reuben insisted. “The fact that we’re here, talking about this, that’s progress.”


“I don’t blame the shooter, not for one minute. He was doing his job, the feral pigs are no good for the ecosystem.”


Raffa took a deep breath.


“We have all learned something out of this.”


After a heavy session, it was finally time for dinner. I heaped curry and rice onto my plate. The others chatted in a chorus, weaving between the personal and the professional, unavoidable amongst the intimacy of the dinner table.


“I’m still getting over the laser-eye kiwis.”


Hunter ran a hand through his blonde hair and finished off his beer.


“I need to get some air.”


“Would you like to go for a walk?” I offered.


“Sure.”


We snuck off from the wildlife retreat. Hunter and I started to wander through the zoo.


“My faith is important to me,” he outlined. “I sometimes think people don’t see that side of me. It’s not, you know, popular in Australia like it would be in the US.”


Hunter and I reached the Seal Cove exhibit, Charlie the sea-lion away for the night.


“That would be just a cool place to swim.”


“I know the code, you know.”


Humidity on the back of my neck, I caught Hunter’s gaze.


“It’s Charlie’s birthday.”


“So unoriginal.”


Hunter put in the code. The gate unlocked. He took my fingers in his and led me through into the sea lion exhibit, carefully stepping to prevent an unplanned dip into the water. We sat down on the rock, damp underneath our clothes.


“Don’t you find it a little patronising?”


“Yeah--.”


“They’re just at me and at me and at me.” Hunter gestured with his hands, like a crocodile pouncing on prey. “It’s like my family’s legacy counts for absolutely nothing with them.”


I nodded my head with sympathy.


“People think we’re made of money, that’s the other thing. We’re not. It takes a lot to care for animals.”


I nodded.


“You know about that.”


“Yeah.”


Hunter and I locked eyes, then leaned in. His lips tasted like the curry we’d eaten for dinner. I laced my fingers through Hunter’s blonde hair, slightly sweaty. He tilted his head, receptive to my kiss. We deepened the kiss for a moment, then he reared back, and my hand dropped from Hunter’s hair.


“Oh, God, I can’t do this.”


Hunter burst up, slipping on the rocks, although regaining his balance before he could fall.


“I’m in love with Emma.”


“Hunter!” I called out, scrambling to my feet.


He seemed to race for the gate, passing through. If I’d gotten drunk on city lights and the scent of a boy, I suddenly felt very, very sober, the depths beneath me. Rather than fighting or fleeing, I froze, the least helpful response. Despite billions of years of evolution at work, in my experience that’s seldom not the case.


“Are you coming?”

“Yes, of course.”


I followed Hunter back out the gate.


“Just make sure you lock it behind you.”


I pulled the door and turned the knob. Once it clicked, I tried it without the code, and it wouldn’t budge.


“That’s it, thanks,” Hunter murmured.


He walked up the hill with haste and a huff. I said nothing. The spring warmth off the harbour suddenly became a Southern Ocean chill. We returned, standing in the shadows of the wildlife retreat. Hunter cupped my cheeks in his strong hands, fingers trembling. His eyes glistened, moonlight mixed with the low sensor light outside the building.


“I’m not mad with you, Jumilah. I am really sorry, but I’m not sorry that--.”


“Not sorry that you kissed me.”


“You kissed me.”


“I reckon that we kissed each other,” I concluded with a bittersweet smile, and we settled upon that.


We eventually slinked up to bed, returning to separate rooms.


I realised that I’d never called Nanek. The time had just gotten away from me, although I felt bad about it. It would only be just after seven in Sumatra. I could still ring her. She’d be awake, although the lure of asleep was calling me, four hours ahead. I made the decision that I would ring her after all, making the call and snuggling into bed.


 

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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