Tusks

First thing this morning, I went to the marine precinct, where Melbourne Zoo’s Fiordland Crested Penguin pair are held. They were both wild-rescued animals, meaning that I felt rather fond of them before even meeting them. Reuben met me near the keeper gate to the behind-the-scenes area. He must have woken up earlier than I did.


“Sam screamed blue murder when we got these guys.”


“You know, I can’t imagine Sam screaming full stop.”


Having been a wild rescue, Susan is relatively humanised, so she hopped somewhat easily into the pet pack.


Reuben closed the pet pack. We departed the area and continued through the back-of-house area. I paused; at the sight of an animal I wasn’t expecting.

“That’s not a fur seal.”


“He’s not. Warney is an Australian Sea Lion bull.”


Reuben passed Susan over to a woman in Melbourne Zoo uniform.


“Jumilah, this is Meredith, she’s a vet, Meredith, this is Jumilah, she’s here on work experience,” Reuben introduced.


We exchanged the prerequisite ‘nice to meet yous’, then headed off in opposite directions.


My phone vibrated within my pocket. Assured that Reuben wasn’t looking, I quickly checked it.


Hi Jumilah, it’s Ella – will you be coming with us on primates today? No worries if not, but meet me at orangs if you are


I responded in the affirmative, then saved her number into my phone.


“Our work here is done. I’m going to go back home to join the ungulate TAG meeting and you’re going to do whatever is next on your schedule.”


“Today I’m on primates.”


“Until we’re doing the elephant tusk removal this afternoon.”


“Are you sure that it’s alright for me to come and observe that?”


“Yes, why wouldn’t it be? Besides, I’m the director and I say so. It’ll be an amazing experience for you. You’ll learn a lot, I promise you.”


“Alright, I’ll be there,” I vowed.


There was something of a chip on my shoulder as I walked towards the orangutan exhibit. Last thing I wanted was special treatment. I didn’t want any of the primate team to think I wasn’t committed.


“Excuse me, do you work here?” a visitor asked as he stepped out in front of me.


“Yes,” I answered, to explain the situation simply.


My heart thumped, wary of him.


“My little boy, Billy, he went missing, I can’t find him.”


“Alright, where did you last see him?”


“We were on the path near the elephants.”


“Alright, you head back there, I’ll have a look around. What does he look like?”


“He’s four, really smiley. Today he’s got a yellow shirt on.”


“Right, we’ll look for him. You go back towards the elephants. I’ll stay here. We’ll make sure that we find him.”


The father nodded his head nervously. He doubled back to the elephants, while I searched in between, finding myself walking around in circles. About five minutes or so must have passed, but I wasn’t really keeping track. I figured, were the father to find his son, then he would come back to make sure that I knew to call off the search. If there is a lost child, we need to make a call over the radio so that everyone can keep an eye out. We hadn’t yet found him. My heart thumped faster as I reached for the radio clipped to my belt.


“Jumilah Fioray, primates, at Orangs,” I spoke into the radio. “We have a lost little boy. His name is Billy; he’s wearing a yellow shirt.”


“Roger that, Jumilah,” came Lina’s voice in response.


I headed into the orang-utan sanctuary building. Looking into the dayroom, I noticed a young boy, wearing a yellow T-shirt. Taking a breath, I rushed over, weaving my way through the school holiday crowds.


I dropped to one knee in front of him.


“Hey, are you Billy?” I confirmed.


Through his tears, the little boy nodded his head.


“I’m Jumilah,” I introduced myself with a smile.


“I wanted to see the orangutans,” Billy cried, “but I can’t find my daddy.”


“That’s alright. I know where your dad is. Come with me, and I’ll take you back to him.”


“Are you a zookeeper?”


“Sort of,” I answered, figuring that was the most truthful response in the circumstances.


Billy seemed to accept that, taking my hand. We walked as quickly as we could, back to the boardwalk.


“Can I have a pick-up?” he requested.


I scooped Billy up onto my hip, carrying him back to his father. When I handed him over, he cried all the harder, with relief.


“Thank you, thank you.”


“All good. Have a lovely day.”


I made a call over the radio, to confirm that Billy had been found safe and well, and returned to his father.


“That’s good news,” chimed in a female voice I half recognised.


I felt a little peckish, but I couldn’t exactly go for morning tea when I hadn’t even started in primates for the day. As I thudded down the steps, I noticed a peacock. I smiled at the bright colours, but needed to continue on my way, to meet Ella so that I could learn from her.


“Sorry, I’m late,” I apologised.


“It’s alright,” Ella assured. “You found the missing child. Jumilah, you managed that situation quite effectively. You have what it takes.”


“Thank you,” I responded, genuinely grateful, my heart still beating fast.


As soon as we entered the black-and-white ruffed lemur exhibit, the boys were eager to greet us. I tried to spread out the food as far as I could.


“They’re normally quite a cohesive unit, as a bachelor group,” Ella mentioned.


One of the lemurs let out a panicked noise, jumping onto the back of another.


“Oi, Clover,” Ella chastised, but he was fine once he had stolen his brother’s food.


We departed the walk-through, harmony restored to the group of lemurs amongst the flowers. On my way back from the lemur exhibit, Reuben and I crossed paths.


“How was the ungulate meeting?” I wanted to know.


“Yeah, fine,” Reuben answered. “What happened this morning?”


“A kid went missing,” I explained. “It took us a little while, but we found him. Dad thought they were coming back to him, the kid decided to head up to the orangs.”


“So, it all turned out alright?” Reuben checked.


“Yeah,” I confirmed with a smile. “It did. Dad and kid reunited, everybody’s happy.”


“Good. Let’s go.”


We approached the elephant barn.


“Look, I’m not quite sure how this is going to go--.”


“I get it, look but don’t touch.”


Reuben raised his hands.


“I never put it that way.”


When we entered the barn, keepers from across the zoo had already assembled. Meredith, the vet, was up the front. I gathered that Susan’s health check had gone, pardon the pun, swimmingly.


“I’m going to dart Jai,” Meredith explained. “Then, we’ll rope him around the legs. We’ll need to pull him down carefully before I start the procedure. Does anyone have any questions?”


There was an eerie silence amidst the barn.


“Alright, let’s get on with the procedure.”


All of us, except Meredith, moved out of the way. She fired the dart gun through the bars of the stall, the dart landing just in the right place on Jai’s rump. Reuben looked at me, arms folded. My eyes bulged as Jai went down. I thought that I heard a crunch, but somehow, we managed not to land him on his head. As Meredith started the procedure, my chest tightened with unexpected sorrow. Jai would be able to live without his tusks. Indeed, removing them might, in the long run, save his life.


“What’s the matter? How’s it going, Meredith?”


She looked towards the monitor.


“I am a little bit worried about his heartrate. It seems to be going up and down more than I’d like for during a procedure like this.”


“Do you think that we need to stop?”


“No,” Meredith assured, “but we do need to get the tusk out. The sooner we can get him off the anaesthetic, the better.”


She grunted.


“I would like some more force.”


“Let’s get the winch,” Reuben suggested.


“We can go and get it,” Isaac offered.


“Alex, Jumilah, go with him,” Reuben instructed us, so I nodded my head.


Outside of the barn, I stepped into the chill. Tucking my hands into the pockets of my jacket, I scampered after Alex and Isaac. In my week at Melbourne Zoo so far, I hadn’t gotten to know the latter man particularly well, other than that he’s a bird keeper.


“So, Jumilah, how have you found Melbourne Zoo so far?” he wanted to know.


“It’s been great, everyone’s taking good care of me.”


“That’s good to hear.”


I smiled politely. Isaac veered us off to the left.


“This’ll be where the winch is.”


“Are you sure about that?”


“Yeah,” Isaac assured. “That’s where it was last time we used it.”


I couldn’t help but wonder how often it would come in handy. Thankfully, we found the winch.


“What do you think will happen with Jai, long-term?” Isaac asked. “Will he become a breeding bull?”


“You know, they’ll bring in Putra Mas from Perth.”


“Is that what’s happening?”


“Well, of course I don’t know for sure.”


“Mate, you’re about to be heading to Werribee. I’d back your word in these situations.”


Alex, Isaac and I delivered the winch to the elephant barn, handing it over. Meredith hooked it up to Jai’s tusk, in the hope that it could be used to assist the bevy of strong bodies gathered, to finally remove the tusk which needed to go to prevent infection.


“Well done,” Beth from Wild Sea praised, as the winch was attached to the tusk.


Three hours had already passed, and still the tusk hadn’t been removed. I could feel my heart rising along with the tension, plus the afternoon heat, in the barn. I was responsible for the rope around his front right leg, the side on which he’d been lying during the procedure. While it wasn’t a task requiring as much physical strength as others, I needed to be keeping close watch. Finally, the tusk slid out. There was a moment of relief. I smiled, feeling sweat dripping down from my temples, despite the winter chill. Meredith cleaned up the wound, making sure that Jai was dosed up with antibiotics to prevent infection.


“Alright, now we’ve got to flip him.”


She provided the directions. I yanked on the rope I held, pulling it with as much force as I could muster. Vel and Bob joined me, as we moved Jai upright.


“Good work, team,” Meredith praised. “Now, lower him down onto the other side, slowly, slowly.”

I staggered backwards, puffing hard.


Once we’d pulled Jai enough, gravity took over. He landed on his side with only a little bit of a thud. The other elephants had been blocked from the barn, but I could hear them outside. Meredith crouched down to investigate the second tusk. I glanced towards my watch as I caught my breath again, acutely aware of how long it had been since Jai had first been put under earlier in the day.


“We’re not going to be able to do the second one today.”


The keepers seemed a little nervous to know that this whole procedure would need to be repeated. At least the first one had been a success, so far. We removed the ropes from Jai’s legs, as Meredith took out his breathing tubes. She was the last out, following us from the stall. As we exited the elephants, I looked back over my shoulder. I was sure that there was plenty more work to do. Yet, something had been achieved. From across the zoo, I could hear the siamang family calling, serenading us for the day of a long, hard, but rewarding, day. Finally, we got home, and I checked my phone. There were messages in the work group chat. Maryam’s still looking for staff members. I feel for her. Even though there’s not much that I can do now while I’m on the mainland, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit guilty. I tried to shake it off as I followed Reuben into the kitchen, where he was starting to cook dinner while drinking a beer.


“When do you think they’ll do the next procedure?” I enquired.


“I’m not sure, I’m not a mind reader.”


Neither was I, but I tried my best to assist Reuben with the cooking. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Leaving the kitchen, I found myself back in my bedroom. I hyperventilated, my body feeling overly cold. Even though I was in the other room, Reuben probably could still hear. I hoped that he would just ignore me. After a while, I thought I ought to save face. I walked back out, just as dinner was being served.


“Here, have some food,” Reuben urged, pressing a bowl into my hands.


“Why did you get me to come in for the tusk removal?” I asked. “It’s not like we’re going to have elephants--.”


“You might.”


“You’re phasing out your elephants.”


“You’re not going to be operating a city zoo, though.” Reuben rested his fork against the side of the bowl. “Look, I know that you’re not a work experience kid. There are all sorts of safeguards in this industry. Most of them are bogus, they’re about gatekeeping. I want to break that down, but it’s not all complete hogwash, and--.”


“I don’t have to stay if you--.”


Reuben raised one eyebrow as I placed down my bowl of food.


“Are you offering to leave already?”


He started downing his beer to give me the opportunity to speak.


I shook my head.


“No, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to learn, and I want to be here.”


“Good. I want you to learn and I want you to do it here, so I’m glad that you’re happy to stay.”


“Well, happy might be testing the friendship--.”


“Go to bed, Jumilah.”


“Sweet dreams.”


I started to walk off, before turning back towards Reuben.


“Look, just tell me something--.”


“I’m sorry, Jumilah. Let’s let sleeping dogs lie.”


“I was going to ask about the ungulates meeting. Just tell me anything you’re allowed to. I want to learn, and I hate that this has become a catastrophe. We did have a really good day today, I’m not sure what happened.”


Reuben unfolded his arms.


“I’m sorry, you haven’t even eaten your dinner.”


He reached over and picked it up, handing it back to me.


“Thank you.”


I started eating.


“You can heat it up if it’s gone cold.”


“It’s lovely, thank you,” I assured Reuben, shovelling it down.


“Well, what happened at the ungulate TAG meeting? We had a report from the eland coordinator.”


“Who holds that studbook?”


“Taronga Zoo does, funnily enough, even though they don’t hold the species. I don’t even know if they’ve ever housed eland.”


Reuben ate his dinner in between answers.


“I suppose they’d fit into the savannah, if they really wanted to.”


“Yeah, they could,” he agreed, “not that that’s what we were talking about today. You’d know the sort of thing from the primate meetings. We just go through the population and work through the breeding recs for the next year.”


Reuben offered to clean up after dinner, which I appreciated. After a long and tiring day, I thought that I would get off to sleep quickly. However, I tossed and turned in bed tonight. Mostly, it had been a good day. Bickering with Reuben had been unexpected and unwanted. Hopefully, that would be the last of it.

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